Cortisol Levels And Cardio: What Athletes Need To Know

EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman discusses what cortisol is, the critical functions it plays in the body, what happens when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, and why this stress hormone is misunderstood by runners, cyclists, OCR, and other endurance athletes.

Video Transcript

How Cortisol Levels Effect Athletes

Good morning, family of fast, Matt Mosman, the Chief Endurance Officer over at EndurElite. Today we're gonna talk about the bad C-word, which is cortisol. Now, if you're like a lot of people, you have been led to believe that cortisol in the body is a very, very bad thing. I'm here to tell you that it's not as bad as you think in most situations. Now, at this point, you may be saying, "Jumping Jehoshaphat, Matt, cortisol is really not that bad?" For the most part, it is not bad unless it's chronically elevated. 

What Is Cortisol And What Roles Does It Play In The Bodies Of Athletes?

So, today what we're gonna talk about is, we're gonna talk about the critical roles that cortisol plays in the body. We're gonna talk about what raises cortisol levels, and then what can happen if cortisol levels are chronically elevated and what kind of negative consequences that could have. So, simply put, cortisol is the body's main stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Now, it plays a ton of different functions in the body. It helps regulate how carbs, protein, and fats are used. It helps control blood sugar. It helps reduce inflammation, which might come as a surprise for you. Assists with memory formation, regulates blood pressure, and then it also plays a part in your sleep-wake cycle. So, in the morning, cortisol levels start to raise a little bit and say, "Hey, yo, wake your ass up." 

What Happens To Cortisol Levels During Exercise?

So, those are some of the natural functions of cortisol in the body that are absolutely critical to your health. Now, let's look at cortisol during exercise real briefly and see if that's a cause for concern. So, as you exercise, once you get about to that hour, to an hour-and-a-half point, cortisol levels start to rise. And then when you finish, the cortisol levels won't remain, you know, elevated for too long before they go back to baseline. 

So, the natural rise in cortisol during exercise, it's not a big deal because they do go back down to baseline afterwards. Now, there is a situation where that won't be the case, which we'll get to here in a second.

What Causes Chronically Elevated Cortisol Levels?

So, let's talk about what can chronically elevate cortisol levels and the negative consequences that can have. So, culprit number one of chronically elevated cortisol levels are tearing your hair out kinda stress from all these work deadlines. Two is lack of sleep from things like your three-year-old waking you up in the middle of the night telling you that they're hungry, which I don't know what that's all about. That never ever, ever happens to me. And then a third culprit of elevated cortisol levels is overtraining, overreaching and not getting enough recovery. 

So, in these situations, cortisol levels, they will become chronically elevated if stress is constant, if you're chronically sleep deprived, and as an endurance athlete we're all a little OCD and we all have a tendency to overdo it. So, in those situations, cortisol levels can remain chronically elevated, and this is where it gets a little bit bad, or here's what the negative consequences are of chronically elevated cortisol levels.

What Happens When Cortisol Levels Remain Elevated?

Probably the biggest one is you just cannot feel like you can recover at all. You wake up in the morning, your muscles are sore. You have a general sense of malaise and you're just not motivated to go out the door because your body is just hurting for certain. 

A lot of people will experience unexpected weight gain, depression, problems with memory formation. Obviously, trouble sleeping, and headaches are all kind of symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol levels.

What Can You Do To Avoid High Cortisol Levels?

Now, what can you do to basically stop chronically elevated cortisol levels? Kinda trying to minimize cortisol levels, the increases after exercise, not necessarily chronically, but acutely. I mean, you wanna eat protein and carbohydrates immediately after exercise, and this will kinda help minimize the cortisol response. But back to the chronically elevated cortisol levels, I mean, it sounds really stupid and simple, but get sleep, try to minimize your stress. So things like meditation, going out for a walk. Finding a good way to de-stress is absolutely key. And then taking your recovery days, you know, if you have a hard workout, take at least one recovery day, if not more, to let your body recuperate. I mean, I always say the best judge of you know if you're recovered is not by heart rate or all these other fancy methods, it's just by how you feel. I think that's the simplest way to kinda gauge, you know, if you're recovered or not. 

Do Any Supplements Help With Cortisol Control?

And then there are some supplements that may help with cortisol levels too. Off the top of my head, probably the best one is Ashwagandha, which is an adaptogen, which means it helps minimize the stress, the physical and mental stress of certain things like exercise. If you wanna try Ashwagandha, the recommended dose is about 6,000 milligrams a day, split up into three 2,000 milligram doses. So, check out Ashwagandha. I think it's a pretty beneficial supplement. Lots of good research behind it, as far as reducing cortisol levels and kinda reducing the overall mental and physical stress of exercise and other life situations, like a stressful job or pain-in-the-ass kids, or things like that. 

So that is the down and dirty on cortisol. The main point being is, cortisol really isn't that bad when it's produced natural in the body to do all of these different functions. When cortisol really comes in and has negative consequences is if it remains chronically elevated. So you wanna find a way to get lots of sleep, de-stress and get good recovery days. So, that is, in a nutshell, how to prevent, you know, chronically elevated cortisol levels. 

So, if you have a friend who has experienced some of these negative effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels, please share this video with them. If you want other videos like this, on endurance training, nutrition, and supplementation, subscribe to the EndurElite YouTube channel or head on over to the EndurElite blog at Get social with us on Instagram and the EndurElite Training & Nutrition Club Facebook page. And until next time, my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused and stay fast.

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