Managing Training Stress
Whether you're looking for improved performance, health, or aesthetics, management of stress is crucial.
Stress has become an ambiguous term that confuses professionals and laymen alike. Much of the confusion stems from how H. Selye first defined stress as "in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself."
All righty, then!
Clearly, we need to establish a more understandable definition of stress if we are to master its role in adaptive training.
Simply, training stress has a relationship to an event. These events can have both negative and positive affects on one's mental and physical health.
In the training arena, stress can be manipulated to disrupt homeostasis and, when applied appropriately, the resulting disruption leads to positive changes – but whether it's a positive or a negative change depends upon the expertise of the programmer.
This is where I see the biggest problem in our industry – lack of forethought by trainers when programming volume and intensity.
I see this most often in the growing area of "General Physical Preparation (GPP)" training, specifically, armed forces and law enforcement professionals who require a high-level of balanced fitness to excel at their job.
Regardless of their occupation, GPP athletes are much more susceptible to overtraining and injury compared to single sport athletes, due to the concurrent training approach most GPP athletes use.
A concurrent approach to GPP is based on training all fitness capacities simultaneously. This type of training is wrought with many stress variables that need intensive management, which is why the vast majority of my time used to be spent proactively and reactively programming for my GPP individuals.
Over the years, however, I've wised up and started to implement a system that cybernetically adjusts volume and intensity based on specific biofeedback from my athletes.
The system uses a block style of periodization that prioritizes training based on each individual athlete's weaknesses. This is done to create balance across all trainable components of performance.
But before we can address the issues associated with certain methods of training, let's address the question, ?"What is stress"?
Don't Stress Out!
Exercise science has always been closely tied to stress. For decades coaches have used a single-factor training model to achieve improvements by way of homeokinesis.
This model's success is dependent upon the conservative application of specific training "stressors" in a periodized fashion. The simplicity of this program makes it easier to manage the stress variables involved, especially with the novice athlete.
We see this super-compensation approach in most periodized strength programs. These programs are effective at creating improvements in strength, especially when the outside stress variables involved are few.
This is an important distinction because, when additional stress variables are added, gains can be marginalized. This negative effect can be attributed to flaws in super-compensation theory coupled with the inherent complexity of the human body.
How could super-compensation theory be flawed? Well, if super-compensation was law, we'd all be following a linear progression to a new personal record 900-pound squat.
Back to the future
In 1938 Seyle proposed a new concept called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This later evolved to a slightly more refined version he called Stress Syndrome. Both models suggested that stress was the common denominator of all adaptive reactions within the body."
It's easy to spot the transferability of these ideas in the fields of medicine and exercise science. Doctors adopted the theory and used it to explain psychosomatic diseases caused by the "stress of life," while sport scientists used it to create a theoretical framework for periodized training.
For decades exercise scientists have successfully "stressed" an athlete's body using specific training loads to elicit a super-compensatory effect. However, the crux of an effective concurrent GPP approach lies in managing both general and specific training loads.
I touched upon this in my last article Your Cardio Makes No Sense. When it comes to training GPP, the use of multiple energy systems and strength variables, at a maximal effort, leaves the athlete prone to overtraining.
Experts have spent countless hours backtracking through Selye's work to find the answers regarding this stress-training riddle. Unfortunately, the answer may be more complicated than we've expected, considering the GAS theory is flawed.
In 1975 a group of Soviet scientists headed by Professor L. Garkarvyi confirmed the shortcomings of GAS theory. (Woefully, Westerners failed to recognize the importance of this work – cold war effect? – and continued with their interpretation of the GAS status quo.)
The Soviet scientists found GAS theory to be vague and incomplete, primarily because Selye saw stress acting as a damaging stimuli, which can't be a common denominator. Selye also didn't place enough emphasis on the necessity of homeostatic reactions to mild and moderate stress.
GAS implies that change occurs only under stressors of high magnitudes. The work of Garkarvi, et al. refutes this theory and proposes a more holistic explanation by embracing the idea that the body reacts to stress of different magnitudes.
These ideas are important when designing a GPP program. After all, if performance and aesthetic improvements were dependent upon a simple alarm-adaptation-exhaustion continuum, then most coaches would be out of a job.
Choosing your Pill
There are many factors involved when developing a training program, such as orthopedic pathology, lifestyle stress, training age, chronological age, diet, sleep, training volume, and intensity to name just a few.
Unfortunately, the more complex your goals, the more difficult it is to manage the "stressors," and a concurrent approach is the hardest to manage of all.
This opinion is based on my work with the military and law enforcement communities. The deployment schedules required operators to maintain a high level of GPP for long periods of time (up to two years). This type of schedule, coupled with austere training environments, dictated that we use a "do the best you can" training approach to GPP. In hindsight, this method largely missed the mark.
