The sex hormone testosterone plays a vital role in both males and females, promoting bone and muscle growth, sex drive, overall well being, and warfare. Moderate exercise, reduction in body fat, and healthy eating increase testosterone levels in the general public, though hard training—the kind that is necessary for competing at a high level in endurance sports—can use up testosterone at an alarming rate.
Signs that your testosterone may be low, either for men or women, include the following:
- Decreased libedo;
- Delayed recovery;
- Brain fog;
- Constantly getting sick; and
- Erectile dysfunction in men.
A simple blood test will confirm or deny your suspicions regarding testosterone. A serum testosterone level (for men) below 300 ng/dL is low. The normal range is around 300 to 1,000 ng/dL for males. However, many male elite athletes have levels at or below 300 due to strenuous training, so a “low” serum level of 270 ng/dL, for example, may in fact be normal and unavoidable given your training regimen. For women, the serum testosterone range is much lower: 15 to 70 ng/dL, though a high volume of training can have the same effect on women—reduced testosterone levels causing fatigue and improper recovery.
How Athletes Can Naturally Increase Their Testosterone Levels
Unlike the general population, trained athletes with low testosterone may need to increase their body fat and cut back on exercise in order for their testosterone levels to improve. Before you go on a Big Mac diet, it is important to make a distinction between low body fat and body fat that is too low. For men, staying below six or seven percent for long periods of time may be harmful on their testosterone levels, while for females that number is higher at 12 or 13 percent. At this very low body fat percentage, women no longer get their periods, which can be a good indicator to pay attention to. If you go without your period for long periods of time, you may benefit from an increased body fat percentage, at least during certain periods of the season.
Resting is probably a more impactful way of getting your testosterone levels back on track, as being overly lean is less common than simply pushing too hard for too long. Additionally, and strangely enough, having low testosterone due to overtraining can actually cause an increase in body fat, so just because you don’t have a six pack doesn’t mean that your testosterone levels are fine and dandy. Moreover, it can take months for testosterone levels to show a marked improvement, so don’t expect things to turn around with a week of rest. It may take two, three, or six months or more if you are chronically overtrained. Most athletes never suffer from this degree of overtraining or chronically low testosterone, however, so taking many months off or easy probably isn’t necessary.
Getting enough sleep is critical for recovery and testosterone replenishment. Testosterone levels increase during sleep, and peak during the REM cycle and right before you wake up. If you are only getting six hours of sleep a night, your testosterone stores, and overall recovery, are taking a hit. Eight to nine hours of sleep per night is ideal. Getting enough sleep cannot be overstated enough when it comes to performance and recovery, and may be the most essential element to success in triathlon training.
Your Diet Matters
A diet high in monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil), fruit, and vegetables can lead to improved testosterone levels. Polyunsaturated fats comprised of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids (such as corn oil, soybean oil, Canola oil, or “vegetable” oil) have a negative effect on testosterone levels, while polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood may increase testosterone levels. Another food that studies have shown may increase testosterone levels is the white button mushroom. Researchers found that mushroom extract from white buttons (the cheapest mushrooms at the grocery store, conveniently) decreased human placental aromatase by 50 percent. What does this mean? Aromatase is an enzyme that converts the hormone androgen into estrogen. The theory is that by blocking the aromatase enzyme, estrogen levels decrease while testosterone levels increase.
Bullet Point Summary of How to Increase Your Testosterone
- Take a longer off season (four weeks or more);
- Incorporate rest days into your week;
- Decrease training volume and intensity for at least a few weeks, if not a few months;
- Get more sleep. Eight to nine hours (or more) is best;
- Increase your body fat, but only if it is very low (less than seven percent for men and 13 percent for women);
- Eat more fruits and vegetables;
- Decrease consumption of polyunsaturated omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids;
- Increase consumption of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats; and
- Regularly incorporate white button mushrooms into your diet.
Remember, low testosterone is a normal and somewhat expected result of hard endurance training, so having a low testosterone serum level may be unavoidable, particularly during the race season. Use the methods above to support your recovery and training, and to, hopefully, bump your testosterone levels up a few percentage points, which is probably all that is realistic.
Testosterone Replacement is Almost Never Allowed in Sport
Synthetic testosterone is one of, if not the single most, abused performance enhancing drug (PED) in sport. Its anabolic effects allow athletes to train harder for longer without getting sick or overtrained, increases muscle mass, and decreases body fat. As such, age groupers and professionals alike violate the rules by injecting themselves or being injected with testosterone by their physicians.
In this age of “anti-aging” medicine, doctors are quick to write a prescription for testosterone replacement after a single testosterone serum level test that reads below 300 or 400 ng/dL in men. Women also take testosterone replacement for performance enhancing benefits. While a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) can be filed with USADA (the U.S. Anti Doping Administration) allowing athletes to legally take testosterone and still compete, it is very rare to have an androgen deficiency due to an “organic disorder,” which is the criteria for having a testosterone TUE. Low testosterone caused by a “functional disorder” is much more common. Doctors prescribe testosterone in the general public because testosterone levels have fallen off due to age, emotional or psychological stress, obesity, previous testosterone use or abuse, or other “functional disorders.”
A physician may misinterpret an athlete’s low testosterone levels as a health complication and prescribe them testosterone, when in fact their testosterone levels are low due to their training volume—a normal symptom of hard training. Only male athletes with hyperandrogenism (medially low levels of testosterone) caused by “organic” deficiencies are allowed testosteron TUEs for competing in triathlon or other sports. Female athletes cannot get a TUE for testosterone at all. These “organic” deficiencies are exceedingly rare, but include genetic abnormalities, developmental abnormalities, testicular trauma, bilateral orchiectomy, testicular torsion, orchitis, radiation treatment or chemotherapy, genetic abnormalities of pituitary and hypothalamus, pituitary or hypothalamic tumors, and other anatomical (structural), destructive and infiltrative disorders of the pituitary or hypothalamus. Intensive testing must be performed to get a TUE for testosterone, including an MRI of the pituitary gland and other tests.
Be The Beast’s Stance on Performance Enhancing Drugs
Whether you are 70 years old and competing in your first sprint triathlon or you are a seasoned 30-year-old who places in the top of his or her age group at Ironman events, you are violating the rules by using testosterone without having a valid TUE from USADA. Unless an athlete has a TUE for whatever medication they are on, they are cheating others and breaking the rules. As such, the triathlon coaches at Be The Beast Coaching have a strict policy for our athletes: zero controlled or banned substances unless the athlete has a TUE for that substance. A TUE should not be confused with a prescription from a general practitioner, “anti aging” doctor, or endocrinologist. For more information about TUEs, visit USADA’s FAQ website regarding TUEs.
Below, famed doping coach Alberto Salazar, finally caught and given a four year ban for doping his athletes with everything from testosterone to L-carnatine-infused monkey brain.