Athletes are known for being in top physical shape, but even the most conditioned athlete can end up feeling tired and rundown. Are you working harder, but going slower? Don’t have the energy for training? Feeling moody? Are you getting sick more often? Losing muscle, and storing belly fat? As the heat goes up this time of year, so do the frequency and intensity of race schedules and if you are experiencing these symptoms, you may have elevated cortisol levels due to overtraining.
SO WHAT IS CORTISOL ANYWAY?
While the stresses of racing and training build, it is quite common for athletes to experience one of more of the above symptoms due to chronically elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a powerful hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands (positioned on top of your kidneys) and its primary role is to mobilize your body’s nutritional resources in stressful situations . In short bursts, elevated cortisol is good because it raises blood sugar levels to improve brain function and to prepare the body for action. Cortisol levels should typically increase in the early morning hours before waking which prepares your brain and your body for the day ahead and helps get you out of bed, but should eventually taper as the day goes on.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Cortisol increases as a response to all kinds of physical and mental stresses from climbing a mountain to getting stuck in traffic. This is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response and is a feeling most athletes will experience on the day of their event. The role of cortisol is to mobilize stored carbohydrates, break down proteins into useable energy (glucose), and to mobilize stored fats so the body can use these nutrients to deal with the stressor, no matter what it is. Ideally, cortisol levels will return to normal once the stressor has been removed or dealt with, but what happens when that isn’t the case? Chronically elevated cortisol can bring about several undesirable effects for athletes including impaired memory and mental function, and since one its main roles is to break down proteins for energy, this will lead to the breakdown of muscle and excess fat, especially around the mid section.
CAN NUTRITION HELP?
The negative effects of elevated cortisol will only get worse if an athlete is depleted of carbohydrates which is why it is important to properly fuel up on them before and even during prolonged training. Carbs, which break down to glucose, provide useable energy for an athlete’s body to do physical work and the brain also requires them to function. When your body is starved of fuel, it will break down lean muscle tissue to provide glucose for the brain as it can only function on glucose and is not capable of metabolizing fat. The bottom line is to ensure you are properly fuelled before with a good mix of protein and carbs, during and after any intense bout of training or physical activity not only for optimal performance, but for healthy hormonal balance.
HOW STRESSED IS YOUR BODY?
This is something every athlete should ask themselves in order to ensure they are optimizing performance, but also long term health. So we know that over training and inadequate nutrition can raise your stress hormone but other habits such as lack of sleep, little to no rest and poorly managed stress can also add to the problem. Here are a few warning signs that overtraining may be affecting how stressed out your body is:
- Fatigue, feeling run down
- Frequent illness or infection
- Loss of muscle mass
- Fat storage around mid section
- Inability to get a good nights sleep
- Decreased physical performance
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOURSELF?
In addition to proper rest and nutrition, adaptogenic herbs can be a great way to help improve the body’s response to the mental and physical stresses of training; these include Rhodiola, Ashwaghanda and Relora. When all else fails, take a breather from it all. No, really, deep diaphragmatic breathing which simply put, involves breathing deeply into the lungs by flexing the diaphragm back and forth. There is quite of bit of research showing that this type of breathing can do wonders in counteracting oxidative stress caused by exercise as well as other stressors.
Not all stress is created equally, but it is a good idea to consider your rest and recovery time as an integral part of your training schedule. Yes, your body needs to be stressed to make performance gains, but it also needs time and proper nutrition to make those gains. Use of adaptogens along with carbohydrate support and listening to your body may allow you to train harder with less stress, better performance and better overall health.
Elizabeth Cardoso | Registers Holistic Nutritionist
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