The new system requires that trainees have a higher level of patience initially, as we assess and detect issues and assign a volume intensive block of corrective training. "Corrective training" doesn't always refer to orthopedic issues but any deficiencies in the trainable components of performance, such as strength, power, endurance, etc.
By addressing these deficiencies early and directly, we can get the athlete closer to their genetic potential in a more concise and efficient manner. This initial effort helps athletes achieve a more balanced athletic profile and, subsequently, lets us offer more agreeable programming. This aids with program compliance and allows us to repeat the process over many years with continued improvement.
It should be noted that well-balanced training sessions act as a GPP athlete's preparatory period. This is an important distinction because it's difficult for any athlete to overtrain in the preparatory period.
This is why GPP athletes shouldn't "compete" everyday. Sound preparatory training requires that volume and intensity be programmed appropriately (inverse relationship). This type of preparatory training coupled with a block of intense-specific deficiency training sets the stage for a GPP athlete's "game day" performance.
Some GPP athletes may experience damaging "game day" reactions (fear induced hormonal and biological changes) that lead to performance adaptation as seen in the classic Selye model.
Whether these adaptations are ultimately positive is dependent upon the presence of a "post game" plan using anti-stress agents (diet, sleep, steady state cardio, etc.) to offset certain caustic effects of the "game day" events.
Hard Efforts Revisited
After my last article, some interpreted my position as "anti-hard" effort. This couldn't be further from the truth. I believe hard efforts, programmed properly, provide an anti-stress effect that's widely known in medicine.
During hard effort training, the number of erythrocytes, hemoglobin and mitochondria grows, and capillary and immune system functions are improved. If the body is adapted to hard efforts, it would also be resistant to other factors, called the cross adaptation effect. The cross adaptation is followed by nonspecific resistance increase and a consequent rise in energy potential.
This falls in line with the Rostov's work on training reactions in the body. It's been shown that a human body responds to various factors with certain general defense reactions.
Thus, the knowledge of the response allows for activating nonspecific adaptation defense reactions that improve nervous, immune, and hormonal systems functions. This falls in line with Arndt-Schultz's Law, which states that weak stimuli activate vitality, moderate stimuli reinforce it, strong stimuli resist it, and the strongest ones destroy it.
This makes it important for untrained athletes to not try to overcome 10 years of inactivity within one week. This will, inevitably, lead to a true stress situation.
Managing GPP Training
When creating a system to manage hundreds of athletes with varying abilities, you learn stress management isn't easy. So, rather than bore you with pages of specifics, I'll present two simple yet important techniques to help monitor changes in an athlete based stress. These changes act as biofeedback tools to reactively adjust periodized training volumes and intensities.
Stress management is dependent upon biofeedback. By instituting these simple tests, you'll be able to improve stress management by adjusting the planned daily training volume and/or intensity.
Waking Heart Rate. Take your pulse upon waking and before getting out of bed for several days to establish a baseline.
- Replace scheduled workout with Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training if your morning heart rate is greater than 10% (type 2) of your baseline.
- Take the training day off if your morning heart rate is greater than 15% (type 3) above baseline.
MAF training requires you to maintain a heart rate below your MAF score. Your MAF score is determined by subtracting 180-age. See this article for a detailed description.
Diagnostic Quiz. Subjective feedback from each athlete is valued data in determining optimum training loads. Upon waking, the athlete should take this simple test to better manage daily training volume and intensity.
Rate each statement on a 1-5 scale as follows: 1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neutral; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree.
- I slept really well last night.
- I'm looking forward to today's workout.
- I'm optimistic about my future performance(s).
- I feel vigorous and energetic.
- My appetite is great.
- I have very little muscle soreness.
Evaluate yourself every morning when you're ready to start your day. If your total score is 20 or above, your overall state of recovery is pretty good and you're probably good to carry out a high-quality workout that day. If your total score is below 20, it's probably wise to rest or work easily until your score rises again.
The human body is a complex mechanism that often leaves scientists with more questions than answers regarding its processes. This forces us to identify and emphasize the scientific solutions that are most important to our training.
The two-biofeedback methods (HR and quiz) I've provide can act as important tools to help gauge how our body is responding to various outside stressors. When coaches and athletes establish these baseline measurements, it allows them to adjust training volume and/or intensity when a system overload is present.
This could be the most important aspect of managing the complexities of GPP based training. A superior GPP program must rely on biofeedback measures and a block periodization scheme that has reactive anti-stress tendencies.
GPP coaches must recognize the need for active rest and recovery, if the organism (body) is to work. This can be achieved by using certain strategies such as limiting game day events to the competition period and implementing proactive post game day anti-stressors when high stress loads occur.
It's also important to acknowledge the amplified susceptibility of GPP athletes to stressed-based problems when using a concurrent training approach. This type of game day, every day method is far less effective than a classic block periodization model with a deficiency focus.
These practices certainly take an upfront effort when programming, but will ultimately pay dividends for both the athlete and the coach as long-term improvements and program compliance.