The endocrine system is every triathlete’s best friend (or worst enemy) – triathlete

Many years ago, when I first became an endurance athlete, I asked an older training buddy why he only ran an ultrarun once a season. “Even if I have the time, I know that the body doesn’t hit the endocrine system more than once a year,” he replied. I nodded, presumably in a low voice of agreement, but the truth was, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. This ignorance leads to many poor training decisions, missed opportunities to correct mistakes, and ultimately the head-on conflict of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). I know I’m not alone. Many of us may not know what the endocrine system is or what it does, and therefore do not know that it is the most important body system for endurance athletes. Understanding how this complex and delicate system affects or disrupts our performance may be blocking my OTS, and it may be blocking yours.

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endocrine system, in a nutshell

The endocrine system consists of eight glands, namely the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pineal, ovary and testes. These glands secrete hormones such as prolactin, thyrotropin, growth hormone, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which act as chemical messengers throughout the body. Hormones control mood, growth and development, organ function, metabolism and reproduction.

(Photo: Getty Images)

What do all these systems do for triathletes? A triathlete’s hypothalamus receives information about habits, behavior, and the environment; how we eat, sleep, train, our thoughts, and even the temperature and amount of sunlight we’re exposed to. It then sends a message to the pituitary gland, which then produces hormones to regulate the body according to our condition. If we manage stress, train properly, eat enough, and rest enough, our endocrine system will function properly. Hormones will perform actions such as regulating the amount of water in the body, repairing muscle tissue during sleep, ensuring reproductive hormones are functioning properly, and hitting us with just the right amount of cortisol so we wake up refreshed from a good night’s sleep. Basically everything we know about being a triathlete, should If we want to train, recover and play at our best, that’s the way to go.

All of these healthy functions require a balance between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands (called the HPA axis). The job of the HPA axis is to determine how much stress the body experiences and increase or decrease the amount of cortisol or the stress hormone accordingly. It’s important to remember that the hypothalamus doesn’t differentiate between physical stress and mental stress — it’s all the same. Whether you just got fired, didn’t get enough sleep last night, or ran ten miles, stress hormones increase and, if left unchecked, can eventually lead to HPA axis dysfunction.

related: Life stress, work stress, training stress – your body can’t tell the difference

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Are triathletes more susceptible to endocrine disorders?

Dr Nicky Keay, an exercise endocrinologist, Lecturer in Medicine at UCL and research fellow at the Department of Exercise and Exercise Science at Durham University, said triathletes were more likely to become dysregulated simply because they were asking their bodies to do more and more. long time. If one or more of our habits and behaviors are out of balance, the endocrine system can become dysfunctional as it tries to solve the problem.

Hormones are the link between what’s outside or what we do and what’s inside or our body’s response to it,” says Kee. “So what we do with exercise, sleep and nutrition is communicated to your body inside, through Hormones tell it what to do. Quite wisely, the body recognizes that these behaviors are detrimental to the athlete and will take steps to correct them. “

What does this look like for a triathlete? The following examples are just some of the potential outcomes if we are not eating enough for the amount of exercise we are doing, training too much and/or not getting enough recovery.

  • We can expect a down-regulation of thyroid function and a drop in metabolism.
  • We may see a decrease in the amount of sex hormones, which can affect erections and sperm production (men) or prevent you from menstruating (women).
  • We may suffer from insomnia and less growth hormone is released during sleep, which can lead to persistent soreness or injury.
  • As our habit continues, overtraining syndrome becomes a threat that only exacerbates the symptoms.
  • Daily life will suffer as research shows that as the HPA axis is overwhelmed by high physical and mental stress, we experience depression, anxiety, decreased libido, eating disorders, and even cognitive dysfunction.

Let’s be clear: each of these dissonances is the result of our actions. It’s not because our body is doing anything wrong, it’s actually doing everything right and trying to protect us… from ourselves. It might be hard to hear, but it also means we can fix what we broke.

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How can triathletes avoid endocrine disorders?

filter out noise

The first step in avoiding endocrine disorders is to filter out health information that doesn’t apply to endurance athletes. When triathletes follow general “healthy” information or dietary advice absorbed from the media and culture around them, they tend to develop bad habits. Dr. Keay, who works with elite athletes and people with type 2 diabetes, said endurance athletes need a very different message than the average person.

