The U-Shape Curve of Adrenaline and Performance

I want to start with this post about adrenaline because it was my first “ah-ha” moment connecting with biology with my skiing. I love the idea that the excitement and focus that come along with competing and performing are largely a result of physiological changes due to a hormone called epinephrine!! Amazing, right? First we’ll look and the science of adrenaline and then we’ll connected to tangible things you can do to improve your performance.

THE SCIENCE: 3 underlying science facts you need to know…

1. Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic: Our body basically has two gears run by our autonomic nervous system. The two gears are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Yes, auto as in automatic- this part of our nervous system operates outside of our conscious power. I’ll give you $20 right now if you are able to pause your heart from beating by the end of this sentence. Did you do it?

Sympathetic is your “flight or flight” gear, while parasympathetic is “rest and digest”.  They work in opposition of each other to allow us to correctly react to situations in our environment.

In athletics, our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for getting us hyped to compete and perform. The sympathetic nervous system is made up of a chain of neurons (pre and post ganglionic neurons if we are getting nerdy) that connect the spinal cord to specific organs. When these sympathetic neurons fire, you get an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, extra blood flow to our muscles, increased respiration/breathing, and release of glucose from the liver.  Sound familiar? All of these actions are important to help us put our body into motion. 

2. Epinephrine: Epinephrine is a hormone released from our adrenal gland, and therefore referred to as adrenaline. The sympathetic neurons directly synapse onto the adrenal gland causing the release of epinephrine. Epinephrine comes in and gives all the sympathetic actions an extra boost by binding to receptors on the same organs. Epinephrine creates a more intense and prolonged effect than just sympathetic neurons alone. It is responsible for the boost, the adrenaline rush that takes you from active to INTENSE!!! It let’s you out run tigers… or your defender. It helps you block out pain and distractions. It puts you in the ZONE! 

3. Cortisol: The sympathetic activation of epinephrine acts fast. When someone jumps and screams BOO- your heart rate and breathing skyrocket immediately. But after about 30 mins of “stress”, your body switches from epinephrine to long-term stress response driven by cortisol. Cortisol is another hormone released from the adrenal gland, however it is released from an area called the cortex rather than the medulla, where epinephrine is made. While, the release of epinephrine is directly stimulated from neuron from sympathetic nervous system, coritsol is activated by a chain of other hormones started from a brain area called the hypothalamus. This chain reaction takes time, and causes the 30 minute delay in cortisol release. The body is trying to decide if the stress response is worth maintaining or if we are now safe. 

While epinephrine helps performance, too high levels of cortisol do not. It pushes us past our prime to an overly stressed state and decreases performance. We get jittery and unfocused. We are overly nervous and prone to make silly mistakes. We can model this as an inverted U-shaped curve.

Stress helps get us moving and ready for athletics. Them an extra boost of stress can put us in the zone where we perform best! However, too much stress or being stressed for too long, can actually decrease our performance. You probably already know this, but now you know the science behind it! 

THE PRACTICAL: 4 tips to put the science to use…

Ok now with some basic science background the fun part begins… relating all this to performance. So every athlete will talk about the feeling of getting in the zone. It is the perfect amount of energy so you are powerful and focused but not overly jittery.

Wait but I thought the autonomic nervous system was out of our control? While you can’t pause your heart, you can influence the rate. Same is true for your sympathetic nervous system.

1. Research shows that the sympathetic nervous system is activated by exercise. Getting your heart rate up to 120-130 bpm can trigger the switch from parasympathetic to sympathetic innervation. It takes some time to gear up our nervous system, that why warms ups are helpful and the first 10 minutes of your run is always the hardest part.

2. While pure exercise can activate the sympathetic NS, Epinephrine has been shown to be link more to how we interpret the environment. This is where all that sport psych comes into play. Feeling sluggish? Try a pump out song or put some pressure on yourself! But, if you are already feeling jittery and maybe past your optimal point, focus on slower breathing and mediation. Everyone is different and interprets stress and competition in their own way. It is important to know where you naturally fall on the curve. For me, I need pressure to perform. I rarely over-shoot so myself talk is to add a little stress to get me in the zone. If I’m too flat, I feel unfocused.

3. Time limits: Because your hormones have different activation rates, it is important to time your manipulations. If you are still many hours away from game time, best to hold off on getting amped. You could blow through your initial sympathetic response and find yourself transitioning to cortisol. Also 30 seconds before kick-off probably isn’t enough time to get your warm up going. Again, everyone starts on a different place on the inverted U. You may need to listen to some calm music, while your teammate blasts their favorite pop song. You may need an extra 5 mins of warm-up to get hyped. Find what works for you!

4. Creating a routine is another way to control your hormone response to get you in the zone. External stimuli can acts as triggers to set an internal mood. These routines and habits can be used to either stimulate or relax. Putting on your jersey right before you step on to the field can represent “go” time and good pressure. Wearing the same wristband you were in practice can calmingly remind you that a game is just practice. Remember, epinephrine is largely based on our interpretation.