As much as we act and think we’re sometimes invincible, humans aren’t robots. (Shocker, I know). Our anatomy was built to handle external stressors but only by few amounts at a time. Stress unavoidably shows up in our day-to-day and in a variety of ways—including exercise. Anything from long aerobic capacity work to max effort anaerobic strength training counts as a physical stressor to your body.
In the world of fitness and strength, there’s a lot of hype around increasing our “readiness” for a given task. Pre workouts, caffeine pills, smelling salts — you name it. There’s nothing inherently “bad” about any of these tools for fitness enthusiasts or even an elite athlete. However, we often overlook the importance of the “come down” after training to assure proper recovery and adaptation to the physical stress we just put our bodies through.
In this piece, we’re going to explore how putting more emphasis on your recovery at a hormonal level can help your body focus on restoring your muscles for your next big session.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
The most popular substance used for an immediate boost in energy and cognition is (yes, you guessed it) coffee. Given it’s the world’s most popular stimulant, most of you have probably adopted the use of coffee at some point to increase your performance inside the gym. While it’s a great added benefit to push your body where it’s never gone before, recovering from such a high requires just as much (and even more) attention as making sure you’re physically ready before your workout.
[For more options for pre workout caffeine, check out our list of the best pre workouts!]
Caffeine, Cortisol, and Stress
So, what do we know about exercise induced-stress?
Well, cortisol gets released under conditions of high mental and physical stress and high temperature. Consuming caffeine in any form will enhance the secretion of cortisol and norepinephrine at rest. This will increase your levels of arousal so you become more aware, awake, focused and generally more responsive.(1) I’d say anyone that trains anytime before 9:00 am will agree with me here.
Then, as you go about your training — let’s say a heavy squat session, for example — your cortisol stays elevated and your glycogen levels will slowly start to decline as your body uses up that storage of energy. You bust through your last rep, rack the weight and call it a day. Your body is in fully in a catabolic state, cortisol is at its peak and you’re flying high on endorphins. This is ideally where you’d consume your post-training fuel to support muscle growth and to replenish glycogen stores. Slowly, you should shift back into an anabolic state where androgen hormones (such as testosterone, IG-F1, and GH) will start to be released in order to repair any exercise-induced tissue damage.
You can see here how the consumption of coffee or any form of caffeinated drink could blunt your body’s natural recovery process when you should be prioritizing reducing catabolic hormones (ie. cortisol) and clearing byproducts.
Given most of you are regularly exposed to physical, mental and emotional stress during the day (not taking into account a hard workout or training session), your “normal” level of cortisol might be higher than average. (And average is probably already too high.) So, if your body is producing more cortisol than it needs to perform in your day-to-day, the chances of you experiencing inflammation, lowered immunity and eventually adrenal dysfunction are much more likely.
Caffeine ups your cortisol, and you want to reduce cortisol post workout.
[Read more: How bad is stress for your strength goals, really?]
Caffeine and Muscle Recovery
What most research will highlight when speaking to post-training caffeine consumption is how it affects muscular recovery. One study observed athletes that consumed caffeine post-training to evaluate any change in their bodies’ response.(2) They saw a 66% glycogen increase in the athletes’ muscles four hours after completing an intense training session. This could mean lowering the chances of experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which is what most of you are probably looking to reduce after an intense workout. Mind you, they noted the athletes consumed their caffeine along with a good amount carbs in their meals, and carbs are great for increasing glycogen. This could mean an entirely different result if they weren’t to eat carbs at all. So, you might see this caffeine/carbohydrate consumption combo more frequently in pro athletes.
Focusing on muscular recovery isn’t inherently wrong. However, if you shift your attention to regulating your hormone levels post-training, this will in turn help you better manage your body’s natural response to stress. Given a solid production of hormones is the base every person needs for great recovery, better stress management equals better overall physical health and performance.
In a nutshell: should you skip that Starbucks run as you’re leaving the gym?
It might not be a bad call.
Managing our stress levels has almost become a second job for the majority of us working an average of 40 hours a week. If you’re looking to optimize muscle growth, sleep quality or overall physical performance, consider reserving your daily cup of joe for a time you’ll need the boost.
1) Lovallo WR, Whitsett TL, al’Absi M, Sung BH, Vincent AS, Wilson MF. Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosom Med. 2005;67(5):734-9.
2) American Physiological Society. (2008, July 2). Post-exercise Caffeine Helps Muscles Refuel. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 1, 2019.