“The idea of ​​the media is ‘eat less, move more,’ or that we need to have the perfect physique. That message can be totally inappropriate for athletes,” Kee said. “Just like the message of needing to eat more carbohydrates is inappropriate for sedentary people with type 2 diabetes.”

This means we need to change the way we think, from “How can I cut calories?” to “How can I avoid becoming low on energy?” and “How many steps can I take in a day?” extra wear and tear on the body?”

related: Myth of Calorie In = Calorie Out

recovery and fuel

Another way to avoid dissonance is to make sure we increase our opportunities for rest and good nutrition as we increase our training volume and start training for long distance triathlons. Indeed, we become fitter, and as a result, over time, we adapt to the increasing demands of training. However, that doesn’t mean we need less rest. According to Dr. Keay, we need to work harder than ever to see our hard work pay off.

You can train all day, but you’re not going to progress because the progress happens when you sleep through the growth hormone,” Kee said. “Athletes need rest, sleep, days of full recovery, no active rest — no such thing. thing. “

She also said that athletes should become “focused and systematic” on nutrition, suggesting they never train on an empty stomach, always get some kind of recovery nutrition within 20 minutes of a workout, and be sure to supplement it during longer workouts energy. It may be helpful to consult a registered dietitian who understands exercise, as numerous studies will demonstrate a link between low energy availability in both men and women and a disruption of endocrine function called RED-S (relative energy deficit during exercise).

related: Ask Stacy: How Can I Determine My Recovery Nutrition – How Does It Differ for Men and Women?

Honesty is the best policy

Dr. Keay said athletes need to be honest with themselves. Symptoms such as fatigue, impotence, gastrointestinal problems or mood disturbances can appear long before the disorder occurs, but most athletes choose to ignore them until it’s too late. It is also important to know that whether our actions are intentional or not, we are all at risk for dissonance. Some athletes may be actively trying to restrict calories, but others may just be struggling to follow a training program that doesn’t work for them. In either case, we need to look inside carefully, Dr Keay said.

Sometimes people have underlying confidence or control issues. Some people have to understand that it’s their tendency to default to it in stressful situations — overtraining and under-fueling,” Kee said. “Unless they fix all of those issues, I’ll see you at the office again.” to them. “

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A day in the life of a dysfunctional triathlete

Although every triathlete is different, Dr. Kee said there are some common themes and signs of endocrine dysregulation among triathletes. If any of these events sound familiar, talk to a medical professional familiar with endocrine disorders in athletes.

stand up

You won’t feel refreshed when you wake up. You will have lingering fatigue and lack of motivation. If you are tracking your heart rate variability (HRV), you may notice a decrease relative to your baseline level. You have to force yourself to move. If you are male, you may not find morning wood.

first training session

You may get angry during training. It’s not a good meeting, but you’ll want it to be a one-off. You might say “I’m not even training hard, so I don’t need my recovery drink, food, or fuel.”

related: lose focus? Feeling grumpy?You may be overtraining

working life

You go to work and feel heavy. Everything is like a struggle. Your pants are a little tight and you wonder if you’re gaining weight despite cutting calories and training more recently. If you’re a woman, your period was supposed to come today, but it didn’t — or it started, but it was light. Since you didn’t train enough today, you decide that you probably don’t need any snacks or starchy carbs tonight. You hope tomorrow will be better.


You have trouble falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night. You wake up because you’re hungry and actually too tired. You may also wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. due to high cortisol levels. Everything starts over, but the body is not happy.

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bottom line

In many cases, we can dig ourselves out of the predicament we’ve gotten ourselves into, but not without real personal reckoning. Do we want to be the thinnest triathlete with the shortest career? Are we willing to risk fertility for an overcrowded race schedule? Do we want to fight fatigue because we’ve been told carbs are the enemy? Or do we want to be healthy, energetic, well-rested members of this community for as long as possible? I know which option I would choose if I could do it all over again. Hope you make the right choice here too.

Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher on mental health and ultra-endurance sports. She holds a BA in Psychology and an ALM and is a former triathlete and ultramarathon runner.

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