One of my favorite quotes comes from Mae Wan Ho, a revolutionary geneticist who wrote “The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics or Organisms”, which roughly states “If we are to truly understand nature, the traditional boundaries between scientific disciplines must collapse”. Cool story bro, but what does that mean ? In my eyes it means there are no boundaries between the ‘hard sciences’, philosophy, and so forth. It’s all just semantics, and by applying the principles from one field to another we can get a truly unique perspective. Over the past few years i’ve spent less and less time reading ‘training literature’ and more time delving into biochemistry, where I did my formal education, philosophy, biophysics, cognitive neuroscience, and even economics.
The idea from this article came from a seminal book in ecology, and environmental biology, titled “The Closing Circle” by Barry Commoner, the founder of the modern environmental movement, where he lays out his four laws of ecology which are…….
1. Everything is connected to everything else
2. Everything must go somewhere
3. Nature knows best
4. There is no such thing as a free lunch
At face value these laws, as Commoner intended them, don’t directly apply to training, but when the principals are distilled down they have a profound meaning that can be relayed to many disciplines, including sports performance.
Law No.1 - Everything is Connected to Everything Else
Adaptation is when the body changes, and it’s a process, not the prize. Meaning, adaptation for it’s own sake isn’t inherently good or bad - it’s simply a process that takes us from point A to B. Too much of any stimulus and we can elicit an adaptation in the body, but this isn’t always favorable and the end result may be less than ideal. Within secondary education curriculums (think middle to high school biology) we learn about the body and all the various ‘systems’ within it. It’s a reductionist way of looking at a complex topic, but it’s incredibly useful for conveying the ideas to students. However, it’s also fundamentally wrong, and instead of upgrading these ideas later in life we carry them with us. Afterall, our minds crave certainty, and it’s easier to reach closure on a topic than challenge your own beliefs, which is inherently an uncomfortable task.
In reality, all systems in our bodies are interrelated and resources are distributed based on the largest demand.
This means that in the face of multiple stressors we will adapt in order to overcome that which is greatest.
Because of this, training aimed at developing a given quality or ‘system’ may create a deficit in another. For example, many athletes get sick during the Crossfit™ open each year because of immune system suppression, which results from endocrine gland exhaustion. This is in no way a knock on the sport of fitness, but it is a testament to the fact that stress is stress, and the constant worrying about scores mixed with hard workouts all pulling from the same finite energy reserve. Additionally, this highlights the fact that performance does not equal health. We can in fact improve sports performance by dismantling biological rhythms and ‘stealing adaptation currency’ from other systems which are forced to compensate in order to create or support an adaptation elsewhere.
Law No.2 - Everything Must Go Somewhere
Training doesn’t occur in a vacuum - we cannot isolate training from the rest of our lives. We all have lives, families, friends, and jobs which dictate time be spent elsewhere outside of training and recovering; or in other words, there’s a balance. This applies to training as it sheds light on the fact that every input has an output, and even the most seemingly inconsequential actions will impact the way our bodies ‘self organize’ to exceed in the face of whatever stressors are imposed on it (self organization is a process where order arises from interactions between parts of a chaotic system, like our bodies). We can’t just train, eat ‘clean’, take the right supplements and neglect things like tissue quality and assume we’ll continue to excel in training. If we truly want to perform to the best of our ability we need to take a multi-faceted approach and tackle sleep, our perception of stress, food quality/ quantity, and finally training.
Law No.3 - Nature Knows Best
It’s speculated that the alternation of stress and recovery is what shaped us as humans. The idea that ancient humans alternated between feast and famine, hunting and resting, and stress and recovery, is relevant to training both from a physiological and psychological perspective. Where we go wrong is when we start ignoring the signs our body sends us that we need to back off - this can be disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue, injuries, and so forth.
When we push through these signs for too long we’re in essence doing more harm than good from a long term athletic development standpoint; and as coaches it’s our job to try and read athletes and figure out when they need to be reeled in. This is can be done by looking at a combination of both conscious and unconscious actions. The conscious are fairly straight forward - talk to the athlete, and look at their deliberate behavior. The unconscious are a bit more subtle and include things like posture, facial expression, emotional reactions, and how they move relative to their ‘norm’. Understanding the later, which we refer to as ‘the human element’, is less of a ‘hard science’ and more of an art form. Admittedly, this has been the most difficult thing for me to understand as a coach - there have been points in the past where i’ve gotten so caught up in research and analyzing data that I failed to see the big picture. We’re not coaching ‘biological systems’, or ‘adaptive organisms’ - we’re coaching people whose perceptions and emotions have a larger impact on training outcomes that any study can account for. Because of this i’ve had to learn to shut my analytical mind off and really empathize with my athletes at times so I can ‘lend another set of ears’ and listen to what their body is telling them.
