Testosterone has long been believed to give competitors an edge in strength and endurance, but a new study says the contrary, suggesting that a surge of testosterone in competition produces no noticeable effect on performance success. Lead by Dr. David Edwards, a professor of psychology at Emory University, the researchers studied intercollegiate cross-country runners, finding that while testosterone levels did vary during competition, no physiological benefit occurred.
The researchers sought to investigate the relationship between hormones and performance outcomes in cross-country running. Analyzing saliva samples of the participants and finding that testosterone levels begin to rise while they warm-up, long before a winner or loser is determined. The authors used hormone level data of Emory sports teams extending back to 1999, taking saliva samples from members of the 2010 and 2011 varsity men’s and women’s cross-country teams. Each participant provided three buccal samples: one before warming up in order to serve as a baseline, one after warming up and a third immediately after finishing the race.
“Many people in the scientific literature and in popular culture link testosterone increases to winning. In this study, however, we found an increase in testosterone during a race regardless of the athletes’ finish time. In fact, one of the runners with the highest increases in testosterone finished with one of the slowest times,” said Kathleen Casto, graduate student and co-author of the study.
During the warm-up period, testosterone went up from the baseline for both men and women, while levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, remained relatively the same. Upon the end of the race, both men and women showed increases in cortisol in addition to surges in testosterone; however, the levels of surges in both hormones had no correlation to each person’s finish time.
A psychological edge
Although short-term surges of testosterone in competition have been associated with winning, the authors believe that it may actually be an indication of a psychological strength that makes them more likely to win. One’s ability to reduce stress was found to be associated with higher levels of testosterone, leading to lower cortisol (which breaks down muscle and causes fatigue). While higher baseline levels of testosterone have been attributed to long-term strength and power gains, there has been no noticeable effect in the short term.
Since cortisol and testosterone are inversely related, stress and foods that release cortisol (i.e., coffee) can lead to lower testosterone levels and thus reduced strength and endurance in the long term. Exercising and learning how to mitigate stress are critical to minimizing cortisol and maximizing testosterone levels.
High testosterone levels have been found to actually reduce stress. A study published in The Journal of Physiology on male guinea pigs found that high levels of stress resulted in elevated levels of cortisol, lower testosterone and increased anxious behavior. When the guinea pigs were given testosterone replacement therapy, their anxiety behaviors dissipated almost completely.
At White River Academy, we are mindful of the effects of hormones such as testosterone and cortisol on the withdrawal process and recovery, incorporating weight training and fitness classes into our daily activities. Taking advantage of the surrounding landscape, we also provide our students with stress-relieving therapeutic activities, including canyoneering, hiking, rock climbing and river rafting. If you would like more information regarding our male boarding school White River Academy or our approach to reducing cortisol and stress levels, feel free to contact our 24/7 helpline.