Stress Shown to Impair Recovery From Workouts

A new study examined the effects of psychological stress on exercise recovery, and the results were pretty conclusive: stress makes it harder to recover.

Physical and psychological stress have a few things in common. They both affect your nervous system and your musculature. For example, think about the shoulder and head muscle tension caused by stress at work or at home. That’s a bad kind of stress. Exercise, on the other hand, is usually a positive stressor that benefits you in the long run.

Although it’s clear that there are some similiarities between these two types of stress, the interaction between the two types of stress is not well known. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the effects of psychological stress on recovery from physical stress were examined.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that different people have different recovery abilities. Many factors contribute to this difference, including genetics, gender, and age. But believe it or not, scientific studies have yet to explain the individual variation in recovery ability.

Because of some of the similarities between the physical stress of exercise and psychological stress, the researchers of this study wanted to see if there was a measurable effect on exercise recovery. Indeed, they noted that stress was already known to have a relation to immune function, illness, and injury. Clearly, these factors will impact recovery all by themselves.

This study was unique and exciting for one important reason – the researchers were concerned solely with chronic psychological stress. The researchers had to screen over twelve hundred people to find those who fit on both ends of the chronic psychological stress spectrum. That large group was were whittled down to 31 participants for the purposes of this study – those who were chronically stressed out and those who were the opposite.

The researchers also looked at two kinds of stress, perceived stress and life stress. Perceived stress is a subjective measure of how strong your psychological stress feels to you. By contrast, life stress doesn’t take into account how the stress feels, just what it entails. In other words, the life stress scale would include things like high workload, disagreeable people in your life, and perhaps stressful life events.

The participants performed six sets of ten reps of leg press using 80-100% of their ten rep max. They went back in each day for four days after the workout to have their recovery tested. Both objective and subjective recovery measures were taken.

Indeed, both kinds of stress modulated recovery. Both life and perceived stress significantly reduced muscle force production and feelings of energy, and life stress further worsened feelings of fatigue and soreness. But recovery wasn’t just better without stress, it also occurred several times faster. This information is critical for athletes.

This study shows us that part of the individual variations in recovery come from stress levels. Some psychological stress is avoidable, or can be dealt with quickly so it doesn’t linger. Other stress isn’t avoidable, so be conscious that your recovery may be inhibited. One thing is for sure though – if you want an edge over the competition, being stress-free during training should be a major focus.


1. Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, et. al., “Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations over a 96 Hour Period,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000335.

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