Medically reviewed by Ioana Bina, MD, PhD
Marathons are usually quite boring to watch: a few pacers keep the tempo high during the first half and slowly but surely runners drop out of the front until one person enters the final stretch and crosses the finish. Yesterday was not just different, it was legendary.
Obliterating the all-star field, Sifan Hassan was on another planet. As if she could tie her shoelaces mid-race, walk into a cinema to watch a movie, offer a cup of tea to her teammate, and then casually join the front runners as if nothing had happened.
This is the stuff dreams are made of and it didn’t just start in London. Here’s the story of a legend.
Stress affects the best of us, even Olympic champions. Sometimes, it’s helpful. Stress gives us the motivation to face threats head-on, after all. But that same stress can also turn against us — weighing on us mentally and physically. This is the story of how Sifan got started on her Cortisol journey.
You could say stress is a double-edged sword. And there isn’t a better example than what happened to Dutch runner Sifan Hassan at the Tokyo Olympics.
In 2021, Sifan ran six races in eight days — one of the most grueling schedules in Olympic history. Yet she managed to grab a gold medal in the 5,000-meter and the 10,000-meter races, and a bronze in the 1,500-meter race. In doing so, she became the only athlete in history to medal in all three events at the same Olympics.
But the road to those Olympic titles was far from easy. At one point, Sifan fell and almost saw her dreams of a gold medal disappear. But something happened that pushed her to win, against all odds. That’s why this isn’t simply the story of Sifan’s incredible triple-medal win. It’s also the story of stress, and how it drives us to succeed, no matter the pain.
Sifan Hassan’s Stressful Road to 3 Olympic Medals
During the brutally humid Tokyo Olympics, it seemed as if Sifan was unstoppable. While warming up during her first 5,000-meter heat, she tweaked a leg muscle, an injury that followed her throughout the Olympics. And still, she won the heat.
A few days later, she was ready for her next race: a 1,500-meter heat. However, during the final lap, the runner in front of her suddenly tripped. Sifan got knocked down, with 300 meters to go. With 11 Olympic athletes in front of her, qualifying for the semis seemed impossible. She had a huge gap to close as the field ran away from her. But she didn’t quit. She quickly got back up, sprinted back into the race, and started reeling them in. On the final straightaway, she passed five of the fastest runners in the world. And she didn’t just manage to qualify. She won the 1,500 heat in 4:05.17.
"Believe me, it was horrible, but sometimes I think bad things happen for good. When I fell down, I said to myself: OK, life doesn't always go the way that you want," she said. "After that, I felt like somebody who drank 20 cups of coffee. I couldn't calm myself down."
She then won her first gold medal at the 5,000-meter race that evening — making it one of the most memorable moments of the Tokyo Olympics.
Later that week, she ran the 1,500 race and scored a bronze medal with more meters under the legs than the other medalists together. It was a disappointing win, Sifan admits. But she didn’t let it defeat her. Sifan set her sights on her final race the next day: "At the medal ceremony, when I went back to my room, I knew there was something inside me. That was when I decided: I will die tomorrow. I will go to the end."
The next day came, and she was spent. Only 22 hours after her last race, she had to run the 10,000 meters. But she did it: She won her second gold Olympic medal.
Not just that, but in the final 100 meters of the race, she made a stunning sprint — covering the distance in 13.6 seconds. It was even quicker than the 13.9 seconds U.S. star Allyson Felix took to close the last 100 meters in her 400-meter race.
However, the stress of the past week had caught up with her. "Honestly, at that moment, I was just so happy to survive," Sifan said of her emotions that day. "I was really in pain, I was suffering so much, I was sweating very, very, very hard, all my face was burning, my hand was burning, all my body was burning … I thought I was going to pass out. In that moment, I didn't mind about gold, I just wanted to be alive and healthy."
It’s understandable. Sifan managed an incredible feat here. She won a 10,000-meter gold after racing six races in eight days amid brutal heat. And that includes a fall and a tweaked muscle. It’s no wonder she felt like passing out. In fact, that’s exactly where the double-edged sword of stress comes into play.
Cortisol’s Role in Athletic Performance
When we talk about stress, we’re also talking about the stress hormone, cortisol. Like stress, cortisol can be good. In fact, your body produces it daily to regulate your sleep-wake cycle, among other functions. It’s why levels peak every morning, helping you wake up, before dropping to a low around midnight.
Cortisol is also an essential part of your body’s flight-or-fight-or-freeze response. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body produces more cortisol to help you focus and react.
We can see that reflected in Sifan’s comments about her fall. In fact, according to Professor Maria Hopman, an expert in physiology: “Sifan's coffee remark ‘I felt like I had 20 cups of coffee,’ can be attributed to a combination of adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline wears off after a few minutes, but cortisol can stay elevated for hours, providing more focus and energy when at optimal levels. It is plausible that optimal cortisol levels contributed to her gold in the evening."
And then consider Sifan’s thoughts at the end of her race: “During the medal ceremony, I was thinking: 'It is over. Now you can sleep.'” Later in December, after receiving several athlete of the year awards, she said: “after the Olympics I slept for three months straight.”
Well, chronic stress has been linked to fatigue. We can’t say that’s what happened for certain, but we can say one thing: Sifan doesn’t want to go through that again. As she told Pardigm: “For the Paris Olympics, I'm looking for a new method to positively control stress."
All of that and more is why Sifan started testing her cortisol levels with Pardigm.com, a startup in beta in Silicon Valley that will soon allow saliva testing at the kitchen table. There are other solutions like ZRT Laboratory and EverlyWell but you’ll need to send your test kit to a lab.
Stress, and cortisol, can push athletes to do incredible things. In fact, studies show that optimal cortisol levels can significantly improve athletic performance. But too much stress can also start to work against you, leading to fatigue, fractures and even sickness.
That’s why recovery is so important for athletes. And that’s where real-time cortisol testing can help. In fact, in Sifan’s words: “Cortisol testing will help me win more gold in Paris 2024.”