Health Vs. Performance (Nutrition): Under Fueling, Stress, and Recovery

by Evan Peikon
Before we get started I’m going to throw out the caveat that this will be a long winded article so bear with me. In this article i’ll cover nutritional mistake most Mixed Modal Athletes are probably making and how to correct them. Ill also cover how nutritional profiles should differ for those seeking health vs performance, and how supplements should be implemented for performance/ recovery. Ill also go into “other considerations” and extended applications for the knowledge in this article at the end.

*Note that no two bodies react the same to anything. Because of this the suggestions in this article are just that. Suggestions. I cannot, nor can anyone else tell you exactly how something will effect your body. Because of that you should take said suggestions in this article and use them as either reference or starting points. From there you can tinker and find what works for you.

Adrenal Stress, Cortisol Dysregulation and the 9th Ring of Hell
If theres one thing I’ve learned thus far on my journey to becoming a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition practitioner it is that “Stress is Stress”. Ground breaking stuff right? In all seriousness though, this has major implications that you’d be a fool not to consider.

We’ll begin with this analogy (bear with me)…
Imagine your bodies adaptive stress reserve is like a giant glass. Any form of stress you have gets put into that glass (training, poor sleep, work stress etc). Meanwhile that glass is half full (I’m an optimist…).  At this point you don’t notice anything that is particularly “wrong” with your body, but there is probably some minor dysfunction somewhere.
Now suddenly you start having problems at work, your sleep if suffering and as a side effect your training is going to shit. Stress is just raining down from all sides.
Now the glass is full and begin to spill over the sides.
At this point your adaptive stress reserve is gone, and things start to do downhill (ie- shit hits the fan).
So what exactly happens you ask? Well ill give a quick primer on Adrenal Stress to demonstrate…

*Note- There are actual lab values associated with each phase of adrenal dysfunction, but that is way beyond the scope of this article. If your interested in the details though feel free to shoot me an email, or you can check out my recommended textbook on Human Physiology (I’m not sponsored by or affiliated with Pearson textbooks in any way). Also note that we will be offering Adrenal Stress tests via our Functional Diagnostic Nutrition consulting page shortly. 

Our focus here is on Pregnenalone, DHEA, and Cortisol as discussed below

Phase I Adrenal Dysfunction
During phase I adrenal dysfunction daily cortisol output is elevated. The phase can last many years, and those suffering may be asymptomatic depending on genetic potential (though most will suffer from energy, sleep, mood, or weight issues). During this phase DHEA also trends low due to the fast that pregnenalone is becoming cortisol instead of DHEA (that was incredibly generalized, but for the sake of the article it will suffice). Ie- A pregnenalone steal occurs.

Phase II Adrenal Dysfunction
During this phase DHEA is still trending low, but cortisol output will also begin to decrease (cortisol may be within reference range during this phase). This is due to the adaptive reserve we discussed earlier being depleted. Unlike those in phase I, those suffering from phase II adrenal dysfunction will experience symptoms (blood sugar issues, chronic stress, tired in the AM, wired in the PM).

Phase III Adrenal Dysfunction
During phase III DHEA levels are borderline tanked, and total cortisol output is very low. At this point the bodies adaptive reserve is almost gone and the client needs immediate medical attention.

That Being Said, what causes Adrenal Dysfunction (as it relates to Mixed Modal Athletes)?
And how can I prevent/ fix it?
So after reading the above examples you may think adrenal dysfunction isn’t that big of an issue for every day people. That line of though couldn’t be more wrong though. Adrenal dysfunction is a real issue and is more prevalent in our sport that you can possibly imagine.

The Causes
As discussed in our interview with Mike Kesthely, two of the biggest causes are too little carbs as well as sleep. However i’d like to add too little fat intake, improper programming, and displaced life stress to the list as well.

The Fixes
To start athletes need to add in the correct amount of clean carbs as thats one of the biggest factors. In a predominantly glycolytic sport, low carb means increased gluconeogenesis. Which will cause an increase in cortisol as well (once again, the physiological process stated was oversimplified for the sake of the article).
In regards to fats those are needed for hormone production (need I add more?).
As for sleep, 8 hours should be a minimum with 9-10 being the gold standard for recovery. And in regards to programming, typical “main site” type programming should be avoided at all costs with the majority of training coming from CP (strength) work and lower intensity Zone 1 recovery work (until adrenals are fixed).
The last fix would be to manage life stress. Control what you can, and don’t stress over what you can’t. Your body interprets this stress the same way it would any other regardless of the threat (or lack thereof) it imposes on you (so why let it get to you?).

*Supplementation with exogenous hormones/ hormone precursors is also an option, but should not be used without the over site of a physician or Functional Diagnostic Practitioner due to the inherent risk. 

Health (& Longevity) Vs. Performance
To start ill say that your daily nutrition should not only reflect your goals, but also your training.
I cannot stress the following enough… If you do high intensity training in ANY capacity, your nutrition MUST reflect that. This seems like obvious advice, but if everyone followed that advice adrenal dysfunction wouldn’t be as big an issue in our sport. If you want to eat low carb, do intermittent fasting, carb backloading (or whatever is popular these days) then your training should reflect that.

I think Marcus Filly’s wrote from our recent interview says it better than I ever could…
“The next immediate step in the journey is finding a balance between optimal health and performance. I’ve learned from my coach and through experience that you cannot have both. Optimal health doesn’t mean doing triples 5 days a week. For me optimal performance doesn’t mean training once a day and eating a diet of zero sugars. But a balance of the two during this off-season time of year is important. Having a stretch of time when the body feels good and performs well is important for longevity. “

So what is balance?
Balance is different for everyone, but you need to be real with yourself when deciding. My advice is to figure out what your goals and values are first and go from there.

