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How Endurance Sports Smash Stress

Tips & Ideas Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A lot of us may love our silent/endurance sports, but if pressed would admit it's not how we feel about doing them, but AFTER we do them that hooks us.

As Nordic skiers, we're endurance people. In summer, that means long runs, 50-mile bike rides, roller skiing, whatever it takes to keep our VO2 max where it should be, muscles strong, metabolism humming—and brain happy.

Elite Colorado runner, rower and Nordic skier Stephanie Scholl, whose entire family is comprised of title-wearing award-winning runners and skiers (including husband Shawn, daughter Tabor, and son Tyler), speaks truth: "People think those of us who exercise every day are special, that we wake up and jump out of bed and go 'Whoohoo! I can't wait to get up in the dark cold and run!' They have no idea the commitment it takes. It's just as hard for us to get going as it is for everybody else."

But once we do? The rewards are enormous.

According to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress, one of the best ways to get good at dealing with stress is practice, and endurance sports offer many opportunities to do that. "Through endurance sports, you are learning to see yourself as someone who can choose to engage in difficult things, get through them, and evolve in consequential ways," she says.

Endurance sports have other stress-busting benefits too.

We can focus on doing something we like. Endurance sports require us to spend a lot of time doing the things we need to do to compete or excel—lots of trail miles, plenty of lifting, extra stretching, or yoga sessions. These workouts allow us a lot of time to switch off from the minutiae of daily life and focus on our body and our wellbeing. And time spent doing what we love is positive self-care that helps us feel mentally replenished and better able to cope with frustration.

Your mood lifts. Plain old chemistry, here: exercise produces endorphins, and these naturally occurring opiates boost our mood and reduce our perception of pain. Regular workouts mean a daily dose of feel-good chemistry.

Nature is nearby. Denmark's University of Aarhus found that childhood exposure to green space reduces the risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Simply being out in nature on a ski or a run relieves stress by stimulating involuntary attention, which in turn reduces directed attention, a more limited resource. Too much directed attention causes fatigue, irritability, and reduced control of negative emotions and stress.

Self-esteem grows. Endurance sports can lead to an incredible sense of personal achievement. Setting goals and then creating the process to achieve them help you experience a sense of success. These can be about winning, personal bests, finishing, completing, or just getting a good time for a set distance.

Our overall health improves. When you're working out at a high level, the kind endurance sports demand, everything else needs to fall in line—that means resting when tired, eating enough of the right foods to fuel workouts, and getting in the type of movement our body needs to meet our goals. Sleep, movement, and diet have a massive effect on our mood, and engaging in a sport that keeps you balanced in these areas means our mental health benefits, too.

Social connection thrives. Most athletes inevitably find coaching, training/accountability partners, race buddies, gym friends, or fellow Nor-dorks to connect with, and social connections make us feel calmer, happier, and less vulnerable to stress and related inflammation and disease.

We know how great it feels when we can spend time Nordic skiing and getting out into the outdoor places we love. Our endurance sport passions aren't just a healthy hobby, but the type of practice that can make a very real change in our quality of life and mental health. With all the stress we're facing these days, it's not just a training tool, but a priceless investment in well-being.

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