Cortisol: The Hormone Inhibiting Your Workout Gains

Learn why cortisol, a naturally occurring hormone in the body, could be sabotaging your workout gains, and learn what to do about it.

Athlete exhausted

Never-ending practices, heavy weightlifting and intense conditioning—training to become the best is no joke. However, the athletes you compete against are not your only opponents. Cortisol, a steroid hormone released by the adrenal gland, is working against you to offset your gains.

Termed a catabolic, cortisol is at its highest levels early in the morning and during strenuous activity. When you exercise, your body naturally produces cortisol  It actually breaks down tissue, thus inhibiting muscle growth. You cannot restrict cortisol's release, because it plays several vital roles in the body, such as balancing blood sugar and reducing inflammation. Cortisol itself is not a problem, only when excess amounts are present. (Learn more about cortisol's roles here.)

Unfortunately, the people at the highest risk for excess cortisol are athletes. So they must try to control the body's release of it. The following methods will keep your levels moderate so you can continue making gains.

Nutrition

If the right nutrients aren't present during your workout or post-workout, you will not recover fully. To delay cortisol buildup in the body requires insulin levels to spike, and this requires consuming liquid carbohydrates. When taken in liquid form, carbs are stored as glucose, which the muscles use as glycogen, thereby shifting the body from a catabolic state to an anabolic state. This is where the body takes smaller molecules and creates larger ones. Studies have found it is most effective to consume carbs and protein together post-workout in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. Chocolate milk is a 3:1, which is why many are touting it as the best recovery drink.

Throughout the day, you can control cortisol by consuming a balanced diet of 60% carbohydrates, 20% proteins and 20% fats. (Educate yourself fully on How Protein and Carbs Work Together to Build Muscle.)

Sleep

Take advantage of your circadian sleep cycles to improve the quality of your sleep. Each night your body goes through four to six 90-minute cycles, each consisting of three 30-minute phases. They are:

  • Light sleep. The earliest phase of sleep, when you're not fully asleep. Like when you're watching TV and keep waking up every time your head falls forward.
  • Deep sleep. This is the most important phase of sleep. You're out cold. This is when human growth hormone (HgH) is released and your body repairs itself.
  • REM (rapid eye movement) or dream sleep. Again, you have a lot of brain activity. Waking up in this phase, you might remember dreams, some good, some not so good. You may experience body twitches in his phase as well.

When you go to sleep, your goal should be to wake up from light sleep, because this is where your brain waves are close together so you wake up feeling refreshed. Waking up from deep sleep, where your brain waves are far apart, leaves you feeling groggy, grouchy, and tired. (See Sleep Like a Baby, Perform Like a Superstar.)

A great tool to help you track your sleep is the Sleep Cycle App for the iPhone. Or you can simply figure out when you would like to wake up and set your alarm to wake you during light sleep or REM sleep.

Stretching & Light Conditioning

Performing various rounds of light conditioning has been proven to speed up recovery. As we go about our day performing activities, or after repeated bouts of exercise, our bodies produce carbon dioxide and a metabolic byproduct called lactic acid, which cause muscles to become sore and weak. Performing static stretching at this time lengthens your muscles and releases "feel good" hormones.

To Speed Recovery

  • Light jog for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by light static stretching
  • Foam roll
  • Perform total body conditioning circuits
  • Swim
  • Jump rope
  • Hot and cold contrast
 baths

Hydration

Keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day is the easiest and fastest way to recover. Water flushes out toxic waste produced by the body and restores water lost in muscle tissue. It also helps transport nutrients and regulates your body temperature. Aways have a bottle of water handy, especially if you are training outdoors. I recommend water bottles that are BPA-free.

Recommended guidelines

  • Two cups upon waking in the morning
  • Throughout the day, choose water over soft drinks and juices
  • During exercise, drink two cups every fifteen minutes
  • After strenuous exercise lasting more than one hour, choose Gatorade or a sports drink with 6% carbohydrates
  • Weigh yourself pre- and post-activity and consume 20 fluid ounces per pound of body weight lost

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: PROTEIN | WORKOUTS | EXERCISE | RECOVERY | CARBOHYDRATES | RECOVER | SLEEP | CORTISOL