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Stress: What is it? The basics.
By:  Katie McMahon   (2012/10/04)


Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a guest speaker at the Quebec Cross Country Juvenile summer training camp hosted by Chelsea Nordiq. As part of their afternoon training session, I spoke with these 12-15 year olds about the mental aspect of cross country ski racing. Essentially, since this was an introduction to mental training, we spoke about stress: what is it, how does it affect us, and a quick relaxation exercise for the night before. Although this talk was geared towards the juvenile age group, I feel like it is a subject that a lot of us should take the time to examine. After all, stress does not stop when we turn 16.

 What does stress feel like? : Sometimes, especially at a younger age, it is difficult to differentiate between symptoms of stress and actual illness. The morning of a race we often feel nauseous, shaky, and even have to make frequent trips to the washroom. There is also a wide spectrum of ways people might deal with their stress. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who internalize their stress. They are very quiet, often with their arms crossed, yawning and very much wrapped up in their own thoughts. Then on the other end there are those who externalize it. They are extremely excited, talk a million miles a minute, and are often forgetful in the tasks they are doing. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum, but what is especially important to understand, is that in some way or another, we all experience symptoms of stress before racing to one degree or another, no one is immune.

           Katie and XCOttawa Alumni Vesta, feeling the stress before their race!

 What is stress? : The simplest explanation for this ever dependable pre-race feeling is simple physiology. Whether it is a ski race, or an unexpected meeting with a bear on an afternoon run, our bodies’ neurological system is programmed to respond to a potential threat. The role of our sympathetic nervous system (aka the “fight or flight” response) is to direct the blood and therefore oxygen in our body to our muscles, lungs and heart. Therefore things like a functioning digestive system get a back seat to more important things like a ready-to-go aerobic system. This is why we feel like vomiting, or going to the washroom when we know we have a race in the near future. Our body, much to our chagrin, is just trying its best to make us the fastest we can be.

                              At the start of a race everyone feels stressed.

A quick relaxation exercise: Often times we begin to experience the symptoms of stress in the days leading up to our races. Sometimes this might prevent us from sleeping (something that is important in order to perform at our best). The following is a brief relaxation exercise that can be done before bedtime. There are various versions of this exercise, so feel free to modify it as you may see fit.

· Lie down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.

· Begin by making two fists with your hands. Squeeze them as tight as you can for 5 seconds. Focus on how the tension feels.

· Release your hands. Feel the tension leaving your hands until they are completely relaxed.

· Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. With each breath you are more relaxed.

· Move on to another body part like your toes or your neck. Repeat the process moving up and down your body until you are completely relaxed or fall asleep.

That’s all for now,

 Happy training!

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