The Harder You Train, The Harder You Fall

Adrenal Fatigue: what it is and what to do!

Seiji Ishii

Ahh, springtime. The snow begins to melt, the air begins to warm and cyclists everywhere fall into the same age-old pattern: with spirits buoyed by nicer weather and eager to test the base they’ve built up during the winter they begin riding harder, longer and more often.

A few of these cyclists will allow themselves proper recovery. Far more of them will wind up skimping on recovery time to meet family commitments or to make up work. Their fatigue levels will remain constantly high and the gains they make in training will be negligible. Drawn in by the seductive “more is better” school of training thought, these tired cyclists will try to do all the same things they did before the rise in training volume or intensity. In the process, they will fail to take into account the many types of stress placed upon them and possibly subject their bodies to what is known clinically as adrenal failure or adrenal burnout.

Adrenal what?

So, just what is adrenal failure? To fully appreciate how devastating it can be if your adrenal glands fail or burn out, you must first understand how much these glands do when they are functioning properly.

Your adrenal glands are each roughly the size of a walnut and are perched on top of your kidneys. These tiny glands are charged with the monumental task of responding to stress through the secretion of hormones. The wide-ranging effects of the adrenal hormones cannot be overstated: they affect carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, blood sugar regulation, fat storage, and cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function. They also play a part in the secretion of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones. Last, but certainly not least, they also serve as a source of sex hormones.

When they are functioning properly, your adrenal glands secrete tiny amounts of the steroidal hormones called cortisol and DHEA in response to stress—from any source. These hormones affect several physiological responses, including: blood sugar balance, blood pressure regulation and fluid balance, and anti-inflammatory and immunological responses. Under normal conditions, these responses to progressively increasing loads are how an athlete makes physical gains.

However, it is important to bear in mind that to your adrenals, stress is a zero-sum game. In other words, they can only handle so much. Nobody can say for certain how much stress is too much stress, but always remember that there is a limit for everyone and that your adrenal glands respond to stress from your job or other sources in the same way they respond to stress from a long ride. If your glands are continually bombarded by stress from a myriad of sources and proper recovery is not achieved, they will reach their limit and no longer be able to respond normally. You will begin to suffer from the classic symptoms of overtraining and your season will screech, lurch, or sputter to a halt.

Yikes! What to do?

So what can you do to avoid adrenal burnout and its many negative consequences? Though often overlooked, the solution is miraculously simple: balance recovery against all forms of stress.

By now, most of us know that the basic structure of a progressive training program is stress, followed by recovery and a resulting gain in the amount of stress the body can tolerate. Yet despite the fact that many athletes acknowledge this pattern with respect to physical stress, far too many athletes overlook it with respect to the other types of stress that exist in their lives – emotional, mental, dietary and immunological stresses, to name a few. These other types of stress must be met with recovery time just as you would do for physical stress.

How do you go about this? At a minimum, you should be aware of the many different sources of stress in your life and attempt to compensate with some form of recovery. Renowned coach Rick Crawford created a Stress Score system to account for various forms of stress and recovery and the relative stress vs. recovery balance the athlete is carrying. Crawford has coached such notables as Lance Armstrong and has used this type of stress logging on current superstars like Tom Danielson, Levi Leipheimer and Chann McRae with excellent results. (see example at the end of this article)

Crawford divides stress into three broad categories: Physical, Mental, and Emotional. Each type of stress is given points and is logged just like time in heart rate zones. Crawford then assigns recovery points to these categories: Sleep, Rest, and Therapy.. These scores for stress and recovery range from one to ten, with ten being the most stress or the most recovery. .At the end of the day, you “balance” your Stress Score by totaling the stress points and recovery points and notating the resulting stress or recovery point balance. As the training days wear on, you keep a running total of the stress vs. recovery balance so that you are armed with a “real time” Stress Score. Your goal is at the end of each mesocycle you “reconcile” your Stress Score account by zeroing your running total. This is usually aided by a rest week at the end of the mesocycle to help you “deposit” recovery points. Whether you actually log these stress points and recovery points or whether you simply make a mental note of them, the key is to remember that your adrenal glands make no distinction between the various forms of stress. You must therefore do the same.

The bottom line

We have certainly all dreamed of doing nothing but training. Of days filled with wonderful miles in the saddle followed by great food and luxurious lounging to recover. We all know how great it would be to worry only about that one form of stress. But, alas, most of us live in a place called reality, where jobs, families, and checkbooks can all inundate our systems with stress to which the adrenals must respond. Be kind to the little guys and allow for proper recovery from all the forms of stress placed upon them. Your adrenals can then keep functioning normally and repay you with the proper physical responses to training which will ultimately result in a healthier, happier, and faster you.

-Joe Friel is the author of the newly revised Cyclist’s Training Bible. Seiji Ishii is a cycling and multisport coach operating out of Austin, TX and is a member of Friel’s Ultrafit. For more information on this article contact Seiji at or go to Rick Crawford can be contacted at

Example of Athlete Daily Stress Score Log


Physical (P) 7 Hard intervals in the wind (better than working though)

Mental (M) 2 Easy day at the office, skipped out after lunch!

Emotional (E) 7 Got all wound up at my coworkers for ratting me out!

Stress Total: 16


Sleep (S) 9 Slept like a log, dreamt about winning the Giro.

Rest (R) 5 Not much at work but busy at home with errands until chow time

Therapy (T) 1 Not much, got to watch a little of the Giro on the tube

Recovery Total: 15

Daily Total: Stress 1

Running Total (add daily stress and recovery totals for a running “balance”): Stress 4

The athlete’s goal is to zero the running total by the end of each mesocycle.

-Coach Seiji Ishii

at Tuesday, July 10, 2007  


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