The most recent conclusion I have made about CrossFit in its application for achieving health and body composition is that it may be one of the worst things you can do – especially for those of you juggling a full-time career, education, family, finances, etc.
Ok let me explain before you blow up the comments section…
So here’s the thing guys, I love to train – anyone who knows me, knows that I spend A LOT of time in the gym. I love to lift things, hang on things, push myself hard, and listen to some loud MF music! I LOVE CrossFit and will always continue to train that way, but hear me out…
Despite eating PLENTY (2400+ calories) for all the training I was doing (upwards of 3hrs /day), I wasn’t taking into consideration the amount of stress in other parts of my life.
Sure, I was sitting at a desk for most of the day, but the work I was doing at my desk was taking a major mental toll.
First, I had school…
Going to school provides a unique stress response for me – the pressure to be perfect, to meet deadlines, to impress the instructors, etc. Just 3 online classes per semester was all – nothing major, or so I thought…
Second, I had my job…
I have an immense amount of pressure coming from work – don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my job – but that’s why it’s so stressful sometimes – answering to 90+ people per week via email, turned ‘on’ at least 3 hours per day for phone calls, being their positive energy source, and giving, giving, giving takes more of a toll on my body than I gave it credit. But I loved my work – so it shouldn’t have been a stressor…or so I thought…
Ok great, so now we have someone training 3 hours per day doing technical gymnastics skill work, high percentage Olympic weightlifting, and high intensity glycolytic metcons (all taxing the f*ck out of the nervous system), plus going to school and working full-time.
I will also mention that there was a considerable amount of emotional stress coming from relationships with both friends and parents…
I figured – hey I was sitting all day, I was getting 9 hours of sleep per night – I’m good…or so I thought…
**Let me take a quick pause and address those of you that think I’m going to recommend you quit CrossFit…I’m not**
The point of this self-assessment is to bring awareness to the fact that you can NOT do it ALL. Everyone has a stress threshold, and it’s up to you on how you reach it.
Some people are not going to give up their fast-paced job and 3 kids so that they can spend more time training and recovering.
Likewise, the full-time CF athlete is not going to train less hours of the day in order to open their own business…
So you need to realize what your non-negotiables are (career, education, family, finances) and understand that anything in addition to that is either going to ADD to the stress bucket, or take AWAY from the stress bucket.
Ok back to the story…
So how in the hell did I make it this far without breaking sooner?
Well, I was living on adrenaline, over-consuming caffeine (which spikes cortisol), and doing what any good perfectionist does – pushing through despite the overwhelming fatigue and self-doubt.
The only problem with this approach is that eventually everything will come crumbling down.
Soon you notice weight gain – what the hell?? I’m burning an incredible amount of energy every day – how is that possible? I’ll tell you what, 12 pounds of weight gain in 8 months is enough to scare anyone!
Along with your clothes fitting a little tighter, you start retaining a shit ton of water and notice the scale fluctuating +/- 4lbs on the regular. Ever notice striations in your skin after you take your socks off at the end of the day? Edema is not a great sign of health people.
Then one day you realize you’re hitting the snooze button 3 times before you can muster the motivation to get out of bed – you’ve never had to do that! One coffee turns into five while you’re sitting there at work. A couple scoops of pre-workout before training in the afternoon. And now you’re lying in bed trying to go to sleep but your mind is racing – you spend the next 2 hours tossing and turning worrying about the coming day. Great, now you’re showing signs of adrenal fatigue and cortisol dysregulation.
On top of that, you start to notice that digestion is wonky – bloating/gas/diarrhea – you might even develop some food sensitivities. Wheat (gluten), eggs (albumin), and dairy (casein A1) are all the common sensitivities developed in people with compensated gut health. What causes your gut to become impermeable to these large proteins? You guessed it – chronically high cortisol and inflammation in the gut. Yay more stress added to the body.
What about sex life? Oh ya – that goes, too! Cortisol is a stress hormone that has a direct impact on the entire hormonal system. It affects thyroid hormones, blood sugar hormones (insulin) and sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen etc.). What this means for you is low sex drive, irregular periods (if you’re a girl), acne, and possible infertility. Wowza!
Let’s talk motivation – or shall I say, lack thereof. Now you’re forcing yourself to go to the gym, taking 20 minutes longer to warm up, dreading the workout, and slogging through your daily programming. But here’s the kicker, you’re such a perfectionist that you push through anyway – certainly this is just a normal progression – everyone has bad days, or weeks…ok , months?
Finally… and this might seem a bit crazy…but you find that your hair is falling out – wtf? That’s right – you’re also freezing cold and ready for a nap basically at all hours of the day. Great news – you likely have given yourself hypothyroidism! A simple blood test will spell this out for you, but there’s really no need – your symptoms are telling you that you’re f*cked so let’s skip the middleman and just cut to the chase – you need to fix your hormones!
If any of you have resonated with this story thus far…stick with me here…I want to explain what the heck happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again (without becoming a lazy a$$hole who has a stress-free life)…
I mentioned to you before that I was able to get through this period because I was living on adrenaline…
What the heck does that mean?
When we feel stress, the human body undergoes an amazing change. The stressor – for example, a 20 min CrossFit metcon — stimulates the hypothalamus. This region of the brain is responsible for maintaining the balance between stress and relaxation in your body.
