Progression and Development of Athletes is an Exercise in Stress and Rest in Their Most Important Pursuit

The top athletes in the world aren’t adhering to a “no pain no gain” model, nor are they doing highly popularized high intensity interval training or random WOD’s (workouts of the day).
Instead they are systematically alternating between bouts of very intense work and periods of easy training and recovery. The ongoing progression and development of athletes across all levels is an exercise in stress and rest in their most important pursuit.

The training of endurance athletes is a complex process. The goal of training is to stimulate the precise set of physiological adaptations needed to achieve maximum performance in a peak race.

The volume, intensity and distribution of training load and how all of these affect physiological parameters gives an insight into what it takes to be a successful distance runner. There are various ways to manipulate training for increased performance, but it is essential to understand the overall process behind how the body responds and adapts to a stimulus (workout or sequence of workouts that provokes an adaptive response).

The General Adaptation Syndrome is often referred to as the principle of supercompensation in exercise training. When a training stimulus is applied, there is an initial alarm phase where fatigue occurs, and the performance level is decreased. Following this stage with recovery, there is an adaptation phase where fatigue subsides, and adaptation takes place so that there is a supercompensation where performance increases to a level above that which it was before the training stimulus was applied. A new training stimulus can then be applied to go through the process again. It there is too little recovery, the body never fully recovers or adapts and can enter the exhaustion phase (over-training and injury risk!).
The Dose Response Relationship is another model explaining the optimal load of a workout. It refers to the interaction between the dose, the total load of the stimulus and the response, or resulting training effect.
Certain stressors can produce desirable effects, strengthening specific parts of the body that is under duress. Stress isn’t just harmful, it can also serve as a stimulus for growth and adaptation. Our adaptive stress response is rooted in inflammatory proteins and cortisol. When activated by stress, these serve as biological messengers so when the body is under threat, pre-programmed biochemical building blocks make the body stronger and more resilient.
If the amount of stress is too large or lasts too long, however, the body fails to adapt. It deteriorates instead of getting stronger- chronic stress, the exhaustion stage. The body rebels and enter a catabolic process, or a state of persistent breakdown. Rather signalling for repair and subsiding, elevated inflammation and cortisol linger at toxic levels. The adrenal system is constantly on guard and becomes overworked and fatigued leading to a myriad of health problems.
The body can withstand only so much tension before it breaks!
So stress can be positive, triggering desirable adaptations in the body or it can be negative causing harm. The effects of stress depend almost entirely on the dose and when applied in the right dose, it stimulates both physiological and psychological adaptations.

The greatest gains often follow immense struggle and discomfort with a meticulous approach to training. When you step outside your comfort zone, you will grow. Then developing a new capability requires effort. Skills come from struggle.
Just manageable challenges manifest when you feel a little out of control but not quite anxious. When the task at hand is a bit beyond your skills, you are in the sweet spot, this is what you’re after. We need to regularly venture off a known path and go down a slightly more demanding one that forces us to push at the point of resistance for growth. But we also need to pursue this growth in a healthy and sustainable way. Recovery in between bouts of stress is vital for the effort to be beneficial. Sleep needs to be prioritized-it should be reframed as something that is productive.

  • THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF STRESS SERVES AS A POWERFUL STIMULUS FOR GROWTH.
  • ASSIGNING THE CORRECT INTENSITY AND VOLUME OF A WORKOUT TO ELICIT AN OPTIMAL RESPONSE IS ESSENTIAL IN PROPER TRAINING.
  • HAVE THE COURAGE TO REST
  • THE RECOGNITION THAT EACH INDIVIDUAL WILL RESPOND TO A STIMULUS AND ADAPT DIFFERENTLY INSTEAD OF GIVING RECOMMENDATIONS THAT APPEAR TO BE A ONE SIZE FITS ALL RECOMMENDATION IS HUGELY IMPORTANT. RECOVERABILITY OF EACH ATHLETE IS IMPORTANT.
  • WE ARE OFTEN AT OUR BEST WHEN WE COMPLETELY IMMERSE OURSELVES IN THE PROCESS OF GETTING BETTER

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Recovery Runs – An crucial component of your training.

