There’s a quote from the late German physicist Max Planck, the originator of modern quantum theory, which states, “Science advances one funeral at a time”. It’s certainly a cynical way of looking at things, but it does hold some truth. At any point in time scholars in a given field all hold the same basic assumptions, whether or not these assumptions are true. Call it dogma, or simply the echoes of the past continuing to resonate. As time goes on, and a new generation of scientists come into age the dogma of yesteryear fades away. Thus, allowing the field to progress as a whole. But, what happens when a field fails to progress; and when it cannot move forward despite all evidence pointing in a new direction ?
This is directly related to the concept of path dependence, which explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant. The classic example of this being the QWERTY keyboard, we all use today, that was designed to overcome a specific problem - mechanical jamming of the keys as a result of too great a typing speed. By separating the most often used keys, the QWERTY keyboard eliminates this issue. Although new technological innovations ensure this is no longer an issue, the legacy of a solution to a now non-existent problem still persists.
As such, the phenomenon of path-dependence provides us a window through which we can reflect upon the influence that historical precepts hold over future innovations. In this way, ideas perpetuated by path dependence serve as a conceptual ceiling constraining the evolution of more creative and effective paradigms.
The Contemporary Model of Adaptation:
Over the past eight or nine years i’ve read as much training literature as I could possibly get my hands on; and after a while obvious patterns begin to emerge. Namely, the use of the ‘supercompensation’ model of adaptation as a justification for training, periodization, and planning schemes. Since the genesis of this theory, concepts from stress physiology literature have been used as justification for many of the assumptions strength and conditioning professionals make when creating their training structures. Namely, how the body adapts in such an organized manner in the face of imposed stressors. However, the field of stress physiology has shifted drastically in the past thirty years, but despite its evolution the same outdated theories from years past remain firmly rooted in training culture.
Which raises the question ….. What’s wrong with the supercompensation model that many of you, myself included, were taught in physiology classes ?
Well, to start, the supercompensation model of adaptation assumes that we adapt in a uniform manner to all training inputs - that is to say, our ability to adapt to aerobic training, absolute strength work, and so forth are all equal. However, this isn’t the case. Different ‘systems’ can in fact adapt or reach ‘supercompensation’ while others fail to do so, and the magnitude of the stressor required to elicit an adaptation in each ‘system’ can vary greatly in a given individual. This is why some athletes may adapt extremely well to endurance training, without a whole lot of effort, but have difficulty building qualities like speed or power no matter how much time and effort they put into it.
Additionally, supercompensation theory assumes volume and intensity of training are the only factors that influence adaptation. Not only are there other training related factors, like density, that influence how we regulate adaptation, but there are also various extraneous variables that do so as well, which I discussed in my last article titled, "Everything is Connected to Everything Else.”
For example, classic training literature would suggest that 24-48 hours are required between aerobic training sessions in order to reach maximal ‘supercompensation’. But, what if the athlete is stressed with work, financial burdens, and relationship issues ? Will their rate of adaptation fall in line with the research done in a controlled environment ? I’d argue not. It’s also clear that genetic predisposition, and physiological makeup, of a given athlete will drastically impact how they respond to both a given type of training input, as well as the degrees to which volume, intensity, and density impact them.
So, although the theoretical foundations upon which modern training theory, and our understanding of how we adapt to training, have disintegrated we continue to recycle antiquated science to justify current practice. In this way, dogma from the past serves as a conceptual ceiling constraining the evolution of more effective training paradigms. However, before moving forward I feel it’s important to state that my intention isn’t to discredit the training theories established by contemporary scientists. Instead, it’s to build upon the foundation they’ve laid in order to better serve my athletes. As Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further than others, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”.
