Stress, Suckage, and Sickness: a primer for when life punches you in the face

I woke up a couple of days ago all raring to get after some seriously heavy squats in the gym – maybe even lay down a new personal record! Hell yeah!!


But what actually happened was that I started into my warm-up sets, and realized when I got to about 80% of where I had planned to go, that 80% was 100% of what I had for that day. Definitely no PR’s in sight. Bummer – but was I disappointed?

Nope. Last week was a pretty stressful week. It started with a sleepless night, a day of testing at the hospital (including the dreaded brain MRI that I wrote about earlier), and included a series of other mishaps that really can just be chalked up to parenthood and life in general. The point is, shit happens and when it does, the mileage piles up on your body: sleep loss, less than optimal nutrition, and stress – particularly stress – all contribute to decreased performance in the gym.

So I did my work sets at 80% and enjoyed it. I even videoed a few of the sets just to see how they looked, because they felt like a grind and a half…but when I reviewed the videos, what I saw was a whole bunch of really fucking good squats – weight moving well, consistent depth, control – all skills that I totally didn’t have at this time last year. Win!


Progress is usually not a linear thing; everyone has days (and sometimes weeks) that are up and down. How you deal with them is a marker of progress too: can you accept the down weeks and roll with them? Or do you let the down weeks drag you down more by getting upset or angry or discouraged? If you picked the latter, you aren’t alone – we’ve all been there.

Here’s the thing though: excessive stress sucks. It’ll suck the life and drive right out of you if you let it. And if life is kicking you in the teeth, the last thing you need is for your outlet to turn into a stressor, right? Right. So let’s talk about how to keep making progress through injury, illness, and suckage.

  1. Sleep! No matter what the setback you’re dealing with is, you need more sleep. Hell, you probably need more sleep anyway; most people do. Aim to hit the sack 30-45 min earlier than usual, and turn off the screens one hour before that so that the blue light from your phone/tablet/laptop doesn’t keep fooling your body into thinking it’s time to be awake and getting shit done. If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, do some light stretching, meditation, or foam rolling…and if you’re still staring at the ceiling, there are some good supplements out there that can help as well – my go-to is ZMA, a zinc/magnesium/B6  supplement that’s available at most health-food stores. I’m not a doctor though, so if you are under medical supervision or on other medications it’s best to check with your physician before you start popping pills. Just saying.
  2. Hit the gym. Yep, you’re sick/injured/stressed, I know – but falling into the habit of skipping workouts when the chips are down is not going to help over the long term, and doing what you can may just help you feel better. So. If you’re sick, here are my rules: if there’s fever, bodily fluids rocketing out of orifices, or you are just so freaking tired that the thought of putting on pants is exhausting, stay in bed and take an extra dose of point #1. If your symptoms are above the shoulders – sniffles, headache, etc. – go to the gym and do what you can. You may only be able to do 60% of what you normally do, and that’s okay; it’s better than nothing. Wash your hands on your way out and feel good about it. If you are generally feeling shitty about life, take your frustration and baggage and malaise to the gym, and again – do what you can. You may find that it’s the best release of stress ever. Or, you may feel like you just can’t deal with people, the comparison game takes over what little headspace you had to yourself, and it makes you feel worse – in that case, go outside and move, take a class somewhere that you don’t normally go, or find a workout you can do at home on YouTube. I promise moving will make you feel better. Now – as far as injury goes – that’s going to differ from injury to injury and from person to person. My best advice if you’re injured is, get some instruction and do what you can. Injuries are a bummer and can really mess with your head. Talk to professionals that you trust – (shameless plug alert) a good trainer knows how to read the signs and can help you through whatever funkiness life is throwing at you.
  3. Listen closely. Hear that? That’s your body telling you what it needs. Now, actually hearing that little voice is a learned skill that takes practice. If you are accustomed to drowning it out with comfort food, it is veeeerrrry easy to think that you need some delicious combination of sugar and fat, but we want to keep getting stronger, leaner, fitter, and more awesome, no? So before that ‘fuck-it-all’ moment happens, press the ‘pause’ button and listen a little more closely for a minute – I promise you that junk food is not the answer, and chances are you will feel worse afterward. I mean, it’s only food, right? It can’t actually solve any problems.


In a nutshell, show yourself some love when life is sucking a little bit. (Um. Take that however you like – actually showing yourself some love can’t hurt either.) Listen to your body and treat it with the honor it deserves; it does lots of great stuff for you most of the time and if it’s struggling, you need to pay some attention to it to get things rolling toward awesomeness again. Setbacks are temporary and can be really great learning experiences if you approach them with curiosity and care.

**PSA: If you are down, or sick, or injured for more than a couple of weeks, SEE YOUR DOCTOR. There is help out there and you aren’t alone. There is NEVER shame in asking for help.**

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