How stress and sleep affect your exercise performance

We’ve all had those days where our workout seems a whole lot harder than usual. You push yourself but it feels like there’s just no gas left in the tank. But have you ever considered why that was the case? Let’s look at how your sleep patterns and stress levels can affect your exercise performance.

For many, these are factors that are very easy to overlook. I mean, how important can stress and sleep really be to how you tolerate exercise? Turns out, it’s super influential!

Sleep and exercise tolerance

I’m sure you’ve been told time and time again how important a good night’s sleep is. Sleep deprivation is actually a form of torture as it has such a critical impact on your function and how you feel! It’s no surprise then that it can also impact your exercise performance.

Sleep is a really important time for your body to rest and recover from your day (and perhaps your exercise session). If you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s highly likely that your body is not physically recovering from your workouts or even just what you’re doing in your day. When you exercise when you’re tired, it puts your body under more stress before it’s had a proper chance to recover from the last lot of stress you put it through. Not only is it likely that you will struggle physically, but a lack of sleep can make things a whole lot harder mentally. Everything just seems so much harder when you’re tired!

Not only will things seem harder, but some studies have shown that sleep (or lack thereof) can impact your pain threshold. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your pain tolerance reduces. This also means that if you have a niggle or an injury, or are going through a flare, the pain will actually seem to be worse. Remember to take it easy on yourself! This is not the time for the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. Make sure you’re taking all the right steps to give your body the rest and recovery it needs to help it to feel and move better.

Stress and exercise performance

So how exactly does stress affect performance? There’s actually quite a famous graph (The Yerkes-Dodson stress-performance curve) that looks at the relationship between stress and performance.

stress and exercise

Image source: ResearchGate

As you can see from the graph, too much stress can result in lower performance and therefore lower your tolerance for exercise. Burnout results from too much stress and as a result, performance suffers.

Stress is a bit of a sneaky thing. It affects not only our mental state of mind (i.e. our confidence and focus), but it also affects our body’s functions and processes. In a stressed state, your muscles hold a lot more tension in them (think about how many people get tension headaches when stressed), which can make it a whole lot harder for them to do exercise. Stress also increases your heart rate and breathing rate, and often it makes our breathing a lot shallower.

If you try and exercise in this state, your heart rate response will be higher and you will probably find it more difficult to get enough oxygen in through breathing. As a result, your body probably won’t be able to handle the same amount of exercise as it normally does. It might also seem like you’re working out a whole lot harder and getting tired a whole lot quicker than usual!

There’s also some evidence to suggest that an increase in your stress hormones can weaken your immune system. This makes you more susceptible to injury or illness, which might mean you’re less likely to be able to exercise consistently.

Tips for staying on track

All in all, our exercise tolerance is affected by our sleep and our stress. It’s super important to make sure that you’re getting enough good quality sleep and managing your stress levels in order for your body to tolerate and enjoy exercise. Here are some tips for staying on track:

1. Practice good sleep hygiene: There’s a few small things you can do to help you get a good night’s sleep. Having a regular bedtime, regular exercise and minimising screen time before bed can all make a big difference.

2. Manage stress levels: We all live with some degree of, but how we manage it can have a huge impact on how it affects us. Reducing stress levels and being aware of your triggers and tolerance to stress is a good place to start. Alternatively, simple stress management techniques like meditation or deep diaphragmatic breathing may help you to manage stress.

3. Ask for help: If you’re finding it hard to stick to a routine when it comes to regular exercise, it’s OK to ask for help. An exercise professional will be able to develop an exercise program that suits your individual needs and energy levels. To find a university-qualified exercise expert near you, click here.

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Written by Rhianne Kerr. Rhianne is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at BJC Health.