In Exercise, Hormones

How Long Workouts Sabotage Hormones After 50…and How I’m Offsetting That at 53 is the full title and focus of this post. More specifically, this is about how I’m attempting to offset these changes for myself because I am the guinea pig. I don’t yet know the outcome. So, in this personal post about my training in preparation for Ironman Cozumel this fall I explain how as a strength & conditioning coach I’m modifying the principles of training in combination with hormone balancing needs to accomplish a goal without sabotaging my health. Imagine a committee meeting with a hormone-exercise expert, a Strength & Conditioning coach, triathlon coach, and a Medical Exercise Specialist all around the table. That’s the conversation in my head. A lot of voices!

Endurance events call for endurance training. Traditionally. When you’re short on time, and dealing with hormone change that can naturally sabotage you all by itself let alone with the wrong kind of exercise, you want to change the game plan.

So I’m minimizing my endurance training. Instead of a traditionally called for “long run” that might be 1:40 minute run or 10 miles at about this point in training, I’m reducing the time and increasing the intensity.

Eliminating Long Workouts That Sabotage Hormones

Rather than go out for a steady slow run keeping my heart rate down, I do something more like midlife woman running in mountainsthis:

  • 10 minutes super easy
  • 10 minutes slightly harder
  • Hill intervals run up 2:00, recover down 3:00 (repeat 5x) = 25 min
  • Easy 5 minutes
  • Hill intervals run up :30 seconds, recover down 1:00 (repeat 8) = 12 min
  • Cool down run 5 minutes
  • Total time = 1:02

Or this:

10 minutes easy followed by 45 minutes of hill running at altitude (for a sea level event) and a 10-minute cool down.

Total time = 65 minutes

And here’s why. The following hormones are affected negatively by too much long slow distance training:

  • Testosterone
  • Cortisol
  • Ghrelin
  • Growth Hormone
  • Insulin

Testosterone and Cortisol are directly affected and then set off a cascade of other hormone changes.

The results of hormone changes (from the wrong kind of exercise) on a midlife female will instead of increasing fitness, decrease fitness. You could take a traditional endurance training program [not adjusted] and impose it on a healthy 25 year old male or female and potentially increase fitness. If there’s any hint of adrenal fatigue or a high level of perceived stress in the athlete prior to training, however, endurance training can be detrimental at any age. If you’re 60 or over and out of the big “change” you are not immune to the effects of hormones. But just to play fair, you’re also not doomed by them. We just have to exercise smarter.

As Flipping 50 would imply, we’re most focused here on midlife and women experience the most significant changes during this time. We do have a special set of needs but both genders experience some changes. Hormone changes occur during the entire life span. Young and older athletes or avid exercisers can experience either hormone havoc or enhanced hormone health from exercise, depending on the individual and the exercise regime. When I write weekly exercise programs for private clients I am carefully calculating the work and the rest and monitoring based on feedback, what’s working and what needs tweaking. Yes, even (in fact, especially) for a CEO working behind a desk most of the time who wants to get or stay in shape in limited time and offset a sedentary life filled with demands on her (or him.)

woman swimmingHormones Negatively Influenced by Long Workouts

Here’s some insight into the how and why hormones are negatively affected with long distance and endurance* training.

Testosterone

  • Optimized with heavy weight training and interval training
  • Sabotaged with slow and long endurance “slogging”
  • Supported by high quality protein and optimal sleep
  • Sabotaged by alcohol and sugar (craving-inspired by long exercise bouts)
  • Endurance athletes often find weight training and intervals squeezed out in effort to get in volume

Cortisol

  • Increased training time increases cortisol and inflammation
  • Muscle breakdown (catabolism) occurs at a faster rate than repair
  • Sleep is often disrupted with over training or adequate sleep volume can’t be achieved due to time constraints
  • Cortisol-inspired cravings can increase poor food choices

Ghrelin

  • Due to increased cortisol, following a poor night’s sleep, ghrelin levels will increase cravings and reduce optimal food choice

Growth Hormone

  • Disrupted sleep due to over training reduces production of GH that occurs in deepest cycles of sleep
  • Lack of muscle repair and lean muscle maintenance means long term reduction of metabolism due to muscle losses

Insulin

  • Increased insulin levels reduce ability to burn fat (and increased ability to store it) and can be a result of too long exercise sessions and poor fueling that results in dips in blood sugar
  • Cravings satisfied with processed or sugary snacks also increase insulin levels and corresponding fat storage and inability to burn fat

middle age women lifting weightsGiving Up Long Workouts?

Considering all that, I don’t know about you but I’m tempted to dump endurance training! Yet, like anything else, the key is planning. My heart calls me to do this. I actually love every thing about it from the training to the triathlon community, to the creativity stimulated that pours out of me when I return. I love having a specific plan and accomplishing it. I am no longer an “exerciser” or motivated by just putting in time without purpose. Training, not exercise is so much more rewarding (though need not be a big endurance event).

Like the effects of aging, the negative hormone effects from long workouts are possible but not mandatory. I’m rewriting my training schedule and shifting from mostly aerobic work to include more anaerobic work without impairing the foundation of endurance I need. I’m going to exchange the traditional emphasis on long cardio workouts for an increased emphasis on (1) strength training and (2) high intensity intervals. I’m listening to signs and symptoms (sleep disturbances, cravings, appetite) that things need further fine-tuning. I’ll be monitoring hormones along the way as needed.

midlife woman bikingA Snapshot of Modified Long Workouts

The reality of this weekend’s long workouts is:

  • a 3-4 hour bike or 50-60 miles. I’ll keep to 3, an easy interval set, a tougher interval set, and an easy spin to finish.
  • a 10 mile or 1:40 run shortened to an altitude run described above
  • a 2000 swim with repeats of 200 (that I will increase distance on to focus on endurance in the pool where I’m also able to recover and make gains without injury risk).
  • A full recovery day follows and an easy/light day precedes. Rest is planned as carefully as the work.
  • Nutrition including hydration with electrolytes and salt during the bike and run are planned as closely by how much to take in and how frequently.
  • my entire next week will be light and recovery as I’m traveling which fits perfectly. Life is messy and an occasional light week needs to happen in any plan so when it does, embrace it and realize travel and conferences are an opportunity to enhance training

How does this make you think differently about your own training? Do you have any comments or questions? I’d love to hear them.

*Note: long distance and endurance is relative to you. If you’re new to doing 2 miles, an increase to doing that can be the same as doing 10 miles for another person.

P.S. I’m due for a blood test to see if modifications in my supplements and nutrition habits have improved my liver function. Stay tuned for details about that and a natural liver cleanse I’m doing.


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