Wellness: Testosterone vs Cortisol
I’m talking about when hormones make athletes go a little crazy. Male athletes aren’t excluded from this hormonal club, they too can fall into the fateful hands of Ironman training and wacky hormones. So guys and girls, listen up.
In my experience as a coach and self-confessed hormone nerd, I’ve seen this present itself in a variety of ways in athletes. When hormone imbalance warning signs are dismissed or not recognised, many athletes find themselves experiencing harder than normal training sessions, poor performance, strained relationships, poor job performance, no desire for sex, irritability, anger, tearfulness, poor recovery, weight gain and general soreness.
There can be a multitude of reasons for athletes feeling this way. But there is one particular hormone relationship that I want to focus on, that can impact both male and female athletes equally, and that is the relationship between testosterone and cortisol.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is your wonderful stress hormone produced predominately by the adrenal glands. It can build you up or bring you crashing down.
When you experience stress, either perceived, actual, physical or mental the following hormone changes occur:
- Stress raises – Cortisol, DHEA, testosterone
- Stress lowers – Thyroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone and melatonin
Note: Calorie restriction will also have the same affect.
I need you to soak that in for a minute. Less estrogen – your happy hormone. Less progesterone – your calming hormone. Less growth hormone, which helps you repair and adapt. Less melatonin, which helps you achieve restorative sleep. Hopefully, now you can see how the simplicity of a stress response can wreak havoc on your hormones and training ability.
To test your adrenal health, you will need to do a salivary cortex study, which measures the cortisol levels in your saliva at four times throughout the day. In a healthy individual, free from adrenal dysfunction, cortisol function will be at its highest in the morning, with a steady decline throughout the day, and at its lowest when it’s time to sleep. Beyond this “normal” or ideal result, we have three stages of adrenal dysfunction. The reality is that this continuum is not progressive in nature and we can swing between different stages of adrenal dysfunction at varying times or durations.
With training and general life stresses, cortisol levels increase. When stress is high, this increase in cortisol puts the immune system at risk, which is often why we see athletes get sick post race or in taper after a large training block that is ill-managed. When this stress and chronic training load is unremitting we see flattened cortisol levels in Stage 3 or failure. This athlete will struggle to get out of bed, have zero libido, poor recovery and performance.
What about the role of testosterone?
Testosterone has generally been associated as a ‘male’ hormone, alongside estrogen and progesterone as ‘female’ hormones. But in truth, testosterone, progesterone and estrogen are present in both males and females, with males generally having higher testosterone than estrogen and progesterone, with the inverse true for women.
Over a monthly cycle, testosterone is designed to remain fairly stable in men (declining with age long term), and will fluctuate in women alongside their menstrual cycle, depending on their age. Testosterone keeps a juicy libido flowing, helps muscle repair and general recovery from training, contributes to competitive drive and protects against ageing.
I’m sure you can see why testosterone in both men and women is so important. Generally speaking, your doctor will test total testosterone via the blood. This measure can be valuable, however free testosterone measured in the saliva is growing in popularity. It’s also important to note that the day you conduct your test will impact results greatly. For example if you conduct a test immediately after a big race or training session versus testing after a rest day. Your results should be evaluated with these factors in mind, as opposed to just looking at ‘normal’ reference ranges.
Why do we commonly see depleted testosterone levels in athletes?
It’s all about the right balance or ratio between testosterone and cortisol. These hormones work together, with an increase in cortisol we have an increase in testosterone. As we saw earlier, with unremitting stress and chronic training loads cortisol levels begin to decline, testosterone follows the same path.
The fall-out is a bunch of cray-cray athletes, feeling highly irritable, experiencing anger outbursts, poor concentration, extreme fatigue, no sex drive, declining or stagnated performance.
So, how do you increase your testosterone training response so the cortisol/testosterone ratio stays in a favourable range (without illegal consumption and being banned from triathlon)?
There are two key factors to establishing an ideal ratio of testosterone to cortisol:
- A training program designed with testosterone in mind
Your training sessions will produce a certain amount of cortisol, this will differ depending on your current state of health, how hard the training session is and rest intervals. This release of cortisol enables you to push through your training sessions and achieve desired intensity or volume. However, when an athlete abuses cortisol by over-training or using a poorly planned program, cortisol is produced in excess.
By enhancing the level of testosterone produced in a training session, we achieve a ratio of cortisol/testosterone of between 10% and 30%, that is more favourable, allowing for muscular development, adaptation and a lower cortisol response- lessening the demand on the adrenal glands.
