Posts tagged training
Coaching Considerations: Training & Anxiety
tTXBwoCl.jpg

*Note: I am not a mental health professional or doctor. I’m sharing what I have been helpful in my own coaching practices, and what has been helpful for me as an athlete. As always, individual mileage may vary. See a mental health professional if you’re struggling with anxiety!*

Coaches encounter a wide variety of people on a daily basis who all have unique backgrounds, histories, and ideas about what they want exercise to mean to them. For many, exercise is about getting healthy, providing an outlet for emotions and mental struggles, and bettering themselves in a tangible way. Awareness about the positive impact exercise can have on mental health is growing, and as such, more people are turning to the gym and coaches to help them better their lives. As the dialogue around this topic increases, coaches are more likely to work with clients with a variety of considerations, including anxiety. 

Anxiety is considered to be a bit of a nebulous term and there are several different types of anxiety that manifest in different ways. For example, some individuals may be more anxious in social or group situations (social anxiety), some may experience anxiety as a result of a traumatic experience (post traumatic stress disorder), and others may have specific things that trigger panic attacks. It is important to remember that anxiety is not something that just happens in isolation. For someone experiencing anxiety, anxiety is like elevator music that is always running in the background - sometimes it is really quiet and almost unnoticeable and other times, the volume gets turned way up and it is all consuming.  This is not meant to be an overview of clinical and/or subclinical presentations of anxiety, since there are far better and more qualified resources for that. 

Exercising as a person who experiences anxiety can be complicated. For coaches and athletes, learning how to navigate this mental landscape is more than saying “ignore it” or “get over it”. It is a process of learning how you/the client experiences the world with this background music and how exercising can impact this. On one hand, it is greatly beneficial since there is ample evidence to suggest that exercise can greatly help with mental health and anxiety. On the other hand, a lot of people with anxiety are reluctant to exercise because their anxiety can be greatly triggered by it and the spaces and experiences that go along with it. My goal with this article is to provide you, the coach, with salient considerations and tools that you can implement with your clients who experience anxiety. These considerations will be broken down into that relevant physiological, psychological, and environmental topics that can training  can have on clients with anxiety and vice versa based on my own experience and research as a coach and an athlete with anxiety.  

Physiological response: 

Increased heart rate, sweating, and that pit of your stomach nervous feelings are all feelings associated with the physical experience of anxiety. They’re also feelings that occur when someone exercises. If you’re coaching someone, or you are someone for whom anxiety has a very physical presentation, the physical experience of training can trigger panic and increase anxiety symptoms. It becomes a feedback loop of where the physiological status change while exercising gets interpreted as anxiety, since that is the most salient reference, which makes the client more anxious. For this reason, it is important to check in with your client often. Ask  clients how they feel. Reframe these feelings as a consequence of their activity and provide a space for them to exercise their autonomy over these physical sensations. Provide positive reassurance and also teach them physical tools that can help with recovery during exercise and lessen those sensations. 

Tools and solutions: 

  • Adjust training accordingly: Anxiety can be an incredibly exhausting experience which can leave yourself or clients feeling less than stellar while training. If needed, reduce intensity or autoregulate to match what is going on that day. Adjusting training based on the overall accumulation of stressors in a client’s life is also an important consideration. For example, if someone is in college and has finals week coming up, some training adjustments may need to be made to ensure their recovery is optimal and they still get in the work they need to get in. As stress piles up, the need to be smart and strategic with training increases. Having the adjustment conversation with your client before the event(s) occur can be extremely helpful for you as the coach and for setting expectations for the client. 

  • Learn how different types of training impact your/your client’s anxiety: Anecdotally, it seems that higher intensity (i.e. higher percentage) training is more exhausting and has more detrimental impacts in the following days than higher volume (lower percentage) training, but each person is unique. Communicate and elicit feedback. 


