Have you ever watched the Olympics, and amid the colorful pageantry and breathless TV broadcasters, found yourself in simple awe of the human body?
The Olympic Games are where the world’s elite athletes gather to compete. There, audiences have the rare opportunity to witness just how far humans can push themselves. Some athletes have propelled their bodies, unaided, over 8 feet (245 cm) in the air. Others have run 26 miles in just over two hours. Another can even twist her body into a triple-double while suspended in the air for just 1.8 seconds.
After witnessing those types of feats, you may wonder: What does that extreme activity do to your body?
After all, these performances put competitors under tremendous stress. Knowing that, Pardigm.com measured the cortisol rhythm of elite athletes during the USA Track & Field Cross-Country Championships in San Diego in January 2022.
And the results were surprising.
Stress’ Role During a Cross-Country Championship
As we reported in January, Olympian Shadrack Kipchirchir — who holds the fourth-fastest time in the U.S. 10,000-meter run — injured himself in 2021. It kept him from making his second Olympic team.
But in January 2022, he came back with a bang … winning the first competition he’d entered in 294 days, the USA Track & Field Cross-Country Championships.
We wanted to help Shadrack understand how the stress of competition affected his body, so we set him up with Pardigm’s rapid cortisol test during his race week.
Cortisol is your main stress hormone, and you produce it daily as part of your normal hormone rhythm. The average person’s level typically peaks about 30 mins after waking up, preparing them to face the day. Then it steadily declines to its lowest level in the middle of the night. This rhythm helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, with higher levels keeping you alert during the day and lower levels helping you fall asleep at night. Cortisol also helps manage your glucose, metabolism and more throughout the day.
Of course, this hormone also plays a key role in your stress response. During stressful events (be them mental or physical), your body floods cortisol into your bloodstream, giving you the energy to help you survive.
Ultimately, cortisol plays a vital part in our everyday lives. But it’s particularly important for athletes to watch. After all, one study found that an increase in cortisol prior to a competition may impact athletic performance significantly. Cortisol rhythm imbalances can also lead to muscle soreness, slow recovery and fatigue.
Inside the Body Chemistry of an Elite Athlete
With that in mind, we went to work establishing Shadrack’s baseline cortisol rhythm. This baseline would let us understand Shadrack’s average cortisol rhythm and note any outlier stress levels during competition.
This is critical. We can’t compare his cortisol levels to some general cortisol average because … that doesn’t exist. There is no single universal stress rhythm we should all be shooting for. Your average cortisol rhythm will differ from that of your friend, your coworker or even your parents. Everyone’s baseline is different, depending on their sleep-wake cycle, exercise regimen, diet, overall health and more. So it’s critical to understand your body’s typical daily production before finding any insights in your scores.
We found Shadrack’s baseline by measuring his levels five times on January 6. Then, once we established that, we used Pardigm’s rapid cortisol test to measure his stress levels the day before, the day of and the day after the big race. We tested in the early morning and then in the evening.
Here’s what we saw…
The first chart shows Shadrack’s baseline, with five measurements taken on January 6.
In the next chart, we see Shadrack’s morning and evening measurements from January 5 to 10, around race day.
Finally, we see Shadrack’s morning measurements for January and February. Morning measurements reflect the CAR (cortisol awakening response) at wake-up time.
As you can see, Shadrack’s chart tracks his cortisol rhythm (ranging from 0 to 30 ng/ml) from January 5 to February 9, 2022. The race itself was on January 8.
His baseline on January 6 shows that his scores are prone to extremes. While there is no average cortisol rhythm, we know that non-athletes typically stay low, often under 6. Shadrack scored 24.8 at his peak, and he saw another jump later in the day to around 12.4, when his cortisol levels should have been declining.
With all of that in mind, let’s discuss some of his scores.
1. On January 6, half an hour after waking up, his cortisol was extremely high at 24.8. We can hypothesize that he was stressed, particularly when compared to the rest of his scores throughout the week. So the first step is to investigate why. We first ruled out physical stress because Shadrack’s training load was low in the days right before competition. He was tapering.
However, we know that this was Shadrack’s first competition in 294 days. We also know of a few other stresses on his mind. Our experts hypothesize that this score exemplifies how mental stress affects body chemistry.
It’s worth noting that a level of 24.8 would be concerning for an average individual, but only if it didn’t come down quickly. And remember: Shadrack is a pro-athlete. Their levels can reach extreme ups and downs.
2. January 8 at 8 p.m. was extremely low at around 0.2, despite it being the day of the race. During a race, you’re tearing muscle tissue, a clear form of physical stress that should raise your cortisol level.
However, his score was incredibly low at 8:30 p.m., after the 1 p.m. race that he won. That measurement could be an inaccurate reading, but if it’s not, our experts suggest one hypothesis: It's similar to levels seen in people experiencing burnout. It’s likely that the massive exertion of the race exhausted his body for a few hours.
3. January 9, taken at wake-up, was extremely high at 29.7. Finally, the morning after the race we saw another noteworthy score. His cortisol levels were back to extreme highs. That is noteworthy because he won. After all that hard work and recovery, he’d won his first race in about 10 months. His mental stress should have subsided a bit.
Our experts hypothesize that his body was catching up with the muscle inflammation. He was recovering from the physical shock to his body, from the muscle damage, and that resulted in a cortisol spike.
It’s critical to understand your cortisol baseline in order to know how much stress you’re under and when to intervene.
Without Shadrack’s baseline rhythm, his single scores wouldn’t mean much. Shadrack’s baseline allowed us to pinpoint noteworthy scores and investigate the reasons behind them. He can now incorporate this knowledge into his future training and recovery regimens with the goal of improving results.
Now, as Shadrack continues to track his trendline day by day, he can understand when to push harder and when to rest. That’s vital for any athlete’s success, helping them both physically and mentally.
If you’re looking to join Shadrack in controlling your cortisol and taking your performance to the next level, request access to Pardigm.com's rapid cortisol test.
Disclaimer: These measurements are based on one individual only, without a proper clinical trial. With n=1, we hesitate to generalize any findings. However, we thought it would provide interesting food for thought and further analysis.
Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at Pardigm.com, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know here.