Adrenal Fatigue, Coffee and Exercise: Finding Balance


I wiped out my adrenals first about five years ago. I had just started my new “real” job in the city, had a close to two-hour-each-way, stressful commute everyday, became hyperthyroid and wasn’t eating enough. Coffee was my crutch, and my one cup a day habit quickly morphed into a steady stream of java all day long, at least until 4pm.

When I learned about adrenal fatigue and first saw a naturopathic doctor that could do testing, my  cortisol levels were pretty much a straight line. My adrenals weren’t completely destroyed, but there was not dramatic rise in the morning and fall in the evening like there should be.  

After a long, long time (about 3 years) of trial and error, I finally got my energy levels back to perhaps 80% of what they should be, and I decided I to sign up for something that had always been on my bucket list as a runner: a half marathon.

I chose the Ocean City half that goes from Assateague Island to the inlet, a nice, flat run. Literally no hills except for the bridge when you cross from Assateague to the mainland.

I began my training, working up to  about an hour/hour and a half  everyday with long runs on Saturday. I didn’t follow a training plan, but I outlined the minimum number of miles I needed to do on my long runs to prepare.

As a type-A overachiever, I always did more. I overtrained, I didn’t take enough rest days. If I didn’t run one day, I felt guilty. And I still likely didn’t eat enough, but sugar, carbs and caffeine increased as I looked for ways to fuel my runs.

During the height of my runner’s highs I thought perhaps I’d actually train for a full marathon, and just use the half marathon race as practice. Two weeks before my half, I ran 18 miles on my  long run. I barely tapered before my race.

At this point, a runner might expect me to say I crashed during the race, or didn’t hit my goal. Actually, I beat my goal by 12 minutes, and gained speed during the last six miles, passing a hundred or so people. I could have started faster.

I took a minor, couple of days break from running and tried to get back at it.

But then something happened. I just couldn’t. I reached a point of physical and mental burnout and my body would literally not let me run.

I could barely walk.

What followed was about a year of adrenal exhaustion and exercise intolerance. I knew running was not what my body needed, so I began to weight train to keep lean muscle mass, and switched to just walking. Some days, my 20 minute morning walk would leave me exhausted.  

I knew coffee was playing a part, so I limited myself to one travel-size mug during the week and tried to stop drinking it by 2pm, 3 at the latest.

Insomnia had also been playing a huge part and I finally made some progress on getting sleep. I’ll cover that in another post.

Somewhere during this I switched to the Paleo diet, upped my fat intake and upped my protein intake. My body loved this.  

First, a miraculous thing happened to my brain. I started having moments of clarity. The fog was lifting. Not every day, and not all day, but it was happening.

Then, I found my body telling me I could start moving it more, but it was limited. I made gains in my weight training.  A few times in the past couple of months I tried running. Each time, I could go for a few minutes and then felt I needed to walk.

One of the worst things about trying to balance adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, and a need to exercise is truly listening to your body.

Was my body telling me to actually stay in and sleep because I needed it, or was I just being lazy and the blankets were warm?

Some mornings, I would get up, put on my workout clothes and have a 10 minute mind battle with myself where I tried to discern what I should do. I still struggle with it, I did this morning.

But a couple of weeks ago, something told me “run”. Part of it had to do with my mood, which was pretty low. “You’re much happier when you run,” Alex told me. I knew he was right. Walking and weights just didn’t improve my mood like running did.

So the one day I got the urge to run, I did. And I ran for 30 minutes straight. I felt good. The next day, I did the same. Soreness occurred, of course, but the exercise intolerance I had before was gone. I’ve been running again ever since.

Right now, I’ve limited myself to 30-35 minute runs, only 2-4 times per week. I’m making sure my coffee and sugar habit stay under control and am getting enough sleep. The last part that I need to take care of to really make sure I keep my adrenals healthy is stress relief, but that’s been the most difficult so far.

Anyway, if anyone reading this is struggling with adrenal fatigue, please be patient with your body. It took me over three years the first time and over a year the second time to get my adrenals back to almost normal. The second time I had to do very little cardio exercise and incorporate dramatic diet and lifestyle changes.

Listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs.



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