Physical training environment:

Trauma is an embodied experience and does not exist in isolation. Seemingly unrelated things, to you, may correlate strongly with how a client felt before/during/after a traumatic experience and it is not your job to tell that client how they should feel in that moment. Provide a space for the client to feel their feelings and provide what they need. What they need may vary - it can be continuing the session and joking around, it may be lifting something heavy, or it could be calling it a day. Let your client lead here and listen to them. 

Tools and solutions: 

  • Noise sensitivity: If someone is highly sensitive to loud noises or feels triggered by those noises, take this into consideration if they seem distracted, jumpy, or agitated during times when noise is high or they are performing a more noisey exercise (i.e. deadlifts). Provide reassurance or even accommodations if necessary. 

  • Scheduling: If you have a client who expresses hesitation or anxiety related to exercising in front of others, try to schedule them at a time when the facility is mostly empty. This may be something that changes over time, but it is especially important to consider this for brand new trainees who have social anxiety or anxiety about their appearance and proficiency to others. 


Exercise selection and preparedness:

It is not uncommon for clients to have anxiety or fear around certain exercises that they have either had difficulty with in the past or that others have told them are harmful. For example, squats seem to be one of the more anxiety inducing lifts due to the nature of having a bar on your back and the potential perceived “scariness” of failure. Similarly, things like box jumps and deadlifts also have a high incidence of fear associated with them due to fear of injury. Rather than telling your client to “get over” or that “it’s not scary”, acknowledge the reality of their fear and use it as an opportunity for education. 

Tools and solutions: 

  • Regressions and modifications: As a coach, it is your job to implement modifications and regressions to help the client feel comfortable and proficient in movements that they may be fearful of. Remember, even if the capable is physically capable of executing the standard movement, it may be more beneficial for their buy in and mental health to ease into things in a slow manner. For example, step ups, box squats, and elevated deadlifts can be helpful tools to use with new clients. If you don’t know a regression or modification that would be appropriate for the client - ask and seek more information. There is nothing wrong with saying “I’m not sure what the best course of action is here, let me do some research and consult with some colleagues and we will return to this next week”. 


Language and presentation:

The importance of being mindful, thoughtful, and critical of how you speak and present to clients cannot be overstated. Paying attention to the language you use and the way in which you use it can be a major pivot point for client-coach relationships. For clients with anxiety, it can be a huge accomplishment for them to even come into a gym and doing something that makes them uncomfortable, all while being watched and talked to by a stranger. There are several things you can do to help ease this anxiety for your client, and while this is a small sampling, the take away point is give some thought to how you communicate. 

Tools and solutions:

  • Present yourself in a supportive way: Let them know you are not there to “punish” them or make them puke (if you are, then I honestly don’t know why the hell you’re still reading this). Use supportive language and provide reassurance and feedback in a way that is most effective for them. This will differ from client to client, so take your time noting how each client responds to feedback, demonstration, and instruction.

  • Communicate expectations: Tell clients what your role is and is not, what your expectations are of them, and ask them what their expectations are of you. Having this clarity upfront can ease a lot of anxiety surrounding the logistics of the coaching experience and also gives you, the coach, insight into some key points for that particular client. 

  • Communicate intentions: Talk to clients about the intention of their training sessions, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what the overarching plan is. This can ease a lot of anxiety surrounding “the plan” and also encourages participation and buy in from the client. Clients are much more likely to continue showing up and being honest when they know that they have an active role in their training. 

  • Encourage feedback and questions: Allow clients to tell you how they feel versus telling them how things “should” feel. This gives you insight into how they verbalize things and also gives them an active role in the coaching relationship. Encouraging autonomy through education and feedback is incredibly empowering for clients, especially those who experience anxiety. 

  • Ask for consent: Always, ALWAYS ask for consent from the client before touching them for a correction. Some individuals may be triggered by touch so asking if you can, and explaining what you are going to do, is critically important. Along these same lines, always ask clients for expressed consent before you post them on social media. Again, you are there to be a member of your client’s support squad - they don’t need to feel additional anxiety by the prospect of being nonconsensually touched or posted on the internet. 