Law No.4 - There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
There’s a saying that states, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or in other words, everything has a cost. As coaches, and athletes, we only focus on the positive aspects that come with training, but never the negatives. As strength and conditioning coaches we’re dealers of stress, and with adaptation to that stress comes specificity, which creates compensations in our body elsewhere, by default. Following on the main topic of this article, that all disciplines are related, this aforementioned sentence is similar in essence to Newton’s third law which states “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does tie back into the first law, which is that everything is connected to everything else.
In an optimal scenario our bodies match it’s response to stress based on the magnitude of the stressor. If we’re faced with a large stressor, the response should increase in scale accordingly, and vice versa. This indicates health and a proper adaptive response. Trying to combat a large stressor with a miniscule response means we lack adaptation currency, and matching a low demand stressor with a large response contraindicates a chronic stress state. Both of which are indicative of poor health, and consequently an improper adaptive response. As such, it’s critical that we consolidate stressors, or “balance our budget”, and spend less adaptation currency on things like mitigating the negative effects of inadequate sleep or nutrition. Then we will have more to spend on actually improving performance.
Exercise, in and of itself, delivers a big hit of mental, physical, and emotional stress. If we have a finite ability to recovery, why waste it on missed sleep, poor food choices that exacerbate inflation, or ‘junk’ training volume that doesn’t bring us closer to our goal ?
Abstract ‘training theory’ is all well and good, but if we can’t actually apply it some of it’s inherent value is lost. Using the above principles we can create some guidelines for training using these laws.
1. Respect the Synergy Between Strength and Energy System Training: You can’t just throw a Russian squat cycle together with Crossfit™ mainsite work, and a dash of Jack Daniel’s running formula. You may get lucky, but most likely you won’t success long term.
Each of these programs were constructed with an optimal balance of stress and recovery in mind; and as I previously mentioned everything is connected to everything else. Strength training, energy system training, and movement training all fundamentally impact the way our brains regulate adaptation, and in order to leverage this process we need to respond to both how these types of training complement one another, and what is the systemic impact they have on our bodies.
2. Don’t Neglect the Fundamentals: I get it, training is fun, but at the end of the day it’s the least sexy puzzle pieces (sexy puzzle... ?) that ultimately determine an athlete's long term success. Are sleep, stress, food, and tissue quality in check ? Yes, then have at it. If not, you need to spend less time at the weight buffet and more time taking care of the basics. Training hard is a privilege, not a right. You need to earn it.
3. Balance Intensity and Recovery: Hard days are hard, and easy days are easy. You should be able to tell the difference. The majority of workouts are small to moderate stressors, which compound and cement adaptations over time, and we’ll layer in some ‘see god’ workouts on top. Too much of the later, or a steady stream of equal volume/ intensity (what I call the ‘grey zone’) day in and day out and we’ll inevitably hit a wall.
4. Build and Maintain: Traditional block periodization structures are concerned with building a given training quality (like an ‘aerobic base’) for a handful of weeks, then switching the focus to something like speed in hopes that the athletes ends up in a better position than where they started. I believe this is a waste of time, and for Crossfitters specifically I’m of the opinion that we should never drop one training quality off entirely - instead I like to keep touches on everything at all times, but the relative contribution of each training quality (in terms of volume/ time spent on it) will be dictated by an athlete's training priority at that moment.
5. Take the Next Logical Step: Lets say we have a Crossfit athlete and this week I have him do 6 sets of 10 Power Snatch, 10 Bar Facing Burpee, 200m Run; resting 1 minute between sets. I know he can handle 10 sets of that the following week, but will the magnitude of adaptation from that be greater than, say 8 ? Maybe, but not by a huge margin. What matters is that the magnitude of stress increases from week to week - whether or not we push it to the physical maximum isn’t as important in the vast majority of scenarios, and in most cases it leaves the athlete less room to grow. Instead of going for broke each and every week, it’s better to take the next logical step, collect all the low hanging fruit, and then ramp things up when the need arises. In other words, don’t ‘go there’ before you need to.
6. Show Self Compassion: You don’t need to look far to find fitness quotes about hardening the f*ck up and the likes. It’s pervasive throughout the entire industry. This leads to a culture that encourages pushing through mechanical pain, ignoring our bodies signs of fatigue, and dysfunction in our biological rhythms (wired at night, tired in the morning). Sure, you’ll look like a badass to your buddies at the gym, but is that worth the cost of your health and performance in the long run ? Equally as egregious is the idea for ‘punishing yourself’ because you failed to PR, or ate something off your diet plan. Adding more stress to a stressed system doesn’t pan out well. Instead you should try and show compassion for your body and learn to listen to it’s signals - ignoring hunger, lack of motivation, fatigue, pain, and so forth doesn’t make you tough. It’s just misguided.