In last weeks article titled, “Understanding Training Stressors- Part 1” I discussed the process by which our bodies adapt to stress, the theory behind adaptation, and how a number of factors influence our responses to training induced stressors and our ability to progress long term. Whereas the previous article was concerned with the theory side of the equation this installment will discuss the application side. Including how to manage the variables discussed in the previous article, reasons you may not be progressing, and how to remediate those issues.
On a macro level, and over longer time scales, monitoring adaptation is quite simple. If you add twenty pounds to your back squat, or shave thirteen seconds off of your 2k row, in six months then you can say with near certainty that you’ve positively adapted to imposed stressors, and as a consequence have improved your performance. However, the process by which we adapt is non-linear and there are various mechanisms in place, within our bodies, to ensure we maintain homeostasis. As such, adaptation in one system often requires compensation in another system in order to support the adaptation. Which makes it increasingly difficult to track adaptation on shorter time scales (day to day, week to week, etc).
While there are devices on the market that give us insight into an athlete’s functional state (ie- their level of activation in the CNS, tension in the cardiac system, and efficiency of the energy supply system at a specific moment in time) they can be costly, and require expertise on the coaches part to interpret and apply the data, consequently limiting their usability for the masses. Which raises the question… how do we effectively, and efficiently, track short term adaption? To start, we cannot monitor adaptation on a micro-scale (week to week) if an athlete's training doesn’t have an underlying progressive structure. Meaning that whatever training program an athlete follows needs to provide an ever increasing stimulus. Relative to the quality being trained this could mean an increase in volume, intensity, or density (ie- decreased rest) over the course of a week or within a given session. If an athletes program doesn’t have a clear progressive structure in place, or it follows an erratic progression, assessing their ability to adapt to a given training stimulus will not be possible.
Training Related Factors:
In training literature intensity is used to describe a bout of work in relation to an athletes maximum capacity (ie- %’s on an athletes 1RM for a given lift). In this paradigm the higher the intensity, as it relates to an athletes maximum, the more stressful a session and vice versa. However, our perceptions of effort, and the degree to which we are psychologically stimulated, influences our adaptive response to training as well as the degree to which said training sessions tax our bodies physiologically. As such it’s important that we not only manage intensity in objective, quantifiable terms, but in the way that athletes perceive their level of exertion. While there is no single best way to manage training intensity, a good rule of thumb is to follow a polarized approach. That is to say that we should alternate hard and easy days, or weeks, versus training moderately at all times. Which, allows athletes to get higher volumes of quality work in over time with less cumulative fatigue. Additionally, the objective intensity, and importance*, of a given training session should dictate the degree to which athletes allow themselves to be psychologically aroused. While this may seem like common sense I see athletes approach this training with the wrong mental framework all too often. After all, do you really need to snort pre workout before a moderate effort, technique based, session?
A large part of the training process hinges on the proper manipulation of volume. Too little volume and we fail to provide a large enough training stimulus, but too much and we open an athlete up for injury or burnout. In part one of this series I introduced the concept of maximum recoverable volume (MRV) versus minimum effective dose (MED). Which are defined as the maximum amount of volume you can effectively recover from and the minimum amount of stress needed to disrupt homeostasis. Within this paradigm our aim is to set an athletes total training load above the MED and below the MRV. Since an athlete’s ability to tolerate volume will fluctuate from day to day, and week to week, it’s important that measurements, which will aid us in prescribing volume, be taken on a frequent basis. These can be as simple as tracking an athletes progress and ability to adapt on various training qualities, subjective perception of effort/ fatigue each day, overreaching signs, and mechanical stress. We can also observe the impact of a given days loading on subsequent sessions (ie- if an athlete is consistently performing at a sub-par level every Tuesday we can curtail Monday’s volume the following week and observe how it impacts their ability to perform the next day). It’s also important to note that just because an athlete feels they can handle more volume doesn’t mean they should; and irregularities in any of the aforementioned profiles may be indicative of improper loading.
3. Training Frequency/ Deloading
Tangentially related to the above points is the concept of programmed detraining. As is currently stands the longevity of elite athletes, in the sport of fitness, are short and ever decreasing as the demands of training escalate at an exponential pace. I’d argue that intentional detraining blocks (ie- not forced due to injury or illness) would not only increase longevity, but also improve performance in the long run. Empirical evidence shows that the magnitude of effect we receive, from
training, over the course of our athletic career diminished with time (aka- beginner/ novice gains). One such reason for this is that we become desensitized to intracellular signals whose mechanisms are triggered by resistance exercise. Another reason is the “repeated bouts effects”, which states that “Unfamiliar, predominantly eccentric exercise, frequency results in muscle damage. A repeated bout of similar eccentric exercise will result in less damage over time”. One way to restore sensitivity to the aforementioned signals, and decrease the repeated bouts effect, is to take a planned chunk of time off training. However, this is not where I see the greatest potential for detraining blocks. Instead I believe they should be used for an extensive period post competition season as a means to decrease mico-trauma to muscles, restore hormonal balance, improve tissue quality, and heal an athletes GI system. While a month off isn’t necessary for all, or most, athletes I do think it has application for higher level Crossfit™ competitors. Baring training induced stress the average Crossfit™ regionals competitor, in 2015, would have performed 2,821 reps between the open and regionals events. When accounting for daily training, and the fact that the majority of competitors completed each workout multiple times, it is likely that a given athletes accumulate 20,000+ contractions during their competition season alone. If we look at the big picture and analyze their entire training year this number increases multiplicatively. Which means the body is in a constant catabolic state of playing catch up with no time to truly repair itself. If this cycle of constant stress continues for too long the body’s hormonal system also begins to take a hit, adrenal dysfunction occurs, and the potential for catastrophic injury increases. So, in this regard 2-4+ weeks off at the start of the offseason, followed by a lower intensity training block, can save an athlete months lost to injury or sickness down the line.