All of these considerations boil down to one thing: coaching is a practice of communication. Give a shit about it. As a coach, it is your job to troubleshoot and communicate. If the client is not understanding something, that is your fault. You need to find some different tools to communicate what you’re trying to say to your client. Taking responsibility and putting the onus on yourself is not only doing your job, it is very helpful for clients who are nervous about doing everything “right” or who are preoccupied with pleasing you. Fostering an environment of open communication that encourages questions and disclosure will do more for your coaching-client relationship than almost anything else. As coaches, we know how beneficial training can be for our clients, especially those with anxiety. It’s our job to ensure that we do everything possible to make training a positive experience for them that adds to their life.

Body Autonomy: A Coaching Perspective
IMG_0460.jpg

If you’re a coach, how many clients have you had say to you “can you just tell me what to do”? I’m guessing that it is at least a dozen. It’s a common and understandable question. Clients come to coaches for their expertise and guidance, which can often look like coaches who hand out plans with “do this or else” type directions.  Somewhere along the way, the focus of health and fitness as an endeavor for total self-betterment was forgotten. Instead, it became a process of checking off items on a list to meet some arbitrary requirements of what we think a health and fitness journey should look like. It became defaulting to “gurus” and coaches and trainers who pushed their own agenda on their clients without caring if their clients even wanted those goals to begin with. Instead of creating a process to help women take ownership of their bodies, it became a process of turning your body over to someone else’s agenda, wishes, and goals. The concept of autonomy has been lost. And quite frankly, that’s a fucking shame.

Body autonomy, or what I call the “your body, your goals” concept, has been glossed over in so many realms of health and fitness. We see a lack of autonomy on several different levels ranging from pressures to look a certain way to not having a say in competing or training. As a client, it may feel like you’re in a dictatorial relationship where the coach’s instructions are not to be questioned or that you must complete a task that aligns with their goals, not yours.  You may feel like like you’re pressured into fitting in to some sort of box - whether that the box of being a powerlifter, being in a particular weight class, losing weight, not losing weight, etc. The point being that as a client, you perceive that a choice is being made for you instead of with you. While some of this may be done with malicious intent (we know that there are some coaches out there who systematically abuse their clients), a good portion of this is done by well-meaning coaches who take the “tell me what to do” demands at face value. If you’re a client who is experiencing this, it is worth it to have a conversation with your coach to discuss your concerns. Good coaches will welcome the conversation and work with you to create a stellar coaching experience. Others may tell you “too bad” and if that’s the case, I highly suggest taking your hard-earned dollars somewhere else.

The process of learning to stand in your power and build confidence is one that can be messy and difficult. I know it was,and still is, for me.  In my short coaching career, I’ve had the honor of working with individuals from all different walks of life ranging from nationally competitive powerlifters to women trying coming back to lifting after serious injuries. Whether you coach in the digital or “real world” sphere, your clients come to you with their own stories and experiences. They may have had very negative coaching experiences in the past, they may have experienced traumatic events, and they may be slow to trust another person. As an athlete who has been in all of those positions, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing coaches.  These experiences have been transformational for me as an athlete and instrumental in helping me become a better coach.

On the coaching side of things, helping clients stand in their power while also giving them direction and guidance can be complicated. This issue is even more complex when coaching women since women tend to be inundated with a significant amount of bullshit surrounding issues of body image, food, exercise, and appearance.  There are so many mixed messages coming from every direction when it comes to women and their bodies. It seems like every day there is a new expectation associated with how women should exist in our bodies and what they should do with them. As a woman, it is an incredibly exhausting experience. As a coach, it is a difficult thing to see the clients you care about be weighed down by the baggage of these mixed messages.

