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Balancing Stress and Recovery

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash


STRESS. This is a word that plagues us. It has become more and more common to just brush stress aside stress as we live in a society that places so much value on the “grind” and an “all hustle, no sleep” mentality. Everyone is expected to stretch themselves to their breaking point. I am here to tell you that you don’t need to live that way in order to achieve progress. In fact, every day you come to the gym on four hours of sleep, you’re actually undoing all of your hard work. It seems counterintuitive to most people who are used to the “more is more” mentality, but how we live life outside of the gym has a much bigger impact than you’d expect.


There are two main kinds of stress: acute and chronic. Think of acute stress as that feeling when you almost rear-end the car in front of you. Your heart starts beating, you’re sweating a little, adrenaline is pumping – the same kind of stress our ancestors felt when they were being chased by bears (or lions or tigers or crocodiles). Our bodies are good at dealing with this kind of stress – a flood of physiological reactions will occur, but we will soon return to baseline and all will be well. On the flip side, chronic stress is stress that we experience for a long period of time. Our body is NOT good at dealing with chronic stress. The problem for many Americans is that we chronically experience acute stressors (like sitting in traffic, dealing with a high-pressure job, constant arguing with a significant other). Over time, this chronic stress may increase our resting heart rate, make our muscles more tense, and increase our blood pressure. All of these changes then become the new normal for our bodies as they remains under stress for a prolonged period of time. We are living in a constant state of being chased by lions.


The same concept of stress can apply to your lifting and nutrition programs. If you are constantly putting stress on your body in the form of red-lining your metcons every single day or going for new PRs every week, your body isn’t getting a break. Add in a subpar diet full of inflammatory foods and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. When it comes to exercise, nutrition, and recovery, our body needs to be able to practice the art of supercompensation. Supercompensation is when your body builds muscle and supporting tissue during recovery periods so that the next time you train, you have a higher performance capacity.1 During this rest and adaptation our body will also prep the nervous system to handle the “stressor” (like a new exercise) with less relative effort when it comes along again. If we don’t practice this slow adaptation to stress we may experience something called “overtraining syndrome.”


Overtraining syndrome is defined as the body’s poor response to excessive exercise.2 The body’s poor response can manifest itself in multiple ways. Physiologically, a person may notice decreased strength (appearing as a sudden drop in performance or plateau in PRs), experience chronic fatigue that they just can’t shake, or suffer from trouble sleeping to full blown insomnia. They may also notice difficulty concentrating or mood swings. If you’ve been catching more colds or getting sick more easily, this could be a sign that stress is starting to wear on your immune system and increase your susceptibility to illness. Finally, overtraining can surface biochemically through mineral depletion, out of whack hormones (hello, cortisol!) or low free testosterone, which is a hormone contributing to sex drive and muscle growth in both men and women.


        Ok, so now we’ve discussed the problem, now let’s discuss our solutions. There are a lot of ways to address the issue of overtraining. To begin, you need to take a very critical look at your workouts and make sure that you are balancing that “go hard” mentality with 1-2 rest days, as well as days that you’re not redlining. Next, you need to examine what you’re doing the 23 hours you’re NOT in the gym. Here are some common mistakes I’ve seen in clients over the past couple years:


  • Living in a constant deficit. Calories in, calories out amirite? Wrong. If this were true, marathon runners may literally disappear. I have seen many clients jump from one low calorie diet to the next, hoping that the more they restrict the better their results will be.  However in reality their body is now just slowing down and trying to conserve all of the energy it can. The last place these folks would think to go is UP for weight loss! Does this sound like you? Keep reading…
  • Improper macronutrient balance. From the low fat craze of the 90’s to today’s current obsession with #keto, cutting out an entire food group means cutting out nutrients we need not just to survive but to thrive. And eliminating carbohydrates in a glycolytic sport like crossfit? Not smart – especially if you have hormone and/or thyroid issues. Unsure of what your macros should be? It might be time to check in with a coach!
  • Not paying attention to quality. Calories and macros are important, yes, but so is the quality of what you are fueling your body with daily. Low quality meats, highly processed oils, and a diet void of any fruits and vegetables will likely cause inflammation and micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Poor sleep and stress management. Nutrition is not simply the food you put into your body, nutrition is how you nourish yourself via your lifestyle in and out of the gym. You have to earn those tough workouts via optimizing your sleep routine and mindfully managing stressors. This is the area that many people struggle with the most.


Remember, we want to stress our bodies enough to achieve supercompensation, but not so much that we aren’t allowing for adaptation and recovery. Essentially we are trying to find our stress “sweet spot.” If your workouts are leaving you feeling exhausted and depleted versus refreshed and invigorated, this is a sign that something may be off with your nutrition or lifestyle. This concept can be confusing at first, and it may help to reach out to a coach if you’re feeling totally lost and overwhelmed. If you have questions about how nutrition coaching works or want to hear more about how nutrition can help you feel your best, email!



  1. Gambetta, V. (2007). Athletic development: The art & science of functional sports conditioning. Leeds: Human Kinetics.
  2. Kreher, J. B., MD, & Schwartz, J. B., MD. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome [Abstract]. Sports Health, 128-138. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from
  3. Berardi, J. M. (2018, February 22). How Intense Workouts (And Overtraining) Can Ruin Your Results. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from


Megan Best is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Herndon, VA. She received her bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics from West Chester University in PA and completed her dietetic internship through Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia program. Her nutrition philosophy is that all foods fit into a healthy lifestyle, and she believes in thinking of nutrition choices as long lasting changes vs. a short term diet. Her favorite Crossfit movement is the snatch and when she’s not WODing you can find her experimenting with new recipes, drinking way too much coffee, or snuggling with her adorable nieces and nephew. Megan recently started as a Nutrition Specialist with Foundation Nutrition in September 2018 and looks forward to creating content, coaching nutrition clients, and getting to know the Crossfit South Arlington family!


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