Non-Training Related Factors:
Sustainable performance is built on a foundation of health. However, just because an athlete performs on a high level does not mean that they are healthy. In fact, many athletes perform well in spite of their declining health; and are asymptomatic for irregularities in health markers such as perception of fatigue, digestion, libido, appetite, motivation to train etc. There are myriads of factors that could contribute to detrimental outcomes, but some of the more common ones among athletes include a mismanagement of the aforementioned factors discussed in this article as well as insufficient sleep, inadequate food quality/ quantity, and lifestyles that do not support their training endeavors.
Stress, Sleep, & Nutrition:
Proper stress management is critical for athletic success. As mentioned in part 1 a great majority of stressors fall within the confines of “cognitive stress” or “biological stress”. In order to manage stress it’s important that athletes take a multifaceted approach by managing their work, life, and training stress as our bodies cannot distinguish between them. It’s also important to note that cognitive and biological stresses are not mutually exclusive entities. Meaning that our subjective perceptions and emotions alter out physiology and our physiology can alter our emotions. Tried and true methods of managing cognitive stress include meditation practices, sports psychology, and therapy with meditation being the most accessible of the three for the majority of athletes. While there are various types of meditation practices a few of the most popular among athletes include mindfulness meditation (broadening your conscious awareness), guided meditation (forming mental images as a means of relieving tension), and mantra meditation (repeating a word or phrases in order to draw focus and avoid distraction). Biological stress on the other hand can be reduced via proper sleep, nutrition, and management of the aforementioned training related factors.
The vast majority of athletes are serious about their training, yet many continue to neglect their sleep despite the overwhelming evidence supporting it’s ability to enhance recovery, and subsequently performance. If an athlete is sleeping less than 8 hours per night, which is the minimum, I don’t care how well they claim to recover. They are leaving performance on the table. Period. In addition to sleep quantity it’s important that athletes maximize the quality of their sleep as well, which can be achieved by ensuring they sleep in a cool, dark, and quite environment, as well as avoiding exposure to bright screens prior to bedtime. For athletes with rigorous work or school schedules who are incapable of getting 8+ hours of sleep per night naps may also be an invaluable tool. Napping 15 minutes can improve nervous system function, and decrease cognitive fatigue, which can be highly beneficial for those training multiple times per day.
The most common issues we observe with athlete’s nutritional prescriptions relate to both quality and quantity. Depending on an athletes goals they may need to sacrifice “eating clean” for “eating enough”, though it is important that health is not sacrificed in the process. As coach Kyle Ruth mentioned in a previous article titled, “What Should I Eat”, nutrition in the world of sports performance is typically linked to trends in fad dieting such as zone, atkins, paleo, flexible dieting, and so on. What’s important to note is that each of these approached lack universal application due to individual variance in the way we process macronutrients, differences in training composition (ie- endurance vs. strength training), and goals. Rather than trying to fit everyone in a box, or adhering to a given school of thought, we at TTT believe that nutrition should be individualized to the same degree as training prescriptions. In order to do so an athletes current dietary practice must be monitored, then changes are made in a step wise fashion while observing how an athlete’s body reacts. Only then can be dictate the success of a given prescription, make further adjustments, and ensure they move closer to their goal.
The ability to tolerate a high number of muscular contractions, in both training and competition, is paramount to excelling in the sport of Crossfit™. Dysfunctional movement patterns, poor motor control, and improper breathing mechanics will negatively influence an athletes ability to tolerate contraction volume, and withstand technical stress, without risk of injury. Additionally, they will impact autonomic activity, which will dictate our bodies ability to recover. The first step in improving an athletes quality of movement is to ensure they have adequate active/ passive ranges of motion in each joint as well as the ability to control their body through said ranges. Once this is achieved the next step is to increase the resilience of an athletes connective tissue and joints; or in sport specific terms, to improve an athletes ability to withstand higher contraction volumes with less cumulative trauma. Which can be achieved by creating structural, functional, and sport specific tissue adaptations as discussed in full in “Gaining Strength Through Disorder”.
There are various factors that influence our ability to adapt to training. Some of these factors, like genetic predisposition, are out of our conscious control while others are easily manipulated.
Additionally, a mismanagement of a single factor, such as sleep, can deplete our adaptive reserve and lead to sub-par progress in training. In order to ensure we continue to adapt and thrive over time we must first make heath a priority. This means prioritizing stress management, sleep, and nutrition. Furthermore we need to properly manage volume, intensity and frequency of training while simultaneously tracking adaptation and subjective markers of fatigue, soreness, and motivation to train. Only then can you ensure an athletes adaptive capacity is increasing.