Your Hormones & Athletic Performance

Cover Photo by Blair Speed

One week I'm feeling amazing, climbing the best I've ever climbed.

The next week climbing out of bed feels challenging. I chug water, stretch, and yet I'm still dragging my meatbag down the hall to eat a third bowl of cereal. While training or climbing, I feel like I'm actually making myself a worse athlete by even trying. 

Does this sound familiar at all? Fluctuations in energy vary from person to person, though a commonality makes us all subject to weekly changes: hormones. This may be a more obvious truth for women, but men, too, experience hormonal changes.

Since I don't often find myself in conversations about menses or adrenal glands, I lacked some pretty basic knowledge about our endocrine systems. As a result, I would sometimes be disappointed in myself for not performing well, when a simple understanding of estrogen or cortisol may have curved bouts of self doubt.

So I sought out more information about how hormones affect athletic performance. I shared my findings below with the hope I can spare at least a few people from taking dips in performance too personally. Also, a basic map to your hormonal cycles may help prevent injury.

(*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor. I found this information by reading both scientific and commercial articles.) 

Overview of Hormones

Growth Hormone: After we work hard, growth hormones are released to help the body synthesize protein, glucose, and amino acids, though there is a work-hard threshold that if crossed, the body will stop producing growth hormones. They also affect ligament and tendon strength, bone density, and muscle mass.  

Cortisol: One of the body's wonder hormones, cortisol helps regulate the metabolism, blood sugar and water/salt levels; it also helps reduce inflammation. If you overtrain, you'll have an excess of cortisol, resulting in a break down of protein, exhaustion and a downer attitude package. 

Testosterone: Although primarily a male hormone, testosterone helps build muscle mass and bone density regardless of sex. Generally speaking, women have ten to twenty times less testosterone than men. Us ladies can up our testosterone levels by lifting weights and doing other prolonged aerobic exercises; (though again, too much training and you'll have the opposite effect). Men's testosterone levels fluctuate, with low levels resulting in fatigue.

Estrogen: Estrogen is the primary driver in a woman's cycle, but men have the hormone as well in smaller amounts. Estrogen can help reduce muscle damage, control inflammation, and break down fat into fuel, making it an important hormone for guys and gals alike.  

Progesterone:  Another supposed "girl" hormone, progesterone also plays a leading role in women's menstrual cycle. Yet men, too, have progesterone; indeed, it is the precursor to testosterone. It helps regulate brain activity and blood sugar levels, builds bone density, and plays an important role in maintaining a healthy libido. 

Adrenal Glands:

Why Being Chill Helps You Rage

And by rage I mean performing like a beast. The adrenal glands play a key role in our athletic prowess as they release cortisol, that miracle hormone described above. Cortisol is released when we're stressed. Since working out is, well, stressful on the body, cortisol production increases when we push our physical limits. 

Cortisol and testosterone levels fluctuate throughout the day, with cortisol levels being (generally speaking) highest in the early morning and lower in the afternoon. Testosterone production increases around 4 or 5 in the evening. When you first wake up, T and C are both at their highest. This makes, (again, generally speaking), early morning and late afternoon training sessions the most advantageous times for working out. 

Too much cortisol, though, can inhibit testosterone production, resulting in an off-balanced C:T ratio. If we stress our bodies out too much, whether through exercise, lifestyle, or mentality, cortisol levels can get out of control, resulting in many undesirable things, including weight gain, lethargy, muscle weakness, depression, and anxiety.

This is why being chill can help us rage. By managing our stress levels throughout the day, we can save cortisol production for our training. Simply put, we want an ideal C:T ration. If we're stressed out at work, driving, in our relationships, etc., we are increasing cortisol levels. This can prove detrimental to testosterone, which we want for DA POWER. 

What I love most about learning about these bodily processes is how we can come closer to understanding the mind-body relationship. I always knew I climbed best when I was at peace with my life at large. After doing this pretty basic research, I can better understand the connections. 

Since we live in a culture that arguable demands hectic schedules out of our days, it can be challenging to manage stress. We want to avoid the "fight or flight" mode as much as possible since it triggers cortisol production. Meditation has become a cliché solution to stress reduction for a reason, and it's not simply because of those five, ten, thirty minutes you may spend watching the squirrels in your head bounce around.

(I have actually named each squirrel and have envisioned their clothes and personalities. Like, Mr. Planner has giant glasses, a red bowtie, and he's always scribbling away in his planner. Yap. I'm reeeeal good at meditation.) In all seriousness, I think the best thing about meditation is how it carries over into life outside of those minutes spent crosslegged on the ground. Even though I'm still working on accessing that sweet spot where I'm "not thinking," I’ve found that I'm more aware of my thoughts in general. 

Sure, meditation helps lower your heart rate and pushes your reset button. But it also can help you notice when you're entering fight or flight mode. I think that's where the true payoff of meditation begins. The first step to helping control stress is being aware of when we are stressed. Sometimes I'll be getting ready to leave, ten minutes late, per usual, and I'll be running around, barely breathing, worrying about what will happen when I show up tardy.

If I'm on my A-game, I can stop, take a deep breath, and accept I'm going to be late. I look at it this way: sometimes we're in stressful situations not by choice; but I think 95 percent of the time we can chose whether or not to embody the stress.

Beyond stress management, the usual lifestyle advice applies to maintaining healthy cortisol levels. Eat good food, get enough sleep, and train smarter, not harder. Like, duh...and yet sometimes not. 

For the Ladies

Unfortunately, there's a surprising dearth in research around our cycles and how they may or may not affect athletic performance. While looking this stuff up, I was also surprise to discover contradictory information about our cycles, including when they begin and how hormone levels change from start to finish. I'm offering here what I found to be the most consistent information. 

Every lady's cycle will differ, but the "typical" cycle is 28 days long. I recommend beginning to track when your menses begin and end and doing this for a few months to figure out how long your cycles tend to range. This will help you apply the information below to coincide with your body's unique patterns.

The menstrual cycle is broken down into three stages: the follicular stage, ovulation, and the luteal phase. The follicular stage starts the first day of your period. Here at ground zero estrogen and progesterone levels begin to level out after rising in the days leading up to bleeding.

The best days to train hard are two or three days after your period begins up until a couple days before ovulation, which is typically two weeks into your cycle. A week after your period begins, you'll most likely feel your strongest for about five days, (between days 8 and 12). This is a good time to max your athletic pursuits. Estrogen levels are spiking during this time, helping to prevent injuries. 

Ovulation throws a curve ball into the cycle. Estrogen levels spike, which cause ligaments and tendons to become a bit more lax than usual. This is a good time to incorporate a couple easier days into your training, (between days 12-16).

After ovulation and for about a week, estrogen dips and progesterone begins its climb upward in the luteal phase. During this time you can pick up the pace again training, going as hard as feels right. Again, every body is different, and during this time some women may feel more tweaky or tired than others.

During this phase you'll want to up your protein intake to help counteract that PMS all-too-true cliché of sugar cravings. The extra protein will also help your body recover as extra energy is used to help the uterus shed its lining. 

An active rest week would serve you well three to four days before your menses begin and two days into the bleeding. Your body is working hard to cleanse and reset, so it's no wonder energy levels tend to dive during this time. One of the coolest part about menses, apart from bestowing women the ability to birth life, is that it offers a monthly structure to help you maximize your athletic performance.

Since rest is just as important as trying hard, having a plan that aligns with your body can help you achieve new bests. The first step is getting to know your body. The second is applying that knowledge to create the perfect "team" between your body and your athletic goals. 

More from Fitness