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Richard Walters: Sometimes Less Is More

How many of you can think back to a time where you’ve literally dropped the hammer and just ripped into a new block of weights training, or decided you’re going to run 10km straight off the bat? At first, you might feel great… you’re all pumped up to have some structure in your training and excited for the outcome of your new training plan.

But, 2-3 weeks down the line you start feeling a bit sore around your joints, you’re not recovering at the rate you once did, your initial motivation is beginning to diminish and your new training plan starts to feel like a bit of a chore? Irrespective of your age, ability or training age, rushing into more advanced training or unrealistic training loads (heavy weights or 10km run straight off the bat) is like decorating a birthday cake without a sponge. It will just lead to decreased levels of preparedness, poor recovery, increased risk of injury, low levels of confidence and prevent adherence to the training plan.

With all that in mind, I’m going to start with a quote from the recent ‘Art of Resilience’ by Ross Edgley who states that “Fast Can Be Fragile and Slow Can Be Strong” – I feel this statement echoes the steps that an individual should take when planning either their own training or the training plan of others.

It’s important to be patient with your training and to lay down the foundations through a sound understanding of training principles and strategic planning of the relevant training methodologies. Therefore, it is paramount this notion is at the forefront of yours or your athlete’s training journey as it will lead the way to unlocking their potential, tolerating the demands of a chosen sport or competition, and achieving those original training goals.

The aim of this blog is to give an insight into the science and theories of training application and planning, with a particular focus on the fitness-fatigue theory and general adaptation syndrome (GAS) while drawing conclusions and summaries along the way in regards to training principles and periodisation strategies for you to consider when implementing yours or your athletes next training block or subsequent training blocks.

The human body is fascinating! It is a living organism; therefore, it adapts and evolves to suit the environment it is exposed to. E.g. when it is cold it shivers and when it is hot it sweats. Simple. But, the same applies to the muscular, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, whereby they all respond and adapt to the environment they’re exposed to.

With that being said, in order to seek improvement in the aforementioned systems, we need to expose these systems to an environment whereby we can elicit the appropriate responses and adaptions we seek. This is achieved through the implementation of training methods that underpin the relevant training principles that will elicit the responses we desire.

In order to augment the positive adaptation from the training we seek on a regular basis, we need to apply the relevant stress to these systems. Acute training stress and stimuli are key to augmenting the positive response and adaptation within the body. However, every training session or bout of exercise creates two after-effects; fitness and fatigue, which summate to influence the bodies overall level of preparedness which can be illustrated or explained through the fitness-fatigue theory (Image 1).

Image 1

Fitness Fatigue Theory

When we expose the human body to acute stress in the form of training (weights, running, cycling, swimming etc.) both fitness and fatigue are consequent by-products. Through the acute stress of training, we elicit different physiological reactions in response to the given training stimulus, fitness being the positive physiological response and fatigue being the negative physiological response.

The magnitude of the training stress and stimuli will dictate the magnitude of these two-after effects, whereby greater training loads or more intense exercise will elicit greater training after-effects (fitness and fatigue) and vice versa.

At first glance, this may look a bit counterintuitive, but the body tends to dissipate fatigue at a more rapid rate than fitness, allowing levels of preparedness to be elevated. Therefore, overtime and through the careful manipulation of training principles/prescription and the introduction of adequate recovery strategies we can begin to experience positive physiological adaptations that we desperately seek from all the effort we put into our training.

Additionally, the style/type of training you or your athlete adopts will dictate the initial after-effects of training and subsequent adaptations overtime. E.g. neural adaptations and changes in muscle architecture are a result of resistance training while changes in maximal oxygen consumption or mitochondrial density can be expected as a result of more endurance style training. This can be illustrated through the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) whereby the body makes specific adaptations to accommodate the demands placed on it.

This can be underpinned by the ‘law of specificity’, and is one that must be considered when implementing training plans. E.g. if you’re training for a powerlifting event you wouldn’t plan or programme marathon training, as the after-effects and physiological responses of marathon training do not mirror the physical qualities required to excel in powerlifting and vice versa.

 

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Another way to illustrate the ‘aftermath’ of acute stress is through Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) model (Image 2), whereby the human body has a level of adaptive energy that is devoted to all the stressors the body experiences. The GAS model is broken into three stages; the Alarm, the Resistance and the Exhaustion stage.

Image 2

Alarm (A):

When we expose the human body to training stress the unaccustomed nature of it causes an initial reduction in the tolerance to the stressor (acute fatigue, muscle damage, soreness, stiffness and reduced energy stores etc.)

