March 30, 2023

How NFL Teams Use Stress Hormone Testing to Improve Player Availability

By Haley Muller 

NFL teams are wielding a new weapon to increase player availability: stress hormone testing. With the help of Smartabase, NFL teams are combining stress hormone test results with other objective and subjective data points to modify individualized programs and recovery strategies. 

A few years ago, pro football teams started capturing the results of saliva tests to monitor players’ cortisol, testosterone, and SIgA (secretory immunoglobulin A) in Smartabase. These two hormones and one antibody are common markers of stress, recovery, and immunity levels. This allows the performance staff to establish baselines for each player at the start of the competitive season. The saliva tests are then repeated at the frequency the team decides is best for the rest of the season (such as weekly or every two weeks). 

A flagging system in Smartabase color codes the test results depending on whether they’re above, within, or below a desirable range. Comparing each player to themselves instead of setting an arbitrary target for the whole team allows for greater personalization and makes it easier to track trends over the course of the season. Below, we explore how insights from stress hormone testing data are being applied.

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Load Management & Injury Risk

Smartabase enables NFL teams to combine players’ hormone and antibody test results with load data, such as heart rate monitoring, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep, and data from wearable GPS sensors and force plates. Insights from this analysis then informs interventions, conversations, and programming changes that positively impact performance, recovery, and health.

For example, if the director of performance receives an alert that a player’s stress hormone levels are high, HRV is low, and sleep quality is poor, he or she might decide that internal load is undesirable. This prompts the sharing of relevant data with the strength and conditioning coach and a discussion about reducing the volume or intensity of the next session and weekly load targets. 

In another instance, they might find that the SIgA results are outside this player’s normal range and that cortisol is unusually elevated, suggesting that the immune system is under duress. The reason could be that the player is struggling with a virus and doesn’t even know it. A practitioner can closely monitor their status or intervene to get them an appointment with the team doctor.

Improving Recovery & Training Adaptations

Regular saliva testing can help teams further educate players about recovery modalities. Testosterone is needed to prompt muscle growth and repair and other responses to training stimuli. But it’s hard for NFL players to adapt if they’re overly stressed or under-recovered because cortisol is an antagonist of testosterone. So even if a player is working hard on the practice field and regularly hitting their targets in the weight room, they might still struggle to meet a goal like getting stronger, faster, or putting on lean muscle mass. 

Hormone testing gives the sports science team a window into why there might be a disconnect between the external load a player is being exposed to and their responses to it. They can then dive deeper into the athlete’s subjective and objective data in Smartabase, and have a conversation with the athlete, to see what’s going on and attempt to remedy the situation. 

Informing Personalized Nutrition 

By combining objective saliva test results with nutrition data and subjective responses collected in a wellness survey, dietitians can provide more effective individualized guidance throughout the course of the season. 

The players report how recovered they feel, when and how much protein they’re eating, sleep duration, soreness level, and more via a daily questionnaire or through an integration with Notemeal. A team dietitian can then see how these responses align with the test results and suggest that the player increases their protein intake, gets more omega-3 fatty acids, or makes another change. When the athlete logs into the mobile app, a simple report shows them their test results and the dietitian’s recommended meal plan. 

A Holistic Picture of Athlete Performance

While stress hormone testing is still in its early stages of adoption, it’s one more data point that can be tracked to help paint a holistic picture of an NFL player’s health and wellness. As we’ve explored above, the true power lies in combining the results of stress hormone testing with other data points, such as internal and external load, thereby providing additional context for the performance staff to make more informed decisions. To learn more about how NFL teams are combining multiple data sources to improve player performance and reduce injury, please contact us.

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