Don’t rush the process of athletic development. It takes time and patience, don’t cut corners.
We need to be consistent with our training but also with our recovery. To improve your running performance, you need to correctly balance training and recovery so your body can positively adapt. Just as  the planned hard workouts have a purpose in your training cycle of stress and improvement, so too do your recovery days.

Recovery runs support growth and adaptation. They are very similar to normal distance runs, except the pace is slower and the duration is typically shorter to enhance recovery.
When used in the day following a more intense workout, a recovery run helps to return the body to homeostasis and prepare the body for the subsequent work to be done the following day. Often overlooked, recovery runs work to enhance the supercompensation effect. The occurs over weeks and months of training as you repeatedly provide a training stress interspersed with recovery.
The pace of the recovery run should be slow enough so that it is enhancing recovery and not prolonging it. The intensity needs to be low enough so that minimal muscle damage is occurring, and the primary fuel source is fat so as not to delay glycogen replenishment. The exact pace of course varies from individual to individual. Pay attention to your body and how it reacts and your biomechanics.
The total distance of the recovery run is also an individual preference. The purpose of the recovery run is to enhance adaptation by taking you through the adaptation phase quicker. Recovery runs and normal distance runs should make up the bulk of training. The harder you run, the more aerobic recovery work is needed. The stimulates the gentle flow of blood toxins to the liver, eliminating acidosis and restoring the body to neutral. The is also why slower paced running is better than total rest. Failure to remove any mounting and prolonged acidosis will damage the body’s enzymes, muscles and red blood cells. It can also depress the nervous system.

Consistency in Training

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~We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit – Aristotle

From a runner’s standpoint, the number one route to improved performance and forward progression is to aim for consistency with your training.

Concentrate on the task at hand, neither dwelling on the past nor looking too far forward. The only thing you can control is the present and when you focus on that and remain consistent, you will find your greatest success. Consistency is not a skill or a talent, you yourself have direct control over it.

Athletes must do everything in their power to stay healthy, injury free and consistent in their training for as long as possible.

Consistent daily improvements lead to big progress over time. Momentum is the backbone of progression.
Training consistently and building up gradually with the right structure and progression will reduce injury risk and improve performance.

To reduce injury risk, training must be changed gradually, i.e., volume, intensity and adding hills/speedwork.

Recovery runs need to be emphasised as much as everything else and athletes are not paying enough attention to this little detail.

Each session should have a specific purpose, including your easy runs. Could you be hitting those quality sessions even better by going 30-60 seconds slower per mile when going easy. The potential gains here are huge, even beyond the obvious that the easier load on the body means you’re more likely to keep consistently training over weeks, months and years with a healthy body.
Too high a percentage of speed work in your training week will only lead to short term gains. If you are working hard for every single workout and pushing every single workout, you are showing up for the days when you really need to work with less to give basically defeating the whole purpose of that workout date. Maximise your results on tempo/speed days by taking the other days easy.

Successful people strive for consistency, which means keeping a daily schedule. Start prioritizing your most important tasks to get the results you desire. Having a plan in place really gives us that structure we need to maintain consistent training week after week.
If you know something isn’t working however, change it, and stick to what works for you. Sometimes we need to be flexible with our methods. We need to consider a long-term vision and have the strength and capacity to make that drastic change that is going to allow us to reach our potential. In todays world, with people not being patient and wanting instant gratification too often, we default to-what can I get done to reach my performance goals now!
Along with consistency, patience is vital for success, if we become impatient, look for quick gains, we can become frustrated and feel like giving up altogether. Results do take time and sometimes just remaining patient and having faith in the training and staying consistent really does pay off. Find the minimal most effective dose that will provide you with the results you want to see. Keep focussing on this process and the results will take care of themselves.

Inconsistent consistency is a consistent road to flatlining, momentum on the other hand is the back bone to forward progression.

A well-designed training plan (that is adaptable and adjustable) specific to the athlete followed consistently will maximise results. It will have the proper mix of stress and recovery and ensures the right type of training occurs at the right time.
Wolff’s Law states that ‘the body conforms and adapts to the intensities and directions it is habitually subjected to’

Michelle Greaney

(Level 2 National Athletics Ireland Endurance Coach)