The Key to Optimizing Recovery and Working Out More Often: Managing your Cortisol levels

I have the good pleasure and honor of sharing a gym with a top 10 CrossFit games athlete (a fact that I almost immediately bring up in conversation with anyone who has even a remote idea of what CrossFit is).  The first time I watched this athlete/unstoppable force of nature throw weight around and do gymnastics maneuvers that make you out of breath just trying to enunciate let alone ever dreaming of being able to perform, I was instantly amazed and stood gawking with my mouth hanging wide open like a kid staring at a Daisy Red-Rider Bee-Bee Gun in a store front window. 

After the pure shock and awe of basically witnessing what I imagine life would be like if more people were bitten by radioactive spiders, I began to wonder what exactly does it take to bring this immense level of performance out of the human body; how does one become so incredibly fit? While we all don’t get to be continual eye-witnesses to greatness, we’ve all most likely seen these guys and girls competing on ESPN and we probably have at least one person who is just pure, raw beast mode who works out at our own box.  You know, the kind of person who would bring a tear to Frank Costanza’s eye during a Festivus celebration with their feats of strength.  We want what they have.  We want to know how they’ve successfully transformed their bodies into weightlifting, fire breathing machines.  So we study them and try to learn their ways.  We’re like Jane Goodall trying to be accepted into ape society.

One of the first things you notice is these guys work out.  A lot.  You wouldn’t be surprised if they told you they had a weighted toothbrush.  You see them in the gym multiple times a day and begin to think they don’t pay membership dues, they pay rent.  So you start thinking, “Is that what I have to do to get ripped and shredded? Is the activation switch for super-human located in my second daily workout?”  Then you remember that one time you had a couple days off from work so you went to the gym four times instead of your usual three and you felt like a borderline TV coma was the best way to spend your weekend because you were so sore you couldn’t move.  How do these people do it?  And, more importantly, how do you know how often you should work out?

One of the most important things we can learn about in our training is the hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is your bodies main stress hormone, meaning your body releases it because of stress (sometimes it’s good to keep things simple).  This is all types of stress, too.  Emotional stress, physical stress, a hard day at work, a final exam, a particularly intense Walking Dead cliff-hanger; all are things that could potentially increase your cortisol levels.  Now, cortisol is actually fine and dandy (believe it or not, your body is not actively trying to destroy you from the inside out).  Cortisol aids in many of our bodies day to day functions like synthesizing sugars and keeping our inflammatory response in check.  The problems start occurring when you have an excess amount of cortisol. When cortisol and stress levels get high, your body can start to take a turn for the worse.  You’ll start feeling overly sore, fatigued and tired yet unable to get a full night’s sleep, your eating patterns will feel off, and high cortisol levels can even lead to your body packing on excess body fat (especially around the abdomen, also known as that one place you really want to get rid of excess body fat.)  This is why jumping into the gym and hitting it hard 6 or more times a week may actually be counterproductive to you becoming all that you can be.

So how is it that these incredible hulks we see at the gym can toss around weights like stuffed animals seemingly non-stop?  One of the main components is time.  They’re bodies have adapted to the higher levels of stress over the years that they’ve been training.  This happens in much of the same way that a flight of stairs was your worst enemy the day after your first CrossFit workout but now your body can handle more weight and intensity more times a week without feeling nearly as much like a zombie.  Slowly ramping up your activity level over time will give your body the time to adapt to heightened levels of exercise induced stress.  Other factors are age, sleep, and nutrition; the key components of recovery.

Obviously, without getting into Einstein and theories of relativity, we can’t really do much to change our age or the flow of time.  However, sleep and nutrition are things we actually do have control over.  Eating those all-important whole and natural nutrient dense foods will go a long way in aiding your recovery.  Be sure to eat enough calories, though. Starving yourself will only stress your body out, and if you’re wondering what too much stress does to your body, scroll up a few paragraphs where excess cortisol was explained.  The same goes with sleep.  Get enough of it.  Have a set time you go to bed and wake up in the morning, shooting for at least 8 hours.  Not getting enough sleep stresses you out, and I hope things are starting to sound redundant by now.  Also, as you increase activity level, you should also increase calorie consumption and the amount of sleep you get.

If those last two recommendations don’t sound like fun to you, just pretend you’re nine years old again.  What nine year old wouldn’t want to be told to eat and sleep more?  Those are basically the primary functions of a nine year old. Now that you’re all jacked up on information about the joys of cortisol, how do you know when to go to the gym and when to stay home?  Well, if your goal is to start going to the gym more, then I’d suggest you start by going to the gym more, as strong habits build strong people. Just know you don’t have to push yourself super hard every time you go.  Sometimes you should scale back the intensity and the weight, sometimes you should go for a nice, relaxing row.  These are all things that can aid in your recovery. Most importantly, you should make really good friends with a foam roller and a lacrosse ball.  Engaging in stretching, mobility, and myofascial release in conjunction with light cardio is one of your body’s best tools for recovery and maintaining nominal levels of cortisol.

If going to the gym and not ending up in a sweaty heap on the floor doesn’t sound very CrossFit to you, I suggest you remember these two things: 1) Lifting weight and working out doesn’t make you stronger, RECOVERING from lifting weight and working out makes you stronger; meaning the better you recover, the stronger you become.  And 2) CrossFit is about more than just strength.  Remember, there are ten commandments…err… domains of fitness we live by.  Strength is one of them, but so are mobility and accuracy.  They are equally important tools in overall fitness as strength is.  Meaning having a light day at the gym to recover, get more flexible, and get better at those push jerks and double unders that have been baffling you is very CrossFit indeed.

Over time and with a greater focus on recovery, you will become more apt and able to work out more intensely and more often.  The idea in training, just like in everything else, is to work smarter, not harder.  Listening to your body, knowing the signs of when to hold back, and recovering well will help put you on the fast track to one day having new CrossFitters gawking at you and the amazing things you have been able to train your body to accomplish.

Nicole Clark

Nicole Clark is a U.S. trained and licensed physiotherapist who became interested in physiotherapy through her experience as a competitive swimmer and runner. Nicole earned her Master of Science in Physiotherapy from Springfield College in 2003, graduating with honors. Her thesis was accepted to the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association in 2004. Nicole has sought post-graduate clinical education in such topics as trigger point dry needling, advanced treatment of the foot and ankle, orthotic fitting, corrective exercise, and joint mobilization.

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