This is a follow up post to Adaptation, where getting worse to get better was addressed. In order to make progress, there’s always some regression to deal with. Hard training pays off, but too much of a good thing is not just a likely but a reality for almost anyone who seriously trains. It’s when you train beyond your body’s recovery capabilities repeatedly, which can lead to a state called overtraining. Let’s look at how this differs from adaptation.
Fessin’ up: I’m writing this post while observing a test group, decidedly more of a multi-task than I’m comfortable with, so if something doesn’t make sense, please ask. Sorry, it’s my only time slot to get this done today.
We’ll use a series of graphs to help sort these processes out. Understand this basic process of training and it will help everything you do. Even if you employ a trainer or workout to videos, which anticipate these processes for you, knowing how they work will help you make adjustments so that you get the most out of your training by knowing when to ignore your mind and push through pain, or to back off and recover.
At the end of every workout (except recovery/restorative sessions) you are weaker than when you started. That is obvious, since your muscles often feel like jelly. In the graph above you see the process of recovery. The darkened section is what’s called supercompensation. After you recover your body’s response is to get stronger. This is a protective response–evolving, if you will–in order to survive to the situation. Your body wants to be ready for the workout you gave it, so that it doesn’t get weaker the next time. This is a technique for survival; your body is adapting to its environment, which in this case is your workout program (though it would do the same thing if you started a construction job, were in military boot camp, etc).
If we were, say, running from saber-toothed tigers and mastodons, we would adapt on a need-to level. The training term would be random. Those who survived back then, most likely, came up with a way of training for such situations in anticipation (like, ya know, the movie 300). Using scientific gadgetry, we now know approximately how long it takes to recover from certain stimulus to the body. This is why workout programs are scheduled the way they are. However, since we aren’t being chased by predators and giant elephants who (rightfully so, apparently) felt like we were going to push them out of all their habitats, we would structure our training to force adaptation to happen as quickly as possible. While you’re adapting, you’re often in that part of the curve that’s below the line where supercompensation occurs. At that point you’re probably tired and sore and really, really hoping you don’t have to out run a tiger.
Once you have adapted, you get stronger, faster, etc. Since you can only accomplish so much in a workout, you schedule you’re training so that you’ve had time to adapt from one workout, and supercompensate, before doing it again. The above graph shows a perfect situation, training again at the absolutely peak of supercompensation, before deconditioning begins.
Since we’re trying to force this process, you’re never fully recovered between workouts.This is why you taper, or back off on your training, before big events (another topic).
If you do the same workout before you’ve allowed supercompensation to occur, you’ll get weaker instead of stronger. When it’s done once or twice it’s called overreaching. You are simply out training your body’s ability to recover. Continue this process for very long and you create a detrained state, called overtraining. You are overtrained when your central nervous system, in order to protect your body, starts shutting off functions that are used for performance. For this reason, overtraining for too long almost always leads to illness or injury.
In training vernacular, all people know about plateaus is that we want to avoid them. Being on a plateau means you’re stuck, which as a trainer, and even more as a client, is about the most frustrating situation to be in. While almost a different discussion, understand that plateaus happen helps solve the puzzle about whether you are adapting or overtraining.
We plateau for one reason, a natural resistance to change. This is more than habit. Your body’s survival instincts means it wants to continue to do whatever it has been doing. When we make statements like “this always works for me” we’re instilling human habits that are converse to how the body works, by adapting to change.
As you adapt, you get better at something. Once that thing because mundane, and you are no longer adapting, it takes less effort for you body to do something that once challenged it. For example, run 5 miles tomorrow and you’ll burn X amount of calories. Run 5 miles everyday for a month and it will get easier and you will burn fewer calories. Your body has adapted. In order to burn the same number of calories you need to a) run further b) run faster or c) add resistance to the run (weight, wind, increase gravity, etc).
Plateau-ing, as a state, is best discussed as a part of the periodization question. This is (a-la “muscle confusion”) how you train in macro cycles in order to continually forced adaptations on the body to effect change over the long haul. It’s a different discussion, but it pertains to this topic in that the point of periodizational structure is to train systems individually at different times in order to maximize each system (power, endurance, etc) without plateau-ing or overtraining. This pertains to yet another post, on limited energy of the body, which you should read to understand this process as well.
You training should always improve. Your individual training sessions should be scheduled into your microcycles (weeks) and macrocycles (months) so that you can continually improve. You will have bad or off days, on occasion, when you don’t get the supercompensation equation right (can happen due to stress even if scheduled right, like bad sleep or bad diet or just life) but, in general, your workouts should get better over time or you need to change what your’e doing.
Ultimate performance (especially related to sports) will often decline, sometimes greatly. Your body’s limited energy is focused on training, and often training particular systems. With its energy focused on training, trying to performance tasks (most of which use multiple systems in harmony) should not be expected to go well. This is why trainers rarely test PRs during training and why athletes have “training races”.
Adaptation is occurring when your training is going well, even if sports performance is terrible. Overtraining is occurring if you training isn’t going well. In fact, due to the many tangible facets of sports performance, your sports performance will drop off more slowly than your training if you are overtraining, making your training the simplest for of evaluation. If you have a bad workout, or two, it happens. But if you’re training is on a general decline, you’re either getting sick or overtraining, both cases where you should stop your training and evaluate the situation further.
We’ll look at how to reverse the effects of an overtrained state in a future post. For now, just stop. Eat well. Sleep well.