Bjj Overtraining, Cortisol & Sleep

Articles/Studies Referenced: 20+
Read time: 5 mins

You don’t have to look far to find discussions around the impact of intense BJJ training on sleep. Having bounced between forums here, here and hereand finding no well-referenced article, I decided to pull together my own short summary of why I think it happens to me, and what has helped.  TLDR; Carbs, Vitamin C, Cold /Heat Therapy, Magnesium.

While it could be other hormones, the residual pain of training, or bad diet, I think the main cause is prolonged cortisol elevation. If you disagree, please send me a detailed, referenced response so I can learn why I’m wrong.

Update: Discussion on Reddit here . I have removed references(2,4) to Dr Mercola as he seems to be widely discredited and updated my BCAA reference. Rob Wolf, a 44 yr old blue belt also has a good post on how he addresses nutrition here “post workout carb feed can be anywhere from 50-200g of carbs”. George Lockhart, Conor McGregor’s nutrition adviser discusses carb cycling here.

What should my cortisol levels be doing?

Dr Donielle Wilson says; “We don’t want our cortisol to be low all day long; just at night when we sleep. In the morning we want cortisol levels to be high, waking us up and giving us the energy to get through the day. Cortisol production should gradually decrease through the day, until it reaches its lowest levels late in the evening, when you are ready for bed.”1

What has happened to me, I believe, is that by training moderate to hard for 90+ minutes, my cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods afterwards. But how long?

“The half life of cortisol is hours, and high cortisol means high energy and low melatonin, the sleep hormone.” according to Ben Greenfield.3

 

Why is this happening?

 

According to Chris Kresser, “Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.”5

In a study of runners who had functionally over-reached (F-OR), sleep disturbances were observed. This study confirms sleep disturbances and increased illness in endurance athletes who present with symptoms of F-OR during periods of high volume training”6

Elevated cortisol can disturb sleep, and lack of sleep can cause elevated levels of cortisol, causing a negative feedback loop.7

Mark Sisson states that ; “Lack of sleep increases cortisol production, an excess of which increases body fat and eats lean mass.”….”these symptoms are all interconnected and essentially inseparable from each other. They either pop up in pairs, or in an incestuous orgy of systemic inflammation, poor sleep, bad diet, chronic stress, and excess exercise.”8

Recovery periods vary among people, and get longer as you get older.

 

In one of Kurt Osianders videos he refers to the fact that he can no longer train hard every day. (apologies, I can’t remember which one)9

This ties in with the idea that if you want to push hard for longer, you need to take more time off afterwards. For me, a 90 minute ‘burnout’ session can sometimes need 2-3 days off.

“High intensity, high stress exercise should be limited to two or three times a week, “ Kresser.10

 

What can I do?

 

 

If it is a long session, I now try to focus on technique and worry less about getting tapped (easier said than done). Keeping my body in an aerobic state longer helps me prevent Chronic Cardio. If the sparring goes on a long while, I will try going round on and round off. If it has to be long and heavy,  I take carbs and vitamins before, and days off after. Some of these resources to support this theory below refer to heavy weights training. Both types of training put a strain on the anaerobic system which I believe causes many of the problems with sleep. Again, open to another interpretation of this if someone has one. Here are some specific remedies with references:

 

Study References

  1. BCAA’s – Some dispute over the efficacy of BCAA’s which are discussed here. An alternative article noting potential benefits can be found here.“BCAA’s have been used for recovery extensively. Exercise recovery and the degradation of proteins are reduced with the use of BCAA’s and especially leucine.”11
  2. Vitamin C – before and after. “Multiple studies have found out that vitamin C supplementation after exercise rapidly clears cortisol and enhances recovery (study, study, study).”  12
  3. Carbs – If you have to train hard for more than 60 minutes, consider carbs before and after. Chris Kresser says “a combination of overtraining and low-carb eating can actually raise cortisol significantly and negatively impact immune function. “13 Elevated cortisol levels lead to a perpetual catabolic state where muscle is broken down, and fat is stored.  These effects are exacerbated when an athlete is depleted of carbohydrates. Supplying adequate carbohydrates during training protects against elevated cortisol levels.”    14
  4.  Cold Therapy – pain alleviation before bed “The frequent increase in norepinephrine might have a role in pain alleviation in whole-body cryotherapy and winter swimming “15 , 16
  5. Ashwangada (indian ginseng)17 , 18
  6. Magnesium  ( generally deficient in people – Magnesium citrate seems to be more easily absorbed than oxide)19
  7. Sauna One study demonstrated that men that stayed in the sauna that was heated to 80°C (176°F) until subjective exhaustion increased norepinephrine by 310%, had a 10-fold increase in prolactin, and actually modestly decreased cortisol.Study Ref

 

Best fighter nutrition links?

Rob Wolf, a 44 yr old blue belt also has a good post on how he addresses nutrition for BJJ here. George Lockhart, Conor McGregors nutrition adviser discusses carb cycling here. My personal conclusion is that carbs are the key factor but it may be different for others.So that is it. Any feedback, rebuttals or further references always welcome. Again this isn’t medical advice and you should always seek a doctors advice when treating yourself.

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