I’ve heard a lot about the dangers of cortisol in our bodies from high-volume endurance training. What’s the best way to get it out of our system? Reduce training? Supplements?
Cortisol is a hormone that the body releases in response to all kinds of stressors, from job pressure to poor diet. Although no human could live without cortisol, which plays vital roles in energy metabolism, immune function, and more, it is widely considered a bad thing because of the dangers associated with chronic excess. Elevated cortisol causes abdominal weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, impaired brain function, and other serious problems.
It’s not just stressed-out couch potatoes living on fast food who suffer from high cortisol levels. In endurance athletes who combine excessive training with inadequate rest and perhaps other lifestyle stressors, cortisol levels may also be chronically elevated. High cortisol levels impair endurance performance and recovery. Exercise scientists even use the body’s testosterone-cortisol ratio as a reliable biomarker of overtraining.
On the basis of these facts, some endurance coaches advise athletes to train in particular ways that favorably manipulate cortisol release in their bodies. And because diet has some effect on cortisol too, some coaches also teach sophisticated ways of combining dietary and training practices to keep cortisol levels in check.
I believe that this approach is absurdly reductionist. Cortisol is only one tiny piece among thousands of biological pieces in the puzzle of exercise physiology. To treat it as the North Pole by which you orient your diet and training is to exaggerate its importance beyond all measure and marginalize other, equally important factors. It’s like a multinational corporation basing all of its strategic decisions on the recent sales of one of its 99 products.
Besides the testosterone-cortisol level, exercise scientists have compiled a long list of other indicators of overtraining. But guess what? The first and most sensitive indicators remain the athlete’s performance and motivation levels. Only such global indicators are sensitive to all of the physiological factors, including but extending far beyond cortisol levels, which affect fitness and recovery. Stagnating workout performances and loss of enjoyment in training are the earliest and surest signs that you have gone off track. Manipulating your training to avoid performance stagnation and keep it fun is the best way not just to moderate cortisol, but to avoid overtraining, which is the real point.
In short: cortisol, shmortisol.