Supplements for Recovery & Performance (Relative to Mixed Modal Sport)
Before delving into supplements i’d like to point something out. NO supplement research has ever been conducted in relation to our sport. The majority of research was either done on endurance athletes, strength athletes, or “college aged” males. Knowing what we know now about how the body works, we began questioning whether or not this research can intact be extrapolated to Mixed Modal Sport. We don’t have the answer to this question, nor do we claim to. All I’m saying here is that its something that should be considered when reading the research (due to the numerous variables that aren’t controlled for a large percentage of research becomes bunk when trying to extrapolate it as well).

That being said, how can you determine what research is valid?

Well, thanks to this blog post by Mike Kesthely I was introduced to the Examine supplement guide. This thing will literally save you hours of digging through research, and is definitely worth the price (Trust me. Ive already wasted all the hours on my own and wish I could have paid $40.00 to save me all that time).

Besides learning a ton of new information from the examine guide, one of the best parts was confirming what I already knew in some aspects. Mainly in relation to supplements I’ve been taking/ recommending. Most notably Whey, Dextrose, Citrulline, Creatine, Beta-Alanine and BCAAs.
For our complete recommendations on supplements for recovery you can check out our article on PWO Nutrition for Mixed Modal Athletes. 

Other Considerations for PWO Nutrition
When assessing a supplements effect on recovery, you must first define recovery.
To keep things simple we can break recovery into three distinct types. CNS recovery, Muscular Recovery and Mental Acuity. You can create a 1-10 scale based on self made standardized norms for your body. After 2 weeks of tracking without supplements you can then begin to tinker, and track changes in recovery as you try new things.
After doing this I personally realized a few things. First higher % effort MAP sessions tanked me HRV if I didn’t get enough carbs in the PWO window. I also noticed that my mental acuity was very poor when insufficient sugars were taken in after lactate work. However, PWO nutrition seemed to have no effect on muscular recovery or soreness for me. Which goes to show how individual variance is a large variable that must be taken into account when dealing with supplementation.

Other Considerations, Implications, & Applications
This last piece to the article is meant to create internal dialogue around some open ended statements/questions (ie-talking points) opposed to giving off straight facts. These are things that have rattled around in my head for some time and are actually what made me wright this article in the first place. They’ve stemmed more thought trails than I’ve written about here, but those are for another time and place (maybe a part 2?).

1. Can you reach optimal levels of performance and health simultaneously?
I don’t know the answer to this.  But as we’ve already discussed in this article, I think its possible to create a form of balance. However, I don’t think Its reasonable to have perfect health, while also being a top level performer. I also think other factors must be pushed onto the back burner in order to balance health and performance (think social life, “me” time etc).

2. Health =/= Performance.
I think this one is VERY important for a few reasons. The main one being our perception around performance as a marker of health. A big assumption that many make is that they are healthy, and that they know this because their performance continues to get better in all aspects. The problem here is that performance is not indicative of internal health in any way. The athlete in question may be in phase I adrenal dysfunction for years and still be a top level performer DESPITE of that. Which also raises the question of how much better they may be if they were “healthy” from a hormonal standpoint.

3. Increasing Calories (and Carbs) doesn’t always equate to Weight gain.
This one has an obvious caveat that in a majority of cases it will intact equate to weight gain. But what I’m talking about here is in relation to the hard charging athletes that under carb and under fuel on a regular basis. Many are scared that if they start properly fueling their bodies they’ll gain fat, lose their abs etc. However, the effect of proper fueling may just be that they recover better, gain strength quicker, and increase their fitness. Obviously this depends on a lot of other hormonal factors and the individual, but I’m just raising the point that it isn’t a black or white scenario.

4. Muscle Gain Can Happen While Under Eating.
Before all the Bro-Scientists start sending me hate mail, just hear me out.
Gains in lean mass (muscle) are influenced by more factors than just a caloric surplus and heavy lifting (contrary to what is usually prescribed). Some of the biggest influential factors are Cortisol to DHEA ratio, Sleep, Stress, Age, Training, and more. Im not saying a caloric surplus doesn’t help/ contribute greatly, because it does. What I am saying is that it isn’t the sole determining factor (also note that the caloric surplus may in fact lead to a favorable hormonal state…hmm).

So whats my point in bringing this up?
Well, many athletes who are currently under fueling may be tricked into believing otherwise since they are still gaining muscle. If your operating under the assumption that an increase in lean mass is only possible with a caloric surplus, then you will most likely believe that your fueling appropriately. Ergo, knowing that this isn’t always the case you can reassess where your at and move forward from there.

5. Incremental Normalcy
This one isn’t a though provoker, it is simply a guideline for moving forward from here on out.
If you believe your under fueling by say 800 calories or 150g of carbs a day, don’t add all them back in at once. A better game plan would be to add say 200-300 back in for a week or two, establish a new baseline and go from there. The idea here being that you work your way up in small increments establishing a new “normal” level along the way (ie- incremental normalcy).

*Also note that none of the information here is the end all be all. There so much more that goes into all of this than can ever be explained in an article (or even a series of articles). Because of this, you need to experiment for yourself and figure out how your own body operates. We can’t tell you what is “right” for you, but we can help. If you have any questions, comments or concerns email me at with the subject line “Health vs Performance”. 


One thought on “Health Vs. Performance (Nutrition): Under Fueling, Stress, and Recovery

  1. Great report on the importance of adrenal hormones in exercise workouts and muscle gaining. Too many muscle building programs and courses completely ignore the vital role of adrenal hormones in bodybuilding, or only pay it cursory attention. I’m glad to see a scientific explanation of how things work in concert.

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