How to Hack Your Hormones to Run Faster and Safer
As runners we often look for an edge in training, whether that is a new workout, a new diet, or a new recovery tool. However, often the answer to improvement is much simpler, and can be found internally. At a very basic level, biology plays a large role in our successes and failures as athletes, and learning how to control the inner workings of our bodies can have huge implications for better running.
It’s virtually impossible to train seriously and not have your body affected by hormones. Athletes who are armed with the idea of bumping up HGH levels or testosterone levels should know a few medical things before suffering consequences.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous hormone associated with sport is testosterone1, which is often the culprit in doping scandals for athletes of all kinds. Testosterone is made primarily by the testicles in males. Small amounts are also made by the adrenal glands and the ovaries in females. (Wikipedia)
Testosterone is important for increasing muscle mass while decreasing recovery time – both of which can lead to performance gains. The catch-22 of testosterone, however, is that long periods of intense training can decrease testosterone levels, leading to low-energy, muscle fatigue, and impaired performance.
How can athletes increase testosterone legally? The key to natural testosterone production is to balance hard days and easy days to avoid overtraining2 and subsequent testosterone loss. High intensity intervals and weight lifting3 have both been shown to increase testosterone levels in the short term, which can be beneficial in a training cycle when timed properly.
Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding alcohol are also recommended for athletes, as additional body fat and unhealthy alcohol consumption4 can lead to decreased testosterone, especially in older athletes.
One of the most commonly overlooked hormones related to athletic performance is insulin5, which is responsible for controlling uptake of glucose and glycogen storage in the cells. Therefore, insulin is especially important for endurance athletes, as efficient energy conversion is necessary in the later stages of long races in order to avoid “hitting the wall.”
When insulin and insulin-like hormones are not functioning properly, the body becomes stressed which can lead to increased production of hormones such as cortisol, (discussed below) as well as thyroid disruption, causing a host of performance inhibiting problems. Furthermore, if your body no longer responds properly to insulin, you may develop Type-II Diabetes.
The best way to maintain a healthy balance of insulin is to have good eating habits, particularly post-workout. Runners can use insulin to their advantage to improve muscle recovery after a hard workout by refueling with carbohydrates immediately. A recent review on sports nutrition6 suggests that post-workout carbohydrate intake should be 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight for optimal recovery.
The stress-release hormone cortisol7 is not necessarily implicated in improved performance; rather, when it is produced in high levels it can be detrimental to performance. The main function of cortisol is to increase the availability of glucose in the blood at the onset of exercise. Cortisol is released when an athlete initiates exercise, and remains constant for the duration of activity before reducing.
However, when an athlete experiences chronic stress, either due to aspects in athletic or personal life, a number of negative phenomena can occur such as weight gain, immune system suppression, and decline in cognitive function. Perhaps most alarmingly, cortisol works to break down muscle proteins. For an average person, too much cortisol might break down 1% of muscle proteins; for athletes undergoing heavy training loads, that percentage often rises above 5%.
The best way to reduce cortisol is to reduce the amount of external stress experienced on a daily basis. However, this approach is admittedly not feasible for most people. Instead, eating a healthy diet that is high in healthy fats8 and antioxidants can ease stress levels, as can ensuring adequate sleep9. Meditation10 can also be beneficial, especially for athletes who find it difficult to control sleep habits.
Human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin-growth factor (IGF) work hand in hand to increase power and strength in the athlete’s body. When HGH is released into the bloodstream it triggers the production of IGF, and together the two hormones work to convert fat into energy for muscle, tendon, and ligament strengthening, leading to a leaner and stronger physique. Like testosterone, HGH and IGF are sometimes used illegally by athletes in order to gain an edge on their competitors, especially later in life when HGH levels naturally decline.
There are, however, ways to naturally spike HGH levels within the body, without turning to dangerous and illegal supplementation. One method is to exercise the body to the point of failure in order to break down muscle to spike the release of growth hormone. This may be done in the weight room11 by lifting the maximum weight you can handle for 3 – 4 sets of 8 – 12 reps; or during workouts, such as by running 400 m repeats at mile PR pace 6 – 8 times. Another way to produce HGH naturally is to sleep more.
Growth hormones are released during sleep12, particularly at the onset of sleep and during deep-sleep stages. Sleeping for longer durations can enhance the amount of HGH released into the blood stream, as can taking regular naps throughout the day. A number of healthy (and legal) supplements have also been shown to improve HGH levels, such as GABA, melatonin, vitamin D, L-arginine, L-lysine, and L-glutamine.
T-3 and T-4 (Thyroid)
The thyroid gland produces multiple hormones, yet T-3 and T-4 play the biggest role in fat loss. T-3, in particular, is hugely stimulated by exercise. Prolonged running stimulates the production of T-3 and assists with the use of both glycogen and fats as fuel, in addition to scavenging free-floating fatty acids for energy. Following intense exercise, T-3 sees a marked increase from the thyroid gland.
Although dopamine is often thought to only be released as a reward when a big goal is reached, this feel-good hormone is also necessary for productivity and motivation, such as when working towards an athletic endeavor. In fact, when athletes experience self-doubt, low motivation, and lack of enthusiasm during the daily grind of training, low levels of dopamine are often to blame.
The best way to keep dopamine levels high is to continually achieve success that can be celebrated. Instead of setting one goal – such as the completion of a marathon – set attainable miniature goals throughout the process.
For instance, example goals include hitting a certain weekly or monthly mileage, completing a tough workout, or completing two weeks in a row of morning runs. In order to experience the full benefit of dopamine release, define the celebratory actions you will take when your goal is met, such as treating yourself to a special treat or purchasing the new GPS watch you have been saving for. Another crucial component for keeping this chemical flowing is to set goals continually.
Before you embark on your biggest goal, such as that marathon, set a goal that you can look forward to once you cross the finish line. For instance, if you are running a November marathon, you might want to start thinking about a May half marathon. Another way you can increase dopamine production is to listen to music you find enjoyable, which is exactly why turning on the right song can provide enough motivation to lace up our shoes and get out the door.
Wrapping It Up
Running does way more than just burn fat and stress your cardiovascular system – it triggers a powerful hormonal response. The degree of hormonal response is strongly correlated with both your training duration and intensity. This hormonal response contributes to performance, fat loss, status of your immune system, and many other factors that affect your running. Detailed knowledge can help you understand how your body works and how you can improve your times by carefully adapting to the physiological stress of running.
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