Understanding Training Stressors - Part 1 by evan peikon

In a previous article titled, “Gaining Strength Through Disorder” I discussed the Antifragile nature of human beings. In this article I’m going to continue that discussion as it relates to our bodies ability to adapt to imposed stressors, and in next weeks article I’ll discuss the reasons why you may not be adapting properly to training and how to remediate the issue.

In theory, adaptation is simple. We impose a stressor, big or small, and through our adaptive capacity we become stronger, or more enduring, as a consequence (Training stimulus —> messenger —> signaling pathway —> genetic response —> functional adaptation). However, it’s not so cut and dry. Complex biological systems, like the human body, are filled with nonlinear responses and mechanisms that have been evolved to maintain homeostasis (the tendency of our bodies to seek and maintain balance). In order to create an adaptation in one system another needs to adjust or compensate to support it. Additionally, physiological adaptation comes with a cost and in order to create lasting change we must pay a price.

Now imagine your body is a test tube and the various biochemical processes taking place within you compose the solution in the tube. If you add something potent enough to the test tube (your body) you will create a disruption. Consequently causing a reaction to occur. In this scenario it’s easy to see how a given input will lead to a functional change in the system; and how the addition of multiple inputs at once will yield a different end result.

However, we often disregard the effects that simple, easy to control variables have on our training and subsequent response to said training sessions. These variables range from work stress, supplementation, mental frameworks, pre-workout nutrition, and so on. The list is endless. Rather than trying to micro-manage each and every variable, which will have associated costs in and of itself, we should aim to manipulate those with the biggest magnitude of effect: volume, intensity, frequency, and duration of training, as well as sleep, stress, and nutrition.

Training Related Factors:

Intensity:

To start, there is a minimum threshold in terms of intensity that must be crossed in order to disrupt our homeostatic equilibrium and improve a given training characteristic. In the same vein of thought there is often a maximum threshold, for intensity, beyond which a given characteristic is no longer being trained optimally.

Often times increased effort beyond the minimum threshold does not yield additional gains in performance; and if it does the margin is simply not large enough to justify the additional fatigue and mechanical stress. In other cases effort beyond the maximum intensity threshold yields a different functional adaptation all together. A perfect example of this would be in the development of an “aerobic base”.

Similar principals can be found across the board for developing an athletes sub-threshold aerobic capabilities regardless of the training philosophy prescribed. The first principal is that work below a given intensity threshold will stimulate the aerobic system without causing significant physiological adaptations often associated with endurance work (angiogenesis, increased stroke volume, hypertrophy of the heart, improve lactate clearance, and numerous other central adaptations). Conversely, energy system work above a given threshold will decrease muscle’s abilities to function, damage mitochondria, and place intense stress on the cardiac system. In order to develop one’s “aerobic base” specific work aimed at stimulation left ventricular cardiac hypertrophy, also known as eccentric cardiac hypertrophy, should be applied. According to Dr. Viktor Seluyanov one should perform aerobic work within the range of 120-150 BPM to elicit this adaptation with the total volume of work, not the intensity, being the variable that one should manipulate for further development of this characteristic (note that HR ranges will vary based on the individual; and one can determine appropriate training ranges by finding their max heart rate and average heart rate at their anaerobic threshold). Both of which have been previously discussed HERE . If one were to perform work under said ranges they would not elect the correct central adaptations; and if the work was performed too high above said ranges an increase in pressure, and net decrease in stroke volume, would occur. Consequently eliciting another functional adaptation entirely.

Volume:

The same principles, described above, also apply to the net training, stress and load. As with increased intensity, an increase in volume does not always yield an additional, positive, adaptation. Which is contrary to the “more is better” mentality that pervades the fitness industry in it’s current form. This line of thought is especially prevalent in the Crossfit™ community, which is filled with type-A personalties, despite the fact that we should be trying to do more with less. While high volume training has it’s merits the problem is that many athletes do not have large enough adaptive reserves to fully recover and reap the rewards from their sweat equity. In many cases, athletes would make better progress with less training volume and frequency. Which leads us to the concept of maximum recoverable volume(MRV) versus minimum effective dose(MED). These are defined as the maximum amount of volume you can effectively recover from and the minimum amount of stress needed to disrupt homeostasis respectively. In this model our goal is to set the cumulative stress load above the MED and below the MRV with each individual falling somewhere on the spectrum (ie- some athletes will train closer to their MRV while others will train right around their MED). The point being that we want to empirically finds ones MRV, MED, and curtail volume accordingly based on how the athlete is recovering and adapting from week to week. It is also important to note that these are abstract concepts and not concrete, fixed, measures. An athletes ability to tolerate volume and to recover changes from day to day, week to week, cycle to cycle…etc, which is why it’s important that measurements are taken on a frequent basis.

Non-Training Related Factors:

There are number of non-training related factors that dictate your ability to adapt to the imposed training stimuli. These include, but are not limited to, sleep, stress, and nutrition. A mismanagement of said qualities can dampen your adaptive response to training while properly managing them can amplify the response.

Sleep, Stress, and Nutrition:

Stress, and consequently stressors, come in numerous forms. However a great majority of stressors fall within either the confines of “cognitive stress” or “biological stress”. Cognitive stress refers to ones perception of disturbances, negative emotions, and mental states created as a consequence of subjective experiences (failing, anxiety, debt, etc.). Biological stress on the other hand deals directly with functions of the autonomic nervous system and is caused by factors like insufficient sleep, poor food quality, insufficient food quantity, mismanagement of training volume/ intensity, and so on. What’s important to note though is that cognitive stress and biological stress are not mutually exclusive. In short what this all means is that our subjective perceptions and emotions can alter our physiology and our physiology can alter our emotions (ie- a two stream circuit). For example, insufficient sleep can lead to feelings of anxiety; and feelings of anxiety can lead to a decline in sleep quality, consequently creating a vicious cycle. Before we move on it’s important to note that the presence of stress in and of itself is not detrimental to health or performance. It’s simply a matter of balancing stress and recovery both day to day as well as over longer time frames.

Health:

Performance is built on a foundation of health. Period. Without proper health, whether thats hormonal or mental, even the best training program will not elicit the desired results. Many athletes who stagnate, or regress, in training do so because they have over stressed their bodies to the point where their hormonal systems can no longer function optimally. In a perfect world all of my athletes would have access to a functional medicine practitioner, but due to logistical limitations we’re forced to make judgements based on indirect measures like perception of fatigue, digestion, libido, appetite, motivation to train etc. Irregularities in the aforementioned qualities, over longer time frames, indicate dysfunction and a need to make changes. Whether those are changes to the athletes training, such as total volume or the distribution of intensity, or lifestyle changes the end goal of restoring health, and proper bodily function, is the same.

Movement Quality:

While it is often ignored the quality of an athletes movement patterns impacts their ability to adapt to training. As such, it is a critical component for long term progress. Dysfunctional movement patterns and poor control over your joint's end ranges of motion will reduce your ability to tolerate contraction volume, and withstand mechanical stress, without risk of injury. Additionally, improper movement and breathing patterns will impact autonomic activity, which will dictate our bodies ability to recover.

Conclusion:

The aforementioned factors are a few, among many, that will influence your ability to adapt to training and progress long term. Whereas this article was concerned with the theory side of the equation the next installment of this series will discuss the application. Including how to manage each of the above qualities, reasons why you may not be progressing, and how to remediate those problems.

~ Evan

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Evan Peikon
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