Stress and Cortisol

Feeling Extra Stressed in 2020? Harder Workouts May Not Be the Best Answer

by Coach Jessica, Jump Start Coordinator

We feel stressed. We have a pandemic, fires, civil rights issues, home schooling, and of course it's an election year. My husband also shared with me that since everyone left for telework in August, rattlesnakes infested buildings in an office park in upstate NY.

Seriously, RATTLESNAKES? This is all so heavy. The rattlesnakes are supposed to bring levity😊, but it also gives us an opportunity to discuss our best response to stress.

Typically, we might think these extra stressful times require harder, longer bouts of exercise. But, as with so many things in life, too much of a good thing can be damaging. So if you find yourself weeks into your AustinFit program, and are wondering why those COVID pounds won’t go away or you’re not sleeping, keep reading. 

You see, when our bodies experience stress -- whether from life experiences or from exercise, in response, our body creates a hormone called Cortisol.

According to WEB MD, Cortisol is best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis. Cortisol also plays an important role in a number of other things the body does. For example, it: 

  • Manages how the body uses carbohydrates, fats and proteins
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Increases blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls the sleep/wake cycle
  • Boosts energy to handle stress and restores balance afterward

Running and walking are excellent stress relievers because these exercises produce endorphins.  Endorphins bring good feelings and energy. Running and exercise also produces the aforementioned cortisol. Now some cortisol is good, but too much can bring unintended reactions. According to WebMD, when cortisol levels are too high, the following can occur:

Distance runners and walkers often find themselves producing too much Cortisol. This is why your coaches are always recommending healthy eating and getting plenty of sleep. It's also why our training program reduces, or tapers, the amount of miles in our workouts as our target race day approaches.

When training for a marathon and the weekly mileage peaks, runners often talk about how tired they are, how hungry they are, and how they may feel sleep deprived. Tapering the miles a few weeks before the race helps combat these feelings as cortisol levels normalize before race day.

The same is true for those of us who have no specific race in mind and are exercising just to maintain a healthier lifestyle. One should not stop working out, because as mentioned earlier, exercise is ideal for stress; however, backing off the intensity and some of the mileage might better serve you.

Your weekly plan should be mostly easy pace. If your life stress level is especially high, skip the hard track workout and just do 6-8 quick strides during one or two of your weekday runs. If you want to know what a stride is, please feel free to reach out to me at one of our Saturday meetings. I’m happy to discuss and demonstrate. Tips to help relieve stress so your running does not suffer:

  • Meditation (even just 10 minutes a day)
  • Light yoga with deep breathing
  • Healthy whole foods- Lots greens, fruit (especially berries), healthy fat like avocados and walnuts, lean proteins – pretty much what we should be eating anyway
  • Sleep – or at least rest. If you can’t sleep try mind teasers, a happy book – but stay away from things that could add stress in the middle of the night (no news and stay away from social media)
  • Talk to someone – This can be a friend, but also don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist. Mental health is very important.
  • Massage or acupuncture
  • Professionals you might want to consider:
    • Licensed counselor or Sports Psychologist
    • Sports and/or Family doctor
    • Nutritionist
    • Pastor or priest
    •  Massage therapist and acupuncturist 

Austin is full resources and most insurance companies will help navigate you to a professional. Your coach also can lend ear and listen, but we are not medical professionals. We can help determine if you need to back off your running or recommend a modification.  Be mindful of your body! Resources and links for more information on this topic: