your training and stress explained PART 1

March 14, 2021

In all but elite athletes physical stress from training is not the number one contributor to total stress. Yet so many people want to do the same training program as elite athletes.

Almost every book you will read or every course you will take about physical training will start out by explaining Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome, how all biological challenges will progress through the same sequences of phases: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. And then they will explain homeostasis, and how disrupting it will result in supercompensation to the stimulus and lead to us adapting to training.

Training programs continue to use these principles as justification even though stress science has moved on from these concepts. The idea of the GAS principle and supercompensation through a disruption in homeostasis is the response to a stressor was primarily biological, where now we know response to stress starts as psycho-emotional. This makes the response to stress highly individualized, not generally the same as the GAS principle would tell us.

Homeostasis is Your body's tendency to maintain equilibrium. Allostasis is the Process the body goes through to maintain equilibrium. Allostatic Load is the total amount of effort our body needs to exert to maintain homeostasis. -Reducing the allostatic load (removing unplanned stressors) means we have more room for planned stressors (like training) and allows for more optimal adaptations.

As far as our training programs go, we should be concerned with total allostatic load and what we can and cannot include in our training that is going to make us better. An athlete with 5+ years of experience and having built resilience to adapt to more work needs to have a workload that looks much different from someone 6 months in and who is still navigating all the things that need to be in place outside of training that puts themselves in a good position to adapt to training.

Seley’s theory said that if you put just the right amount of stress on an organism and allowed for recovery you would see improvement. But if you continued to train too hard for too long you would see wear and tear and eventually breakdown. Coaches took his research, which was done by torturing rats, and applied it to training, with the idea of applying just the right amount of progressive stress over time and you would see progress. We combine that with a framework for long term planning and the concept of periodization was born. It makes training seem like a recipe. You put these inputs in and you will come out with these outputs. It’s obvious to anyone who has spent time in the gym that it doesn’t quite work this way.

The part that all these principles miss is psycho-emotional stress is not distinct from physical stress. The response you get from training will depend on what state you are overlaying the physical stress from training on. Your traits and predispositions matter, like do you tend to be anxious or have a tendency to feel overwhelmed easily? Do you have a history of stress? How resilient to stressors are you? Your prior training history and injury history matter and so do your genetics of course. You and your coach need to know these things to find useful information to how you can respond best to your training.

And your current, day to day stress status needs to be accounted for as well. Mental and emotional stress will diminish your performance and your ability to adapt to training. And if you have excessive stress or are predisposed to high-stress reactivity will be more likely to overtain, burnout, suffer from chronic fatigue, have a worsening in the function of your immune system and could even suffer from depression like symptoms.

There are a lot of things that can go into our current stress status. Our mood and emotions are one easy thing to account for, but there are other things like mental stress or mental fatigue. There have been studies that have shown having an athlete perform mentally challenging problems before training or competing can increase their rating of perceived exertion, or how hard that session or event feels. Recovering to be fresh can’t be just a physical thing, we need to take the mental fitness side into account as well! Nutrition can be a source of stress, irregular sleep patterns, environmental stressors, and residual fatigue can all be other factors we need to take into account for what we are thinking about overlaying the training stress on top of.

So when we think about training this way it’s easy to see the problem with long term periodization plans. How would we know what we should be doing 3 months from now? It’s really impossible to predict… Same thing goes for a one size fits all approach, it can change in a day! If you come across a program that is trying to predict the future like that, remember people who are least confident are more accurate about predicting future events than those who are more confident in their predictions.

Knowing all this the next step is figuring out what you can do to give yourself the best chance of success. The first thing to recognize that all this stuff matters. Knowing that day in day out their are tons of factors that will go into the outcomes we accomplish from training. Knowing that training isn’t a recipe book that says x amounts of reps times y amount of sets = Some outcome, is important. Working with a coach you have faith in and have trust in, and listens to your feedback will be more likely to set you up for success than just doing the same thing someone else did because it seemed to work for them.

Having a system to subjectively assess your emotional and mental state along with your day to day stress levels is important for you to be aware of, and for your coach to be monitoring over time. It’s important for both you and your coach to be communicating, there will be times when things aren’t perfect and you have to push through but you and your coach need to be on the same page about what you're trying to accomplish each day and what the intent is behind each piece. Having a plan is important, but it’s more important that you trust the plan and know your coach will have your back as you navigate through it.

Other than just subjective daily and weekly feedback it’s also important to have some objective feedback systems built in. Your autonomic nervous system is a major regulator of your emotional state, so measuring your heart rate variability can be a great way to get some feedback on your readiness for training. Other objective measurements I use to monitor your current status would be a grip dynamometer, resting heart rate, or just some strength metrics that I’m watching trends over time.

Remember, Any increase in prescription, accuracy, and decrease in inappropriate training is worth fighting for.

Working within a process you have positive perceptions, expectations, and confidence in as well as having that process be able to address your concerns, doubts, and day to day changes is very important to consider. It’s also important to have a system for getting yourself ready to train each day. Having routine before training to get yourself in the right place to execute the training session. Again this can go back to having trust in your coach and communicating to know the intent of the session, but also can include your pre-training routine that helps you clear your head and put your focus where it should be. Things like what is my pre-workout snack or meal, what music do I listen to and when? Having a specific breathing routine, or anything that puts you in the state where you know you are preparing for the upcoming session.

Watch for Part 2 of this article where I will discuss ways to deal with instant and chronic sources of stress to try to limit the damage it can do to your potential progress.