Crash Course on Cortisol [And Why YOU Need To Care]


You’ve likely heard the word thrown around now and then, usually accompanied by some horror story about how it leads to all these unfavorable symptoms…

But, I’m here today to tell you that as an athlete, cortisol is actually on your side. You just need to know how to manage it properly.

So, what exactly is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone; this means it’s one of the little messengers in your in your body that allows your cells to communicate with each other! Specifically, cortisol is a steroid hormone (even more specifically, a gluco-corticoid). Now, you don’t need to memorize all this stuff; you just need to have a general idea of what it does…

Cortisol levels tend to elevate during a stressful situation and it is one of the key players (along with adrenaline and noradrenaline) that primes your body for action. One of cortisol’s main jobs is to break down stored fuel like glycogen, body fat, and sometimes even muscle to fuel your body for the stressful situation it is undertaking…

As an athlete, this is what allows your body to utilize stored fuel for your training and it’s part of what allows you to perform optimally. So, like I said, cortisol is actually on your side when it’s functioning properly!

Along with regulating blood sugar levels, cortisol also suppresses inflammation and the activity of your immune system…

Why might it do this?

Let me paint a picture for you:

Imagine you are getting chased by a big old grizzly bear….

What’s the number one priority in that situation?


Your body doesn’t give a crap if you’re at risk for coming down with the flu, because that grizzly will take you out far more quickly than the flu ever will!

Well, here’s the thing:

Your body views your training just the same as it views the grizzly bear…

Your body views a stressful situation at work or school just the same as it views that grizzly bear…

Your body views any stressor just the same as it views that grizzly bear…

So, my point is, if you constantly stress yourself out via training, work, etc. for too long, other important bodily functions will take a back seat and suffer because cortisol will be chronically elevated.

Usually in athletes, this chronic state of high cortisol is brought about by one of three things:

  1. Under eating

  2. Over training

  3. Lack of sleep

Yes, lifestyle factors will influence your recovery as well; however, it is likely that managing these three components will get you the biggest bang for your buck.

[For a deeper dive into exactly how to do this, download you free copy of the Athlete’s Guide to Nutritional Periodization HERE]

In most athletes, symptoms of excessive cortisol levels via stress will rear their ugly head through lack of energy, lack of progression in your training, lack of motivation, constant nagging injuries/illness, etc…

Now, I don’t just want to say these things and leave you hanging. Let’s get into some quick and easy practice that you can implement to make sure that cortisol is working for you, not against you…

First things first, eat enough calories! Under eating is a very common mistake I see in most athletes that come to me. This is a pretty significant stressor, so correcting this will go a long way in help you perform and recover to the best of your ability.

Building off of that last point, be sure to eat enough carbs. Carbs not only directly fuel your training, but they also play an important role in managing cortisol levels. See, carbs cause the release of insulin, your body’s main storage hormone. This counteracts high cortisol levels and causes them to drop, bringing you back to normal. A great way to apply this information is to be sure your post-workout meal has a carb;protein ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. This will help bring cortisol levels back down to baseline following a stressful session or competition!

Another really simple thing you can do is to not train like an a******. If you’re feeling beat up and run down, give yourself a day (or days) off. As an athlete myself, I know how driven you are to get better. But remember this, the gains aren’t made while you’re training, they’re made while you’re recovering. And if you’re not recovering properly, you’re not maximizing your performance and you’re putting yourself at risk for injury.

Lastly, but definitely not least, you must be sure to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Lack of sleep (specifically, lack of quality sleep) is one of the biggest contributors to cortisol levels that are out of whack.

If you do those simple things, you will put yourself in a great position when it comes to managing your cortisol levels effectively and allowing yourself to actually recover after each session. Remember, the better you can recover, the better you’ll be able to perform day after day.

If you want to take a deeper dive into exactly how you can set up your own nutrition plan to perform to the best of your ability, just click HERE to download the free eBook i put together for you. This takes you step-by-step through the exact process that I use with my own athletes when constructing their nutritional game plan. Again, just click here to download it for free!

As always, be sure to reach out and ask any questions if there’s any way at all that I can help you out! Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you soon…


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