Nutrition for CrossFit Part 3: Burnout – Keep that flame lit!

Posted by on Sep 1, 2013 in Fitness, Nutrition | 3 comments

This topic may sound more about lifestyle than nutrition, but it’s incredibly important for athletes, who in the quest for health, strength, speed, and looking good naked, often do more harm than good by running their adrenal glands into the ground through over-training and inadequate rest.

Adrenal glands are tiny but powerful glands that sit atop your kidneys, and are responsible for your body’s stress response. You may be most familiar with the adrenal glands and their fight-or-flight mechanism, where humans have been known to find superhuman strength or speed during an emergency. But in our modern, busy lives, the adrenal glands are constantly being tapped into, with fewer true life and death emergencies, and many more constant stressors. Your intense workouts, your work deadlines, the jerk driver who cut you off in traffic. You stay up late working, you go back to school while working full time, your kids are fighting, your Dad is in the hospital for surgery, and the dog tore up your couch. Stress comes in many forms, and if not dealt with properly, puts a constant strain on our adrenals. And as mentioned in the last post about digestion, when the body is in a stress state, important functions are down regulated. This down regulation is directed by cortisol, whose main function is to slow down other processes, such as immune response, inflammation, digestion, and protein synthesis in order to increases blood sugar to activate energy for the brain as an emergency survival mechanism. This is an amazing function when we need to survive. But, we aren’t frequently being chased by bears in this modern age, and our body doesn’t know the difference.

Elevated levels of cortisol are mostly caused by stress, but other “modern” influences are commonly associated with raised stress hormone. Lack of sleep, caffeine, and sugar, three things that are all too familiar to many Americans, will raise cortisol. Interestingly, these three are often experienced together, in response to an already stressful lifestyle: didn’t get enough sleep, wake up with the help of coffee, and then crave sugar, or enjoy a sugary donut with your coffee for a double whammy. When the caffeine and sugar wear off, you crash, and maybe start the cycle all over again. Eventually, when cortisol has been tapped into for too long, the adrenals will just wear out, and you spend your days with chronic fatigue. Your body doesn’t even produce enough cortisol to help you wake up in the morning or recover from a stressful event. You are literally burnt out.

So bringing this back to CrossFit and nutrition – how do we take care of our adrenal glands in this crazy life? We can’t just pack up and spend our lives doing wods on the beach in perfect harmony with nature. Instead, be mindful of the following:

– Eating real, whole, nutrient dense foods like fresh veggies, fruit and high-quality fats and proteins provides your body with the rebuilding and recovery nutrients it needs for stressful situations. The adrenal glands “steal” nutrients from other systems to make hormones, so keep your body fueled with a constant supply of good stuff.
– Establish a regular sleep cycle that provides you with plenty of rest. Make sleep a priority in your life, as this will help regulate normal cortisol levels.
– If you cannot get enough sleep (you are working two jobs, you’re in school full time, you have a newborn baby, etc.), find what little bits of time you can throughout the day to rest, even if that means practicing some deep breathing in a quiet room. Regular stress relief techniques in a busy life can go a long way to protecting your health.
– Get control of your caffeine and/or sugar intake. If you can enjoy a cup of coffee here and there, or ice cream with the family once a week, you’re probably fine. But if you rely on these things to get you going in the morning or for pick-me-ups throughout the day, know that this is affecting your body’s ability to regulate cortisol naturally.
– Regular exercise is natural stress relief, but particularly with CrossFitters, you must be careful to not overdo it. If you are tired, you’ve had a long busy week and are just dragging mentally and physically, TAKE A BREAK FROM THE WOD. This is your body telling you it needs rest and recovery. Remember the part above about protein synthesis being down graded if cortisol is high? If you are stressed but insist on a grueling workout, your muscles are being broken down in the workout without the ability to repair themselves and get stronger. Listen to your body. It is okay to rest.
– If you know you need rest but hate the thought of not exercising one day, allow yourself to do yoga, go for a walk or leisurely bike ride. You will still get the exercised-induced feel-good effect, burn a few calories, all while giving your body a break from intensity and letting it heal.

Modern life is an amazing blessing, and we have the opportunity to get everything out of it that we want. But in that pursuit, we must be conscious of maintaining balance. Balancing our health with good nutrition and exercise, but also balancing our busy lives with the rest we need to maintain our healthy lifestyle. Sometimes that simply means to slow down more, count our blessings, and just breathe. Your body will thank you for it!


  1. Good post! No wonder my Fran time wasn’t as quick as it should have been last Friday. I definitely need to sleep some more

  2. I usually enjoy a cup of coffee every morning; whether it’s a Monday or a Saturday; are you saying that drinking a cup of coffee (sometimes two) a day is a bad thing? I would like to point out I drink a dark roast coffee with nothing in it.

    Also, you mention deep breathing and stress relief techniques; what are some other stress relief techniques; ones that can preferable be used at the office or done in a conference room.


    • Hi Pete – great questions! Coffee isn’t inherently bad, and even has some health benefits. But a dependence on coffee is where the problems begin. If you skipped coffee tomorrow morning, would you be able to wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day? If so, then enjoy your coffee! But if you rely on coffee to do this for you, then your adrenals are already hurting. Coffee is a stimulant, and if used regularly, causes your adrenals to lose the ability to produce cortisol on their own. Cortisol is the hormone that is responsible for waking you up in the morning, so when you rely on caffeine, your body loses the ability to produce cortisol at that time of day, which is one form of disregulation. So, do a little experiment, and skip your coffee tomorrow morning, and see how your day gets started.

      As for stress relieving techniques – it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Take a break, listen to some music you love, read a few pages from a book you enjoy, go outside and get some sunshine and fresh air, make a list of 5 things for which you are thankful, do some neck rolls and light stretching. These are just simple things to get you in the moment and away from the stresses of life.

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