In this article, you will learn:
- The importance of hormonal health for peak performance and a long athletic career
- How testosterone affects and is affected by long seasons of high-intensity sport training and competition
- How to leverage testosterone to optimize your performance
Hormones are chemical messengers that manage energy, stabilize mood, and balance blood sugar. Although most are familiar with hormones like insulin, cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone, many people overlook the importance of hormone health when considering their performance plan.
Your hormone health deserves your attention! If you are looking to ramp up your long-term health and athletic performance, then it’s time to make them a priority. Today, let’s focus on one important hormone for optimizing performance: testosterone.
Testosterone is widely recognized as the major male sex hormone, but did you know that it’s found in all bodies? (All bodies produce estrogen too, but we will save that discussion for another day.)
For males, testosterone majorly contributes to muscle and bone growth, libido, and the development of male characteristics, such as facial hair, body hair, and a deeper voice. In females, testosterone counterbalances estrogen and progesterone (female sex hormones), supporting a healthy and harmonic menstrual cycle, bone density, lean body mass (muscle tissue), and a healthy reproductive system, including sex drive.
What does testosterone do for athletic performance?
From puberty onward, men produce large amounts of testosterone, making them gain more muscle mass and strength. Higher energy levels, focus, and even a competitive edge have been associated with healthy levels of testosterone. Male testosterone production has been reported to give men an 8-12% athletic boost. If you want to get to the meat of how you can optimize your testosterone levels, scroll down to the “Keep your hormones in balance” section.
Females produce testosterone in smaller quantities, but this does NOT mean it has minimal impact on health and athletic performance. Females who learn to optimize their testosterone levels typically have an advantage against their competition. This is not to suggest that women should start taking exogenous (externally supplemented) testosterone, as this may cause acne, hirsutism (excessive hair growth), balding on the scalp, deepening of the voice, fertility issues, and it is illegal for athletes in competitive sports. Instead, women can leverage their naturally produced (endogenous) testosterone, which peaks during the ovulatory phase of their menstrual cycles.
Testosterone levels in females typically fall around 10-14 days after the last day of menstruation, depending on cycle length. Although you can’t change your competition schedule to sync with your cycle, it’s important to note that ovulation and menstruation tend to be better times for competitive performance. Testosterone peaks during ovulation, making performance optimization more accessible. During menstruation however, progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest, which makes it easier to focus, analyze, and keep your head in the game.
Balancing your hormones is key to optimizing your energy levels and tapping into peak performance on high testosterone-producing days. The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) actually requires female athletes to stay under a certain level of testosterone to compete in their events. If any athlete exceeds this upper limit of testosterone, they will be ineligible to participate due to claims of an unfair advantage.
In September 2020, Caster Semenya of South Africa lost her case to compete in the 800m track event at the next summer’s Olympics due to elevated levels of testosterone. This ruling has sparked outrage among women in sport who suffer from PCOS, hyperandrogenism, and/or other medical conditions that result in elevated serum testosterone levels, as they are not supplementing with testosterone, but have hyperandrogenism (excess androgens/testosterone) caused by these conditions. The good news is that some of these medical conditions can often be treated or helped immensely with diet and lifestyle changes.
Keep your hormones in balance
For all sexes, long seasons of intense and prolonged exercise can reduce testosterone levels. This is commonly the case among elite athletes.
Exercise is a catabolic process, meaning your muscles break down and nutrients are utilized during sessions. In this catabolic state, cortisol levels—the body’s main hormone and essential for life—rise while testosterone levels decrease. When this state is prolonged due to over-training, lack of sleep, a poor diet, traveling, and/or overall mental stress, it can lead to suboptimal testosterone levels (and it does). We often see lower levels of testosterone in young athletes—regardless of gender.
Resistance training at lower intensity and shorter bouts of exercise have been found to help raise testosterone levels, so whenever possible (often during the off-season), it might be in your best interest to switch up the type of workouts you are doing throughout the week and to consult with a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS). If you are a pro, elite, or team athlete working with dedicated team trainers, we understand that you can’t always switch up your training schedule, but you can work with a trainer who can help you prevent overtraining (or non-functional over-reaching, NFOR) so that you can optimize and protect your testosterone levels.
The sports industry is changing. Today, given the success of personalized performance plans, it is much easier to speak with trainers and coaches about a plan that will work best for you. If you feel off, or unable to perform your best, let your trainers and coaches know.
Lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on testosterone health
- Get 8-10 hours of quality sleep each night. After only 1 week of sleep restriction, a small study of 10 men showed a 10-15% decrease in testosterone levels.
- Disconnect from electronics after the sun goes down and dim the lights in your home at night to promote the natural increase of melatonin and decrease in cortisol to improve sleep quality and regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Avoid xenoestrogens (chemicals found in plastic, skincare products, cologne, laundry detergent, scented candles and more) that mimic estrogen and burden testosterone health.
- Adopt and stay consistent with preferred stress management practices such as yoga, meditation, breathwork, and spending time in nature.
Fueling practices to optimize testosterone health
- Eat a real-food diet, including whole-food carbohydrates, healthy fats, high-quality proteins and a plethora of colorful vegetables. Consult with us for a customized meal plan that matches your nutrition with your training.
- Limit processed and refined carbohydrates (think things made with refined flour and sugar).
- Remember your daily supplements (find your “everydays” at the SportFuel store).
- Consume foods with zinc, such as oysters, shellfish, grass-fed organic beef, and pumpkin seeds.
- Indulge in the sunshine vitamin—vitamin D! Get healthy doses of sun and obtain vitamin D from your diet in foods like wild fatty fish (especially salmon), beef liver, and egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens and be sure to use supplements during the winter months that contain both D3 and K2, or use a Vitamin D lamp.
- Keep alcohol to a minimum to avoid stressing your liver and detoxification/metabolic pathways. 1-2 drinks max is suggested per day.
- Eat mushrooms & cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale). They have been shown to help maintain the balance of sex hormones.
- Note that only certain mushroom varieties display these therapeutic properties, so while your standard white button and portobello mushrooms provide other health benefits, they probably won’t double your testosterone levels.
- One of our favorite quality mushroom sources is Four Sigmatic, a company dedicated to providing mushroom coffees and products that deliver the health benefits we discussed above. We love their Adaptogen Blend Mix.
Hormone health matters for all athletes
We know this is a lot of information, but it’s all important and relevant to your vitality and performance as an athlete, and contrary to cultural belief, testosterone affects all athletes.
If you think your levels may be off, we can help you adjust your diet to best support your hormones, so please reach out with any questions you may have!