This favourable ratio applies equally to weight sessions and swim, bike, run. If you are a true science and hormone nerd you can spend some time testing free testosterone and salivary cortisol post-training and subsequently measure your ratio. This will help you establish if your training program is providing necessary gains and how well you are recovering. But I know fitting in swim, bike, run training takes up enough of your time! Further on I have designed some example sessions for you to illicit a favourable testosterone response.
- Managing your cortisol levels
Forget training harder, longer, taking more supplements or purchasing fancy recovery gadgets – follow these steps and your performance will increase ten fold.
- Get to know and love this yoga pose: ‘Legs up the Wall’
- A powerful and restorative pose, it helps slow down your heart rate, lessening the pressure on your heart to pump blood to the lower extremities. This pose also helps cortisol move through the body.
- Learn and understand the difference between slowing down and calming down with meditation.
- I’m an athlete too, so I get it. Slowing down is not in our DNA. However you can still calm down your central nervous system while going about your busy, fun-filled, productive life. Meditation will assist in lowering cortisol levels, but also enable you to be a far better athlete with the ability to focus and work through pain.
- Schedule yoga into your weekly program (because we all know if it’s not on the program it is not going to happen). Not only will it help you manage cortisol levels but it works to strengthen your core, keep you mobile and injury free.
- Utilise heart rate training
- There is a vast difference between perceived effort and actual effort for a lot of athletes, it takes time in the sport and a stack of intuition to get this right. Utilising heart rate training to avoid training in the “grey zone” (not hard enough for speed development, yet not easy enough to build strength and endurance) is an effective way to manage the cortisol response from training, and improve your performance.
Run: Endurance Build + Hill Reps
- Warm up: 20 mins EASY [Below or at MAF* heart rate]
- Main set: 6 – 10 hill repeats of 60 – 90 seconds with 2 min recovery.
- Cool Down: 10 – 20 mins EASY [Below or at MAF heart rate]
Bike: Power Intervals
- Warm up: 20 mins EASY [Below or at MAF heart rate] ~85 RPM, include 4 x 30 secs ALL OUT efforts with 2 min recovery.
- Main set: 10 – 20 X 1 min power intervals, low cadence [40-50 RPM], high gear on 1 min recovery
- Cool down: 10 min EASY [Below or at MAF heart rate] ~ 85 RPM
These protocols depend on your training phase
- Rep range: 3 – 8
- Rest period: 90 seconds to 4 minutes
- Weight selection: Intense, 7/10 +
*MAF heart rate is derived from the Phil Maffetone method, calculated by taking your age from 180 bpm.
Note: If you have been sick, under psychological stress or in stage 2 or 3 adrenal dysfunction this will impact your testosterone vs cortisol training response. For example, you could follow the above training sessions but if you begin that session after a poor night’s sleep, or when feeling stressed, your cortisol response will be higher than normal, making it harder to achieve a favourable testosterone ratio. A simple strategy to avoid this is 5 mins of deep belly breathing while listening to meditation prior to your session.
Other handy tips:
If you don’t have a laboratory in your back yard to test testosterone and cortisol after key sessions you can still measure your readiness to train, training response and recovery by measuring heart rate variability (HRV).
Your standard heart rate is measured in beats per minute, whereas heart rate variability measures the time between beats and how they differ from one another within a time period. The time between beats is measured from values on an ECG and many devices are now available to test your ECG patterns quite simply each day at home. Measuring HRV will provide you with vital information to help prevent overtraining, mitigate a cold or flu, or to measure your progress when it comes to digging yourself out of a hole.
You can test HRV using a bluetooth heart rate monitor or compatible device along side apps like ithlete and Sweet Beat. After measuring your HRV, these apps will indicate:
- Your readiness to train
- Your training session response (taken immediately to 1 hour post session)
- Your recovery (24 – 48 hours post key session or race)
Gathering this data over a training block will help you understand how your body is adapting to and recovering from training, enabling you to identify outliers from sessions that perhaps pushed you too hard, an unfavourable testosterone to cortisol response or if you are taking longer than normal to recover from a race.
Beyond testing your HRV on a daily basis I recommend testing cortisol and testosterone on a regular basis to keep track of your recovery process if you are battling hormone imbalance or to mitigate adrenal dysfunction and hormone imbalance. I recommend testing:
- At the start of your training season, after 2 – 4 weeks recovery from a major race or training block to give you base line levels
- Mid-training block, 3 – 6 months after your initial test
- An optional test can be done another 3-6 months later if you or your practitioner is concerned about adrenal health and/or testosterone levels
This information can get rather overwhelming if being a hormone nerd doesn’t come naturally to you, please do seek advice and reach out if you have any further queries specific to your circumstances. But let your greatest take-away from this information be that stress management with hormones in mind will provide greater performance gains over training harder, faster or longer.