Stress and Training: Are You Overtraining or Under

We all know about stress – stress is the reaction to a stimulus which creates a response. If the stimulus doesn’t elicit a response, there is no stress.

Stress is NOT a dirty word – A certain level of stress is good or healthy, as it stimulates a healthy or positive response. For example, the stress of a workout can stimulate muscle strength or growth.

Too much stress however, be it physical (over training), mental (prolonged periods of intense thought or testing) , emotional (eg. Financial issues, relationship problems, etc.) leads to a physiological cascade of hormonal and neurological responses that are NOT good for your overall health and can DEVASTATE your physical performance capabilities (strength, strength endurance and or aerobic endurance). Stress is a fact of life, so it really comes down to how you manage it. That is critical.


There are two major hormones involved in the stress response: adrenaline and cortisol, both of which are produced by the adrenal glands (which are about the size of the tip of your thumb and sit on top of your kidneys). These are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” hormones.  These hormones have amazing and very pervasive effects on all your body’s systems.

Everyone has a different tolerance for various stimuli – some get an adrenaline / cortisol dump from a bad phone call from their manager, others from too grueling a workout, or others from anxiety. One important note is that unless you are taking preventative / adaptive measures, the more exposed to stress you are, often times the MORE you tend to react to it! In other words the same stress that caused a 1x response, over repeated exposures, could now stimulate a 2x response. This is not good news for our physical performance or long term health.

The issue here is more the response to the stimuli, than the stimuli itself – and that means in simple terms, looking at how your body’s reaction affects cortisol levels.

Think of cortisol as the master stress hormone – even more so than adrenalin. Cortisol affects your entire hormonal and metabolic balance. Cortisol decreases testosterone (both its anabolic and androgen activity), impacts thyroid hormones (decreasing their affect), affects the balance of brain chemistry leading to depression and (more) anxiety, and has other additional affects..


Some of the symptoms of overtraining / high cortisol levels are:

• Higher resting heart rate
• Depression, irritability and anxiety
• Decreased immune system function (more susceptible to colds, illness)
• Decrease in energy and enthusiasm
• Decrease in positive mental attitude – feeling overwhelmed
• Decrease in both anaerobic and aerobic performance
• Increase in muscle tissue breakdown
• Increase in fat
• Decrease in insulin sensitivity
• Slower recovery time
• Decreased connective tissue strength (increasing the risk of injuries and tears)
• Decrease in testosterone (decrease in libido, intracellular protein)


As an extreme example to better your understanding, even just one intense workout a week could lead to an “overtrained” state if the person was not sleeping much, ate terribly, wasn’t supplementing, or was going through a hostile personal situation be it with a wife, girlfriend, job loss, etc… which impacted them emotionally as well as financially. Why? Because cortisol levels would be tearing down, working against and depleting all the positive stimuli of training and the athletes recuperative powers.

We should monitor ourselves closely as workouts are not the only variable (as mentioned above) to raising cortisol levels. A bad break up in a relationship could now cause this week’s training to be too stressful as compared to last week’s training (which may not have had the emotional stress).   Early morning resting pulse is a crude but valuable test, whereby upon waking, before getting out of bed (even to go to the bathroom) the resting pulse is taken. Athletes who are in high stress / overtrained mode can have an increase of 10 beats per minute above their normal range. Additionally and ideally, salivary cortisol testing (considered by many to be the Gold Standard) can be done intermittently throughout the training camp (taken four times per day) to monitor the stress levels of the athletes so that training can be more precisely modulated.

The point is that training stimuli, stress levels as well as sleep, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle factors etc. must be looked at holistically (in their combined entirety) to determine where the line between maximum training stimulus and overtraining may be crossed.


All of the following aspects should be considered in order to maximize positive training adaptations and minimize cortisol levels, thereby avoiding the “overtrained / under-recuperated” state:

Nutrition – the goal is to meet the momentary nutritional demands of your body!

• anti-catabolic diet in terms of food choices, ratios of proteins, carbs and fats
• Meal timing and frequency relative to specific events
• Supplementation:
– to meet macro and micro nutrient timing demands (protein / carbs / aminos)
– food alone will not provide adequate nutrients
– food often digests more slowly and less completely
– foods are not good sources of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals andmicronutrients
– supplements offer quick, easy and efficient ways of maximizing nutritional “windows of opportunity”
– anti-cortisol supplements can enhance the body’s tolerance and minimize the.negative effects of cortisol

Sleep and rest

• Minimum of 8 hours – uninterrupted sleep
• Naps when you can get them
• Meditation, quite time (letting your mind rest)

Work Outs

Workouts do decrease cortisol levels – up to a point. Extreme training increases cortisol levels. Monitor early morning resting pulse and become more in touch with how you feel mentally and physically. Keep a journal.


This is a tough one as it is more insidious and often more difficult to “fix”. The stress of life wears on us all- jobs, family life, responsibilities, finances, relationships etc. Learning to get a better handle on emotionally charged issues through any number of coping skills is invaluable.

This is a basic overview of the effect of the stress/cortisol response on high end athletes as well as non-athletes. In our follow-up article, we will give you more specifics on the ways to “mute” thru nutrition, supplements, monitoring and managing stress that affect your cortisol levels.

About the Author: Dr. Tom Deters

Dr. Tom Deters is the former Editor in chief and publisher of Muscle & Fitness magazine and publisher of both FLEX and Men’s Fitness magazines. He has published hundreds of articles and given hundreds of seminars on training, performance nutrition, diet strategy and bodyfat control.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.