How to keep your workouts working for you not backfiring.
Does your workout love language look like clanging and banging heavy weights, throwing down a CrossFit WOD, drenched in sweat on your spin bike, or running sprints at the track? If so, then having a planned recovery routine is essential to maintain the benefits of your workouts. As well as having an awareness of physical and psychological signs of chronic stress. Otherwise, all your hard burned efforts might backfire.
Cortisol—popularly known as the “stress hormone”—plays a key role in your body’s response to stressful situations. It also regulates a variety of functions within your body and impacts both your metabolism and immune function. It controls blood sugar levels, influences memory formation, and affects your electroylte balance.
Cortisol is produced and secreted by the adrenal cortex and is naturally released in the body every day. It affects energy levels by regulating the release of glucose—a major source of fuel in the body that helps keep you energized. Cortisol plays an important role in increasing sugar in the blood, promoting tissue repair, and reducing inflammation. It also helps to regulate your blood pressure, energy levels, and your body’s circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle.
During the course of an average day, cortisol levels will fluctuate naturally. Cortisol is usually higher in the morning, lower in the afternoon, and at its lowest point in the evening as you wind down for sleep. It’s essential to have some cortisol in your bloodstream, but when you have too much or too little, this can cause problems that affect your whole body.
While cortisol levels should fluctuate throughout the day, if cortisol stays too high for a prolonged period, it can have an adverse effect on your health. Chronic stress has been linked with depression and other mental health conditions, heart disease, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and more.
High cortisol can lead to reduced protein synthesis, which in turn can inhibit muscle repair. It can also suppress the production of the human growth hormone and other hormones that contribute to muscle development. In order to keep your gains coming, cortisol levels need to be kept in balance. When your cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, it can also slow down your metabolism and hinder your athletic performance. To make the most of your training, it’s important that this stress hormone stays within a healthy range.
It’s common to have a high cortisol level due to stress. Stress often arises due to new, challenging life events—like a new job, a big move, a changing relationship—but long-term or chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes and trigger symptoms like headaches, sweating, dry mouth, gastrointestinal issues, and anxiety. And if you can’t stay asleep at night, it may also be because of ongoing, chronic stress.
According to Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms associated with excess cortisol levels can include:
Rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest, and abdomen
A flushed and round face
High blood pressure
Skin changes (such as bruises and purple stretch marks)
Anxiety, depression, or irritability
Increased thirst and frequent urination
You may also experience more body hair growth or have trouble sleeping (since cortisol affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle). Among women, symptoms of high cortisol can include a decreased sex drive and menstrual cycle irregularities.
If you train hard, recover harder
If you regularly participate in intense training, your body is pumping out cortisol. During intense exercise, the brain senses stress, and a cascade of hormones is released, including cortisol. The release of cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system, generating a fight-or-flight response. When you are going full send in your workout, your brain receives the message that your survival depends on this AMRAP, at which point cortisol and other hormones are released, sending you into the sympathetic nervous system response. Your body can't discern the difference between a 200-meter sprint and running from a bear.
Cortisol is responsible for physiological changes, such as the quick breakdown of fats and carbohydrates and a rise in blood sugar for immediate energy, and repressing the immune system to focus the bodies’ energy on the (perceived) potentially life-threatening task at hand.
Positive physiological benefits from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and high-intensity exercise (HIT) include heightened post-exercise metabolism, improved body composition, and improved fasting blood glucose and insulin sensitivity. The body then makes metabolic improvements following this energetically and hormonally demanding experience. Because of the benefits gained within only a few workouts, high-intensity exercises like Crossfit, OrangeTheory, and spin classes have gained a reputation as being a “magic pill” of exercise. But without proper recovery, intense exercise can lead to elevated levels of cortisol in the bloodstream and heightened symptoms of physical stress, even when exercise is not being performed.
Ideally, your body should be able to accurately determine when the reaction of fight or flight is most useful and appropriate. But too much HIIT can confuse the brain into signaling a protective response even when our bodies are supposed to be calm or at rest.
Everyday tasks, such as the car-rider line and grocery shopping, might leave you feeling agitated because your body is misinterpreting everyday stress as life-threatening stress.
If your body is constantly in a state of stress, the positive effects of exercise can be reversed, with your hard work working against you. Because training solicits such a powerful reaction from our sympathetic nervous system, it’s critically important to prioritize recovery when your workouts are frequently of high intensity.
The problem with cortisol is that when our body has too much of it — either because of physical or psychological stress — it floats freely in the bloodstream, causing negative symptoms to creep into your everyday life. You might have elevated levels of cortisol that could impact your training and recovery if you experience any of the following:
muscle fatigue or a noticeable decrease in power while exercising
changes in mood
lack of physical and psychological motivation
changes in sleep patterns or sleeplessness
feelings of anxiety
repressed immune system and consistent illness
When your body is overly taxed by an imbalance of cortisol, any of these symptoms can be present, even when you haven’t worked out within the last few days.
Finding stress management techniques that work for you is the key to managing these symptoms while continuing to train the way you like. While they might not be something you’ve ever considered, practices like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindfulness meditation, and breathing exercises can be great stress busters — and a lot of skeptics have turned to converts. Research has found, for example, that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy can lower cortisol and feelings of stress. And yoga and meditation practice can bring down high cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Overall healthy choices can set your body up for managing stress, such as a nutrient-based diet, sleeping well, and getting into nature. Imagine if this was you:
You don’t feel guilty for missing a workout
You feel satisfied after eating
You don’t feel like binging or beating yourself up if you do overeat
You actually feel better and more energized after your workouts
You are sleeping better
You feel confident in your skin
You desire intimacy and sex more often than not
Your immune system is strong
Doesn't this sound amazing? Maybe too good to be true? It's not! All of this is available for you and I'll show you how.
Your magic fitness formula should provide results in a relatively timely manner when working hard and staying consistent, all while still living your life.