Modern Theories of Adaptation:
According to modern literature, from various fields, adaptation occurs through the process of self-organization. This is an extremely complex topic whose intricacies are beyond the scope of a one page article. Because of this i’m going to take a bird's eye view, and skim the surface, but if you’re interested in delving further into this field i’d strongly recommend the following texts :
Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Cost of Physiological Adaptation
The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution
Towards a Unified Theory of Development : Connectionism and Dynamic Systems Theory
Dynamic Patterns : The Self Organization of the Brain and Behavior
To start, we’ll begin with the concept of functional adaptations, which can be defined as transient changes where an increase in capacity results from an overabundance of stress. These adaptations occur on a short time scale, and can be thought of as a survival mechanism. For example, in a 7 minute Crossfit™ workout we can deduce that fatigue is primarily caused by our brain's reaction to a buildup of certain by-products. So, to combat this I may create a scenario in training with an ever increasing amount of by-product, and as a result week to week improvement will be driven by a need to survive this short term, transient, stressor. Once this stressor is removed, and a need to ‘tolerate it’ subsides then an athlete will return to a baseline state. This is why athletes see rapid gains when thrown on an aggressive training program, but lose these ‘transient’ improvements when they inevitably get injured or burnt out. In these cases they get a quick improvement through functional adaptation, despite the fact that structural adaptations have yet to kick in.
However, if we apply these transient stressors with a high enough frequency, at a proper dose, over time they’ll elicit structural adaptations. Which are the changes to bone, heart, lungs, mitochondria, and so forth. These changes allow our bodies to handle the demands of sport long term, and are the base for which we can build future functional adaptations.
While there are predictable patterns of adaptation from athlete to athlete, no two will respond to training inputs in the same exact way. The reason for this is that adaptation does not occur linearly. That is to say, that a given input, like training, doesn’t always create the same output.
The way our brains regulate adaptation can be best explained through dynamical systems theory, which asserts that adaptations occur through an intricate network of co-dependant systems including sensor motor, respiratory, circulatory, nervous, skeletomuscular, and perceptual systems.
Proponents of dynamical systems theory advocate that there is no set pattern of adaptation in our brains, so we don’t have one specific path to improve a quality like endurance, and instead our physiology self-organizes as a result of boundaries placed on the system by the task or environment. It follows that no two contexts, or scenarios, will ever be the same, and therefore adaptation will never occur in the exact same manner, from athlete to athlete, either.
Rather than thinking of adaptation as a process of getting from point A to B in a linear fashion, I imagine a forking road that goes in a myriad of directions. Inputs like training, sleep, nutrition, and tissue quality don’t lead us down any given path, to a specific destination, but instead serves as constraints. That is to say, they eliminate some of the potential paths and make it more likely to go down others. Once we’ve whittled down the number of options our brain will select the one that makes us most suited to our environment. This is why it’s so important to take a multifaceted approach to training and not neglect things like stress management and sleep. If one path makes us more likely to get stronger, but the other allows us to better cope with chronic stress, and we’re in an over stressed state we will always select the later. In my mind, we need to make our body an offer it can’t refuse and coax it into adapting in the direction we’d like it to. This is best accomplished by consolidating stressors, properly manipulating training volume, intensity, and density, as well as fueling it with as much high quality food as it needs and ensuring tissue quality is optimal. If any of these pieces fall out of place the likelihood of adapting optimally to training diminishes greatly.
So what ….. ?
After writing the above treatise you’d think i’d have an eloquent answer to this question, but as I sit here trying to answer it my mind is spinning in fifteen different directions. This concept simultaneously feels paradigm shifting and frivolous to me at the same time. From a practical perspective it doesn’t change a whole lot regarding how i’m going to conduct my day to day business as a coach, and in this regard it almost feels silly that I spend so much time thinking about it, but from an intellectual standpoint and long term athlete development perspective it changes everything. I know that there are so many inputs and variables that influence how an athlete adapts outside of training - we all do on some level, whether or not we’ve ever really put those thoughts into words. But, what we’ve yet to fully grasp is the directionality of all those inputs - we know they do ‘something’, yet our ability to harness them in a cohesive manner in order to manipulate the entire adaptive process still isn’t fully understood. This entire concept model serves as a foundation to begin challenging those thoughts. Rather than just training an athlete, I want to make them more ‘trainable’- creating a scenario where they don’t just tolerate stress, but strengthen through disorder.