March 11, 2014 posted by

Adaptation: Getting Worse To Get Better

Adaptation: Getting Worse To Get Better

Fitness is not a linear projection. You will look and feel better when you’re fit. You’ll have more energy. You’ll be able to sleep less. You’ll live longer. But the road to fitness is not a one-way street. If you are training hard, there is no way to make progress without taking some steps backwards. And this is how it should be. There should be times when you’re sore. Workouts when you do worse. Nights it’s hard to sleep and days whe your energy is drained. And, even then, when you know it will happen, it can fool you. Hopefully my anecdote will help.

This weekend I went bouldering. I got on a project that, only one week before, had gone very well. Got killed. Not only couldn’t I do the moves, I often fell off just trying to hold the starting positions of the movements. Feeling I might get hurt, I packed up and left, and only on the walk back to my car did I realize what an idiot I had been.

Gaining fitness can be a subtle proposition. While you’re making progress—adapting or The Specificity of Adaptation, if you want the text book term—your body changes from day to day. You often feel fine, only to find there’s nothing in the tank when it’s time to step on the gas. Other times it’s obvious, when you’re sore or tired or just feel like crap. The point I’m making is that you don’t know and, in fact, cannot completely know, how your body will respond day to day from training. Otherwise athletes would never mess up event preparation. And they do. All the time.

What you can do, and should do, is trust your training program. This won’t help you know exactly how you’ll perform from day to day. Adaptation varies per individual. But at least you can look back on what you’ve been doing: your training, your diet, how you’ve been sleeping, and probably anticipate what you should be asking of yourself.

That said, it’s easy not to trust your program. I’ve been training for many, many years. I’ve experimented will all sorts of different training programs, diets, and supplements. If anyone should know how their program is working, a good case could be made that person should be me. Yet, I often don’t.

Hiking down from my aborted session, I evaluated what had happened the week prior. I’d started a new phase of training and done two hard workouts. Repetitions dropped from 30 to 15. Fingerboard training sets dropped from 72 to 60 seconds (6 sets of 12 seconds to 10) and increased from 6 grip positions to 9. While training time had decreased, intensity had increased, which if you are pushing yourself means you are targeting higher threshold muscle cell motor units. You are more broken down. Weaker. As I thought of this, my failed session became very clear.

Yet, I didn’t feel it. The changes had been subtle. I wasn’t sore, or tired. Walking up the hill to the climb I felt every bit as strong as I had the weekend prior. I was perplexed at my failure, and how awful I felt. I became irritated, and then bitter that I’d wasted precious time outside on a no-win senario. That is, until I sorted things out. Then I was psyched. Sure, I’d played a stupid hand, but the bottom line was that training is working.


  • Thank you Steve, very helpful article!!! As I am amazed that doubles last week (cardio in the morning and weight lifting at night) didn’t yield any better results for me in terms of the weight loss.. Of cause I could be building more muscle mass…or I could be over training… our body incredibly complicated and sophisticated – it is a brain on it own… the only thing I know for sure that if I workout every day I will get fit eventually, it is the road not the destination isn’t it?!

  • How can you tell the difference between adaptation and over-training? The symptoms you are describing sound similar. Does it have more to do with matching the symptoms with your expectations of where you should be on the current training program you are doing?

  • That’s such a good question it’s getting its own post. In fact, you don’t always know. The law of supercompensation means that you’ll adapt and gain fitness. Hopefully you’ll do your next workout at the peak of supercompensation, forcing more adaptation. But if you get this wrong–and you often will-it can lead to deconditioning. In itself, this is not overtraining, just overreaching during a workout, and some is unavoidable. Done regularly and it becomes overtraining. This is the kind of thing you pay a trainer to tell you but there are ways to figure it out yourself. More soon….

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