Engaging in intensive aerobic exercise, specifically endurance sports, is associated with HPA axis activation indicated by elevated cortisol levels. Whether the repeated short-term elevations in cortisol levels result in higher long-term cortisol exposure of endurance athletes has been difficult to examine since traditional methods of cortisol assessments (saliva, blood, urine) reflect only relatively short time periods. Hair segment analysis provides a new method to assess cumulative cortisol secretion over prolonged time periods in a retrospective fashion. The aim of this study was to investigate cumulative cortisol secretion over several months reflecting intensive training and competitive races by examining hair cortisol levels of endurance athletes. Hair samples were obtained from 304 amateur endurance athletes (long-distance runners, triathletes, cyclists) and 70 controls. Cortisol concentrations were determined in the first to third 3-cm hair segments most proximal to the scalp. In addition, self-report measures of training volume were obtained. Endurance athletes exhibited higher cortisol levels in all three hair segments compared to controls (p<.001). Positive correlations between the cortisol concentration in the first hair segment and each indicator of training volume were found (all p<.01). These data suggest that repeated physical stress of intensive training and competitive races among endurance athletes is associated with elevated cortisol exposure over prolonged periods of time. These findings may have important implications with regard to somatic and mental health of athletes which should be investigated in future research.
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