When it’s alerted to perceived ‘danger’, it sends out a chemical signal to your adrenal glands, activating the sympathetic system, which sends the body into an excited state. Ever feel that shaky, hyper-focused, strung out feeling after a tough workout?
These glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline, hormones that create the state of readiness that helps a human confront danger.
All of these changes in our normal physical state prepare us to face danger head-on. The issue is when cortisol is chronically elevated for months and months…
Stress directly affects the synchronicity of your hormones. When cortisol levels are constantly high, they affect the production of sex hormones, slow down thyroid function and imbalance blood sugar levels. They also make it hard for your body to create those ‘feel good’ hormones like serotonin.
So, it’s no wonder I was feeling the symptoms of hypothyroidism, cortisol dysregulation, adrenal fatigue, whacked out sex hormones, lack of recovery/motivation/intensity in my training, etc.
You might be reading this and think, “Good God, this girl is insane! Why the heck did this happen?”
Well, this ‘scenario’ is far more common than you think. See, these symptoms don’t just happen in full force one day…they gradually build up over time. Your body is an incredibly adaptable machine.
You give it some stress, it adapts. Add a little more stress, and it adapts again. But we need to realize that just like we need to sleep every night to process the day’s stressors, we need to deload our lives every so often to process life’s stressors.
I clearly wasn’t allowing my body to do this…and I see far too many of my clients making the same mistake…it’s always go, go, go until eventually you can’t go anymore.
Still with me?
Ok great, so how do we prevent this whole cycle form happening over and over again? Because let’s be real, as soon as you are feeling better again, you are going to conquer that 3 hour training program along with another semester of school and an additional 20 more clients…am I right?
The first step to re-balancing your hormones is to minimize stress…I know, borrrring, right?!
Even if you are doing all the right things…eating well, exercising daily, hell, you’ve even given up processed food – you could still be struggling with all the aforementioned symptoms! Why?
You got it – stress!
So is there any hope? What can we do to help manage the non-negotiable stressors in our life while also maintaining our CF status quo?
Here’s a few things that have helped me balance my hormones and thus recover from the rock bottom I was experiencing the last 2 months:
1. Take a break from excessive and intense exercise – Before you start calling me an unrealistic, fantasizing hippie… try swapping one or two of your metcon-type workouts for gentle forms of exercise (e.g. hypertrophy, accessory work, yoga, Pilates or walking). Do this for a trial period of two to four weeks to see if it lowers your stress. Note, I did NOT tell you to give up CrossFit 😉
2. Eat more! 9 out 10 people that come to me for nutrition coaching are under-eating for the load of stress and training in their life. Living in a calorie deficit with minimal carbohydrate intake drives cortisol up throughout the day. Not only do you struggle getting through tough workouts, but it may take you 2-3 days to recover. Do you ever feel like Monday – Wednesday you are on fire in the gym, but then by Thursday and Friday you are dragging yourself through the doors? This is NOT the way to improve your fitness, strength, and skill. You should be feeling energized and recovered every single day, people!
3. Practice saying “probably not” or “no” – You can say No – trust me! Look, we are programmed to overcommit, overprovide and people please, often at the expense of our own health and our stress response and adrenal function. This week when someone asks you to do something that you know will stress you and your adrenals, practice saying “Probably not…(pause), but let me think about it.” No guilt allowed! Take it further by creating a list of your absolute yes’s and no’s for this week.
4. Laptop curfew – Reduce blue light at night. Too much light at night actually stimulates your adrenals to produce more cortisol to keep you awake and energized. This prevents you from being able to wind down properly and actually get proper sleep. Here’s what to do: After 9pm turn off as many lights in your house as possible. Give yourself a laptop curfew, this means no laptops or phones past 9pm or in bed.. for the love of God maybe spend some quality time with a book or even your significant other? Blasphemy, I know…
5. Include good fats and good-quality organic protein sources in EVERY meal– healthy fats (think avocado, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, oily fish like salmon, anchovies etc.) and good quality proteins (pasture raised chicken, wild-caught fish, grass-finished red meats, and legumes) can work wonders in balancing your hormones by keeping your blood sugar regulated. NO more quick hits of sugar throughout the day – your hormones will thank you!
6. Breathe – make a conscious effort to relax and breathe deeply for 10 minutes every evening. Pop your legs up against the wall while you do this (think I’m crazy? Katrin Davidsdottir uses this technique after her training sessions to decompress and enter into para-sympathetic mode).
These lifestyle changes are boring as hell – but that’s why they work. Sure, you can take a few adrenal support supplements and pop a B-complex, but are you really treating the root of the problem?
Let’s address the elephant in the room for once – the fact you are running yourself into the ground for no apparent reason.
Take it from me, water retention, weight gain, acne, and a lackluster life is not sexy… learn from my mistakes and take an inventory of your life stressors and cut out the BS…for the sake of your health and happiness. 😊
Reference Pics: [Left picture is me 4 months ago CRUSHING training (150lbs). Middle picture is 2 months ago at the peak of my burnout/adrenal fatigue/hypothyroidism – clearly not a healthy unit (155lbs). Picture on the right is me currently doing only 1 CF metcon per week and bodybuilding type accessory stuff 5x per week (148lbs)]