"Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better" -Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In Greek mythology the Hydra is depicted as a nine headed serpent. Each and every time a head is cut off, two grow back in it’s place. The Hydra gains from disorder- it wants to be mishandled. As such, the Hydra embodies anti-fragility as defined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”.
According to Taleb, anti-fragility is the property of a system to increase it’s capacity as a result of stress, shocks, or variability. Ie- the system strengthens under disorder. On the converse fragility is the quality of being easily broken or weakening under stress; and in the middle we have robustness. Which, is the ability to tolerate perturbations, or in other words maintaining form without growing stronger or weakening.
While Taleb’s concepts are based on economic, and financial, systems I believe they are highly applicable to the process of developing athletes, building resilience, and increasing longevity in sport.
As coaches our job is to cultivate anti-fragility in our athletes. A fragile athlete is one who will break under pressure, or deteriorate as a consequence of a dampened adaptive capacity. Robust athletes have the capacity to withstand high degrees of stress (ie- contraction volume/ mechanical stress, and CNS/ cardiac/ metabolic stress), but their rate of adaptation is insufficient relative to the volume of training they are subjected to. Consequently leading to the accumulation of fatigue, endocrine disruption, pseudo-performance, and even catastrophic injury. All of which are often seen among the sub-elite, “bubble”, athletes in the sport of fitness.
How then do we create anti fragile athletes?
To start, the process of training is rooted in the antifragile nature of human beings. We impose a stressor, big or small, and through our adaptive capacity we become stronger, or more enduring, as a consequence. Take hypertrophy for example- we create the right amount of disruption, and as a consequence our muscles grow larger. This process is often referred to as super-compensation in training literature. However, it’s not so cut and dry- complex 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). Additionally, physiological adaptation comes with a cost and in order to create change we must pay a price. This is where the concept of hormesis comes into play. Hormesis is a dose response phenomenon in which an individual is exposed to a low dose stressor, that would be detrimental to health at higher dosages, and reaps a disproportionately large benefit as a consequence of our bodies ability to super-compensate The idea being that we seek to decrease the cost of adaptation to training by matching volume, intensity, and frequency to an athletes rate of adaptation to training. Ie- not too much volume (where the athlete cannot properly adapt), not too little (where the level of stress is too small to cause a disruption), but just right. Relative to the athlete we may err closer to their estimated maximum recoverable volume, or minimum effective training load, but that’s an entire topic in and of itself.
The Components of Antifragiltiy:
The Mental Component:
Too much cognitive fatigue, and training to failure, destroys the psyche and decreases self belief. Which, due to the way we process emotions, can cascade and cause detrimental changes in our physiology. In order to combat this, and facilitate anti-fragility, it is best to prescribe cognitive fatigue training, and test scenarios, in hormetic dosages throughout the offseason. Typically this manifests itself in weekly, or fortnightly, “challenge workouts” which allow an athlete to push them self mentally, without creating too much psychological stress. Over time, as tolerance increases, you can begin to layer in more of these sessions; and as the competition season approaches it is best to balance challenge workouts with testing scenarios that increase the confidence of the athlete as a means of reappraising threat.
The Mechanical Component:
Over time we want an athlete’s connective tissue, and joints, to become more resilient; or in sport specific terms- to withstand higher contraction volumes with less cumulative trauma. In order to do so we must first create structural adaptations, then functional adaptations, and lastly sport specific adaptations. For example, in order to improve our extensive squatting endurance we must first hypertrophy the ST fibers and increase mitochondrial density in the FT fibers (structural adaptation). Next we impose an additional stressor, such as an energy system component, to our squatting endurance work in order to create a functional adaptation. Then we create a sport specific adaptation by training our bodies to utilize, and transport lactate, on a muscular level in a mixed modal training format. Also note that we simultaneously aim to improve an athletes movement quality, and end ranges of motion, as a means on decreasing mechanical stress. If an athlete has dysfunctional movement patterns, and poor control over their active/ passive ranges of motion, they will not be able to accumulate a sufficient amount of training volume without opening them self up to injury. As such it is critical that athlete not only gain sufficient ranges of motion, but also the ability to control their body through said ranges.
The Hormonal Component:
The stress response is a powerful weapon that can be used by you, or against you. Too little stress and we begin to deteriorate, but too much and the ramifications are just as dire. Chronic stress, and consequently chronically elevated stress hormones, creates fragility in the system through a depletion of our adaptive reserve. In order to combat this it’s critical that athletes manage their work, life, and training stress as our bodies cannot distinguish between them. There are various ways to go about this, but some of the tried and true methods involve mindfulness meditation, sports psychology, adequate sleep (8-10 hours/night), adequate food quantity/ quality, and properly periodized training that manages both volume and intensity.
Theory to Practice:
In order to build anti-fragility in athletes it is critical that certain principals be woven into the fabric of the training structure. Functional systems periodization allows you to build structures, add chaos in the system, maintain adaptations and repeat versus building an athlete up for “X” months, then peaking them in order to improve “Y” and “Z” qualities while other deteriorate. In practice this may take the following form….
Accumulation phase: The purpose of the accumulation phase is to build a foundation, of volume and intensity, in order to prepare an athlete for higher intensity sport specific training. Typically the accumulation phase takes place in the offseason and is used to develop an athletes aerobic base, improve quality of movement and build a sufficient level of strength relative to the sport.
Training priorities: structural endurance & tissue adaptation with a hormetic dosage of sport specific work (challenge workouts, testing scenarios, etc).
Transformation Phase: The purpose of the transformation phase is to build upon the structural adaptations, created in the accumulation phase, to create sport specific adaptations. An example of this would be developing an athlete’s aerobic power (in a mixed modal setting) after creating a large base of low intensity aerobic work in the accumulation phase.
Training priorities: functional adaptations (blending), and increases in cumulative stress load as rate of adaptions improves.
Realization Phase: The purpose of the realization phase is to relate improvements made in training into improved sport specific performance.
Training priorities: Sport specific training- building resilience amidst chaos.
As you can see, from the above three phases, there are nuanced differences in training prescriptions relative to the time of year. By manipulating the manner in which we structure training, and adjust methods from season to season, we allow our athletes to adapt to greater volumes, and intensities, of training over time with a lower risk of injury or burnout. Consequently allowing us to make consistent improvements over time.
While the absence of stress appears to be a means of maintaining homeostasis, it is simply a short term solution. Over time a lack of stressful inputs weakens the human body and leaves it prone to deterioration or damage in the face of a volatility. As Taleb eloquently states, “Removing small shocks from a complex system doesn’t create stability rather, it creates the illusion of stability”. In this light it easy to see how stress, and chaos, are critical components in cultivating anti-fragility. However, this line of thinking can be taken too far. The late German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. In actuality, that which does not kill the anti fragile makes them stronger- the fragile crumble in the face of adversity, and the robust simply survive. In order to create an anti-fragile athlete we need to create a disruption, without causing damage. Relative to the athlete this can take many forms, but the principals remain the same. The human body responds to intensity, frequency, and duration of a given stimulus- in order to facilitate anti-fragility we need to apply a hormetic dose of stress, increase the cumulative load as the rate of adaptation improves, and add chaos to the system as resilience increase. Only then can an athlete gain through disorder.