Resistance (B):

As the body becomes accustomed to the training stress (adequate recovery, planned rest etc.) it becomes resistant to its specific demands (a protective mechanism). The body and its structures build a tolerance to the stressors it is being exposed to. To combat this and keep elevating the bodies levels of preparedness, we need to introduce or manipulate training variables which will more or less ‘keep the body guessing’ and prevent the body from accommodating to the training it is being exposed to (law of accommodation).

Manipulation of training variables could include; exercise selection/order, higher training volumes (repetitions/total distance), increased loads (weight), more frequent training, or shorter rest periods etc. These stressors are underpinned by the ‘law of progressive load’, whereby the body is being strategically exposed to elevated stressors as it adapts and evolves to the environment it is frequently being exposed to.

Exhaustion (D):

Taking the resistance stage of the model and the two after-effects of training into consideration, all stresses on the body increase the risk of exhaustion, not just training stress but psychological and emotional stress (work, relationships etc.) also. If these stresses are not controlled or managed accordingly, this can lead to non-functional overreaching or overtraining, due to exceeding the available adaptive energy.

An additional phenomenon that can be experienced in this process is what’s known as a super-compensatory (C) effect. If ones training programme is systematically implemented and the appropriate training variables are being addressed to either meet the demands of the sport/competition or the set training goals, and the relevant recovery strategies and stress management are in place, the individual will experience the positive physiological response and adaptations to training as previously mentioned. E.g. if you are training muscle hypertrophy and strength, the trained muscles will increase in size and the body will become stronger and more efficient through various ranges it is being exposed to.

The same applies to aerobic or endurance style training, whereby the muscles will build a tolerance to the imposed demands and you’ll be able to run/swim/cycle for a longer duration or reach greater distances at a given timeframe etc.

 

Considerations & Application

I appreciate this blog so far has been very heavy on the 1-2 hours either spent in the gym, on the track or in the swimming pool. But what you’re doing away from training in the other 22 hours is equally if not more important if you want to elicit those positive adaptations you seek from your training.

As has been briefly highlighted throughout; the implementation of appropriate recovery strategies through the form of sleep, nutrition/hydration, stress management and for me one that gets ‘glossed over’ far too often… Sound programming and organisation of planned rest periods either through the form of tapers/de-loads or manipulation of training frequency will help to dissipate fatigue that has accumulated over a 2-3 week training period and augment that super-compensatory effect we all desire as a result of our training (Image 3). I guess this big cog of the wheel can be underpinned by the ‘law of recovery’ and is equally as important as your training.

Image 3

So, where do we go from here? Foundations! Think General Physical Preparedness (GPP) – GPP being a form of general training and conditioning that should be implemented to develop fitness qualities such as strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and skill.

This form of training is completely non-specific and encourages the integration of big movement patterns at low-moderate loads with higher repetition schemes that encompass sound technique and skill acquisition. Squat patterns (front, back, split squats), hinge movements (RDL’s, kettlebell swings), upper body presses and pulls (press-ups, bench press, pull-ups, rows), carries, throws, running, swimming all fall under this blanket of GPP that will path the way to more specific training and/or greater training workloads.

If you’re involved in individual or team sports that have seasons, you’ll typically see this form of training at the beginning of a pre-season window that will path the way to more specific training ahead of and during competition periods. This style of planning or periodisation is underpinned by horizontal sequencing, whereby one block or form of training will have a positive knock-on effect to subsequent training blocks.

So, to bring all of the above together… If you’re sat there wondering what you should do next with yours or your athletes’ training, start with the end in mind. What are the training goals you’d like to achieve or what are the demands of your athlete’s sport or competition?

From there choose a timeframe in which you’d like to achieve said goals or the timeframe you have with your athletes ahead of sporting fixtures or competition. Understand that through training stress we can augment positive adaptations, however, fitness and fatigue are ever-present after-effects and how we manage the two will dictate the direction in which our training will go (super-compensation vs overtraining).

But to combat this, if you arm yourself with a sound understanding of the laws of specificity, progressive overload, accommodation and recovery, and address these accordingly, you’re certainly on your way. Finally, overtime when these foundations have been laid down and movement patterns have been engrained, you’ll find come to realise that “sometimes less is more”.

“Learn to Walk Before You Run”

Richard Walters

 

References

Chiu, L.Z.F., & Barnes, J. L. (2003) The Fitness-Fatigue Model Revisited: Implications for Planning Short- and Long-Term Training. NSCA, 25(6), 42-51

Edgley, R. (2018) The Worlds Fittest Book, 1st edn., Great Britain: Sphere

Edgley, R. (2020) The Art of Resilience, 1st end., London: HarperCollinsPublishers

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H., Garhammer, J., McMilan, J., & Rozeneck, R. (1982). A theoretical model of strength training. NSCA J, 4(4), 36-39

Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British Medical Journal, 1(4667), 1383.

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