You want to help your clients to embrace the potential that you see in them (even if they don’t see it in themselves, yet). You want the absolute best for the individuals that hire you. You believe in them and their abilities and want to see them also believe in themselves. So how do we, as coaches, encourage autonomy while providing the guidance and expertise that our clients are seeking from you?

  • Let them tell their own story: Women who have had negative coaching experiences, experienced domestic or sexual violence, or other traumatic incidents often do not get to tell their actual story. Stories are told about them to other people. Their stories may get told, but they often do not get to share their experiences in their own words. Allow your clients to share what they want, when they want, and how they want. It is THEIR story, not yours.

 

  • Promote decision making: A common theme for women who have undergone traumatic interpersonal relationships (whether domestic, coaching, or otherwise) is that their decision making power is systematically stripped away from them. Give your clients ample amounts of decision making power. Coach in a collaborative manner and ensure that they feel that they are an active participant in the process. This can mean that perhaps they choose some of their accessory work for their session or that you seek input about what they want to focus on in their next training cycle.

 

  • Focus on strength based progress: This is not limited to adding weight to the bar! Strength based wins can come in the form of rep PRs, volume PRs, or my personal favorite, mental PRs. Encourage clients to find at least one “win” from the session or week and focus on giving feedback on their strength, both mentally and physically.

 

Having a degree of autonomy in my own training is incredibly important to me and it is something I am adamant about for my athletes. Educating, facilitating growth, and confidence building are pillars of my coaching practice and making space for client autonomy is a big, BIG component of accomplishing those things.  Women deserve to feel autonomous in their bodies wherever they are, whether that’s out in public, at home, or under a barbell. I know that it may be easier or more desirable to the client to tell them exactly what to do, no questions asked. But to me, that feels like a disservice. As coaches, I know we can do better for our clients. We can help them come into their autonomy and exercise it, unapologetically.

PCOS & FHA Update: Regression, Stress, and Next Steps

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, dietitian, or medical professional. I’m simply sharing my experience with PCOS and FHA and the strategies that have and have not worked for me. Always consult with your health care professional and remember that what works for me may not work for you.

IMG_1597 (1).jpg

 

It’s been a minute since I’ve written or talked about my PCOS and FHA. In case you missed it or want to catch up, I was diagnosed with PCOS and functional hypothalamic amenorrhea in the winter for 2016 and have since been on a journey to find ways to keep my body happy. You can read more about that here:

Dealing with PCOS & FHA: My Experience

Dealing with PCOS & FHA Part 2: Carbs, Stress, & Weight Gain

PCOS & FHA: 1 Year Update


Since my last update, quite a lot has happened. I started dieting and it was going quite well – I was making decent body composition changes, my lifting was going well, and the scale was even moving down. At my last endocrinologist appointment in late December/early January, my testosterone levels were a smidge elevated but nothing that was extremely out of the ordinary for what was going on in my life at the time. For me, my testosterone levels will get elevated during times of high stress, low sleep, and when I’m doing training that is focused on higher intensity (i.e. heavier lifting) rather than high volume. I had not been experiencing any negative symptoms that tend to occur when my levels are high, so I took note to chill out a bit more and went on about my life.

Stress and Regression

Stress is my number one “trigger” for my hormones getting out of whack. Stress comes in many forms ranging from stress because of positive things, stress from acute traumatic incidents, and daily life stressors. I like to think of the stress response as a light switch on a dimmer. When we incur stress like the physical stress of training, daily life stressors, and a fight with a friend or significant other, our dimmer switch gets turned up and our room is brightly lit. We recover, eat well, hydrate, calm the fuck down, and then the dimmer switch gets turned down. Sometimes though, there are stressors that turn that switch all the way up and keep it up. Things like traumatic events, large life changes, and jarring incidents would certainly qualify here.

