Heavy training takes a toll on even the toughest athletes -- illness, depression, fatigue -- but new research points to a solution far removed from sweaty locker-rooms: a collection of quiet, gentle stress management techniques such as relaxation tapes and journal writing.
"Athletes randomly assigned to a cognitive-behavioral stress management group experienced significant reductions in depressed mood, fatigue, and serum cortisol when compared to control group athletes," write sports psychology specialist Frank M. Perna, EdD, and colleagues at West Virginia University and the University of Miami, in a current issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Vol. 20, No. 2).
Coaches and sports doctors have experimented for years with diversions, ointments, and a host of remedies to buttress their players against the unwanted effects of intensive training.
To test its theory that stress management programs might be more effective, the research team worked with 34 University of Miami rowers (14 men, 20 women) who were training intensely for the intercollegiate racing season. They divided the rowers into two groups.
The control group received a single, two-hour stress management session that was almost entirely informational. The other group underwent seven psychologist-led stress management sessions over four weeks.
They learned about stress and its effects on athletes, and they practiced muscle relaxation exercises, guided imagery, self-expression, and more. For homework, they listened to relaxation tapes and noted their responses.
At the beginning of the study, scientists drew blood samples and questioned the athletes about mood and stress. Five weeks later, they repeated the procedures. They found that in every category, members of the stress management group had experienced by far the most positive effects.
The self-perceived stress of men and women in the stress management group decreased significantly, as did fatigue and depression. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that increases during heavy training and suppresses the immune system, also were lower. This is doubly good news for the athletes because cortisol also retards muscle regeneration after high-intensity exercise.
Perna and colleagues note that their study did not identify which technique -- self-expression, relaxation, or other -- triggered the changes in mood and cortisol.
Their research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact editor Arthur Stone, PhD, 516-632-8833.