Indeed low levels of key hormones can be a threat to good health. But the real question is not whether someone with low hormone levels should or should not do something about it. The question is whether that individual should be allowed to compete against others who are not taking hormones. Underlying this entire polarizing question is what should be asked first. Why have the hormone levels dropped in the first place?
Athletes of all ages will end up with low hormone levels if their training is extreme. Testosterone, human growth hormone, DHEA will all end up critically low if an athlete trains at too high of a volume for too long. The same thing happens if they do too much speedwork for extended periods of time. Even racing too much will give the same negative result. So the main culprit that causes hormone levels to drop is going to be the physical demand an athlete puts on their body.
One key to this piece is that as an athlete ages, the amount of volume and anaerobic work they can do before hormone levels drop is going to change from when they were younger. An endurance athlete in their 20’s or 30’s can sustain high volumes and absorb lots of speedwork and still have healthy hormone levels. Someone in their 50’s or 60’s and beyond cannot match that. They get inhibited release of key hormones necessary for athletic performance quicker than their younger counterparts.
Stress over time elevates Cortisol. Physical stress (training) initially helps release the key hormones you need to perform. But over time if Cortisol is elevated from stress of any kind, hormone levels drop. So in very simple terms, overtraining either from a high training volume and/or doing too much anaerobic work will end up causing hormone levels to drop well below what is normal for you at whatever age you are.
Now add in the effects of aging into the equation. As we age we naturally produce less of the stuff that enables us to be super fast and strong athletically. The peak of human growth hormone release happens during infancy and then again during puberty. The further you get from these two golden periods, the less human growth hormone your body is going to produce. Same with things like testosterone and DHEA.
This is not necessarily a bad thing that happens as we age. It just means that the recipe for training needs to be tweaked so that we don’t accelerate the hormone level drop. And there are things you can do to help dampen the hormone drop that comes with aging so that in fact you still look a heck of a lot younger than the age on your passport.
It appears to be most common in those who have hammered their bodies for years but are trying to still train by the same standard they went by twenty or thirty years ago. Indeed they may have extreme drops in their hormone levels. But it’s not a medical condition. It’s a condition brought on by stupid and unrealistic training paradigms.
The drop in hormone levels that is greater than is expected for their age is the result of choices in how they pushed their bodies. They are not honoring the need to balance performance with the need for recovery. And here’s the worst part about this scenario. Someone who has dangerously low hormone levels caused by the stress of overtraining who then goes on hormone therapy will have a distinct advantage over the vast majority of you out there who are working within the real parameters of your body and doing what you can to make sure you do not get in a position where your hormone levels are critically low.
Think functional moves. Engage large muscle groups for the power in the lift as well as core and balance needed to stabilize the lift. I am not going to give specifics here because this is an entire article. But the key is that moves that engage large muscle groups along with lots of other muscles help release human growth hormone and testosterone big time.
This is especially important for you aging athletes. If you are over about 35 and are not doing strength work, you are missing out. If you are over 60 and are not doing these kinds of moves in a strength program your human growth hormone and testosterone levels will be average at best and will be well below average if you are putting lots of hours in your endurance work.
Anaerobic training (your speedwork) is great at stimulating the release of key hormones necessary for building fitness. But there is a big WARNING here: do it in small doses.
A small amount of speedwork helps release all the hormones that make you a better athlete. But too much speedwork and you start to inhibit the release of the good hormones. The critical point is knowing when you go from stimulating to inhibiting. Young athletes can get benefit from speedwork for 6-12 weeks. Older folks can hit the critical switch point in 3-6 weeks depending on the individual. After that for both groups, more speedwork can start to suppress the release of all the hormones that you need for performance.
If you are not getting enough good deep sleep you will end up with hormone levels that drop. I can’t say how much you need as this is individual. But just like all recommendations you read about, what you find on the Internet is going to be for the average person.
If you are doing endurance sports, I guarantee you that you are going to get better performances out of sleep that exceeds the general recommendations by 1-3 hours per night. So if you find that most research is saying you need 8 hours to be healthy, then as an endurance athlete you are doing to need 9-11 hours. That may not all be at night but can include a nap. But heed my warning here. This is one of the most critical parts of keeping your hormone levels from dropping.
That means omega-3’s from cold water fish and beans. You need avocados. You need omega-9’s from olive oil. Avoid omega-6 oils from safflower, canola and soy oils. Those turn into saturated fat in a stressed out body. And then finally, cut out sugar. It causes inflammation, which is a stress on the body. This then ends up inhibiting the release of the hormones you need to perform well.
The bottom line is that unless you have a true medical reason for low hormone levels (things like testicular cancer, hysterectomy, thyroid or pituitary malfunctions) then there is no reason you should see hormone levels drop below average if you are doing everything right. And if you are not, you should not get a free pass to supplement via hormone therapy and compete against those who are doing their best to keep their bodies in balance the way we are supposed to.
Yes, you should get the therapies if you are in a critical state. But don’t show up at the start line because you took hormones that are on the banned list to remedy a situation where you made an unwise decision. Leave the racing to those who are realistic. They are the athletes who are willing to bite the bullet and implement the realistic training that enables them to optimize their performance without taking hormones at any age. It just makes it more fun for all of us!
Stay tuned for the final blog in this three-part series. In the last blog I’ll share my personal stories of low hormone levels in 1995 and what I did to overcome them.
Join me at MarkAllenCoaching.
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.