In January, my switch got turned ALL the way up. My brother had a very extreme health episode and was in the hospital on life support for several days. (Sidenote: thank you to everyone who reached out with kind words – it meant A LOT to me and my family <3 ) He is physically fine now but sustained an anoxic (lack of oxygen) brain injury and suffice it say, life has not and will not be the same. His recovery has been nothing short of incredible and his prognosis is the best that it could possibly be. The body is freaking incredible and my levels of gratitude for his health, my family, and life in general are astronomically high, but the trauma of that event left a serious mark on my body. Add to that the ever present stress of trying to build and run a business by myself, general life shit, and a very busy schedule…and well, my stress levels were lit the fuck up.  

I continued on with my life, adjusting to this new normal, and tried to give myself some compassion. Training changed to accommodate a hectic schedule and stress levels, however, I was already committed to a powerlifting meet in early February. I decided against pulling out of the meet because I just wanted to do something that was normal. Things continued to go well in training and I was so ready to have a great meet.

When I went to go weigh in…I was told that I was FIVE pounds over. I had cut weight (mind you, not extremely hard) and according to my apparently very defunct home scale, I was at weight the night before. Not being at weight isn’t a big deal for powerlifting and quite honestly, I didn’t care all that much – I knew I wasn’t going to sweat out 5lbs in the next few hours and I just lifted in the higher weight class. But, it DID throw me off my game enough to shake my confidence somewhat. And more than that, it was a big glaring sign that things were not quite right on the hormone front.

I felt defeated – my competition plan for the year had already fallen apart but I promptly made a new plan because that is the human that I am. I felt very out of control of my body and was honestly pissed off. I DID THE THINGS DAMMIT. I did my time! I’m ready, SO ready, to just push forward and do what I want to do.  I just felt like someone had pulled the reigns back, just as I was prepared to sprint ahead. My meet went sort of okay but it was abundantly clear that my body was not happy. My anxiety was outrageous, my recovery was shit, my weight was one big guessing game, and I felt off. That light switch had been pushed to the brink and in that glaring light, I was forced to see what was in front of me. Hormonally, things were not okay. 

Next Steps

So what now?

Now,  I’m in a space that feels familiar yet very different – clearly, my hormones are a little whacky and my body has detected that things are not quite normal. I’ve been here. I’ve done this. I know HOW to do this. But also, I don’t. The stressors aren’t the same, the process isn’t the same, and my body isn’t the same. This narrative is certainly one that is not unique to anyone who has experienced PCOS or hypothalamic amenorrhea. So, what is game plan now? Quite honestly, it isn’t much different than what I have done in the past. 

The biggest factor, for me, is stress management and reduction. This includes several things:

- more food and lots of it

-  trying new recovery methods

- blocking out time in my schedule to not work/check email/train/etc.

- saying no a whole lot more often

- more quality sleep

 

Training & Nutrition

As far as diet and training go, I was starting to prep for an April strongman show however, given my current weight situation, I decided to withdraw and hold off to aim for a summer show. Switching gears into strongman training means that my volume is quite high and intensity is relatively low. For me, that tends to push my testosterone levels back into the normal range and serves as a good mental relief for me. Training is one of the few times when I am doing something that is solely focused on myself and I can have some time to not interact with a ton of people all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE what I do, but I do need specific times to not be talking, educating, coaching, etc.

On the diet front, after a couple weeks of dieting and being stalled out, my coach upped my calories substantially to help bring stress down and get hormones in a better place. I need to lose a decent amount of weight to make the LW class for my strongman show and honestly, it was not a fun decision to decide to pull out of the April show BUT, there are other shows and that is totally okay. Now it is time to focus on eating more, recovering, and turning that dimmer switch back down. Is it frustrating? Yup. But, I know that it is worth it. I also know that I’ve learned when I’m starting to dig a hole that is too deep and can catch it early, so hopefully, it doesn’t take quite as long to climb out of.

_________________________________________________________________

And that’s the current update! I’m also reading a TON about hypothalamic amenorrhea and female hormonal issues to compile a list of resources that would be helpful. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below!