Understanding stress induced by training

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Stress is everything and anything, the interpretation of the world around you. Hans Selye suggested it is a constant fluctuating stimulus which the body has to deal with.

The human body seeks homeostasis, it likes a balance. It enjoys a few beers at the weekend but doesn’t go too crazy. As balanced as Gareth Southgate 1-0 up against Colombia. During a high tide of stress or even a particular stressor, e.g. Colombia equalizing in the 90th minute the body is forced to react and adapt to stress, you deal with it – You go on to win a penalty shoot out. However, if you constantly carry on creating stressors (or make terrible tactical decisions) it may become a chronic state where it has a negative impact on the body’s function. Think the last 30 minutes against Croatia a week on...

Apply this logic to training, training is stress. If you perform a workout and feel sore the next day, that is a physiological response to stress. The next time you train you may even feel better, this is because recovery and adaptation has taken place. If you keep pounding away without adequate rest, over time you will create too much stress for the body to deal with. This is especially true when combining high intensity, high volume workouts with regular frequency. Simply because training at 80% and above of your maximum, with high amounts of repetition over numerous times per week creates a greater portion of stress.

General adaptation syndrome (GAS) gives us the breakdown and model we use to define our body’s reaction to stress. Without going into a huge amount of biology;

Alarm phase (workout) – The initial training stimuli elicited by physical work that creates an endocrine response and damage to connective tissue – a catabolic response.

Resistance phase (recovery) repairing muscular damage, filling up used glycogen stores, restoring previously normal hormonal balance – an anabolic response.

Exhaustion (overtraining) persistent physical work without recovery, this causes too much stress within the system. Impaired immune system, elevated cortisol, disruption to sleep, change in mood, inhibited insulin response, increase risk of injury, deficient thyroid – the endocrine system begins to play havoc. The longer this phase persists the further down the rabbit hole we go.
So what does this all mean and how does it affect my training?

In order to improve our performance, we first need to identify that stress can be positive if programmed correctly. We must a create sufficient amount of stress, otherwise we are just treading water.

There are a few ways we can manipulate training stress as I mentioned above;


Luckily for us the body has some resilience. If we give the body enough time to recover we will compensate. We call this “supercompensation”

According to Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, supercompensation is characterized by a period of “depletion” following exercise and then a rebound effect known as “restoration”. Supercompensation occurs after the restoration period where your level of fitness is higher than it was before your last training session. You can weave this in and out of your programming as you see fit. A week’s worth of training with an active recovery day (supercompensation) a month’s block of training with a week de-load (supercompensation)

Take a boxer training for a fight 12 weeks out, within this training camp supercompensation will be knitted into the plan, with the main goal to fully “peak” come fight night. As previously suggested, termed simply as “peaking” - essentially to be in your best possible shape. However, the human body is a little bit more complex than we would like at times. Each newly developed and heightened component of fitness gained has a biological shelf life so to speak. Whilst it’s interesting to know this fact, we could have a whole other blog on this topic. High performance training for sports by Daniel Lewindon and David Joyce has some chapters worth a read on this subject.
In order to improve our performance, we first need to identify that stress can be positive
How much is too much?

… And this is the million-dollar question.

When discussing this I want to reference two weightlifting programmes that established dominance for their respective countries at the Olympic games.

A.S Medvedev was a Soviet weightlifting coach in the 50’s and 60’s and was partly responsible of developing the world renown training philosophies for their Olympic weightlifting team. Looking at Medvedev’s material he would spend a great deal of time on the technical aspects of the sport. The detail is quite phenomenal when looking at the precision, especially considering how long ago this was. When he deemed an athlete ready he would typically spend TWO years of strength training where athletes weren’t allowed to go over 50-60% of bodyweight. Leading up to competition he would increase intensities but rarely max out. It was always important to develop the athlete slowly, he made sure the athlete had adapted to lower levels of stimuli and progressively refined motor control and hammered home movement patterns. The skill level was almost perfect and the athletes were robust.

Fast forward 10 years to the 1970 Olympics and the Bulgarians knocked the Soviets off their pedestal, a huge shock in world sport at the time. Consider Bulgaria a country of 4 million up against a well-oiled Soviet machine with a population of well over 200 million. It wasn’t just that, the Soviets were the forefront of sporting science at the time, we still reference and adapt their findings to this day. What the Bulgarians did however was develop a training system which focused on huge quantities of high intensity lifting, placing huge repeated amounts of stress on their athletes. Reports suggested they trained 4x as much as the Soviets over the week, with greater volumes and at much higher intensities (90%-max). Make or break, it was a true acid test for anyone wanting to be an Olympic champion. This was such an embarrassment for the Soviets they adapted similar techniques and again, over time, went to the top of the tree.

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So, what you’re saying is; we should train like Bulgarian weightlifters?

Absolutely not… I hear you ask “but why, they were successful?”

See this is the point where many seem to get lost. It worked for them, it must surely work for me. My rebuttals are; Are you living in Bulgaria in the 1960’s? Are you on anabolic steroids? What is your intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to train? How many fell by the wayside trying to reach the top of the tree? We live in such an instant gratification society where at the click of a button we can get what we want, far away from Bulgarian life in the 1960’s. It breeds this 0-100mph mentality, the body just simply doesn’t work that way. Dave Spitz an American Olympic weightlifting coach who spent a lot of time working with this method introduced it to American athletes. He then did a U-turn when he realised it just didn’t transfer, it was too much for the athletes to handle. Apply this programme to another sport, apply the programme to a busy mum, apply this programme to a business exec, apply this programme to a beginner.

It sounds crazy, and whilst maybe not to such extremes but people still run with this logic all too often. It may not be the exact same programme/method but the message is commonly prevalent in today’s fitness industry. More is better, higher intensity is always greater, you can always work harder – this burn out attitude needs to be addressed.

Work smarter, not harder.

To clarify, this isn’t a get out of jail free card for those of us who want to take the easy route. As discussed earlier, we need stress in order to increase performance, you just have to read off the right hymn sheet. I like the saying;

“The higher level the coach the more emphasis on the fundamentals and basics”

If you are a coach then first of all you must understand stress, you must understand how it can benefit an individual or team and how it can be a detriment. This is crucial. You have to take into account many factors, sleep, nutrition, biomechanics, total stress, resilience to those stressors, environment, personality type, social mechanisms and….
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Understand where the training age is

One of the most important things a coach or an individual must consider when looking to find a training programme. What I mean by this, are you a beginner or an experienced athlete?

If you have only trained for 3 months would a high intensity, high volume, high frequency, high stress programme be the best bet. No. I get perplexed by the amount of people who sign up to the London marathon do 4 months of training, hobble around for 26 miles then spend 3 months trying to rehabilitate Achilles tendonitis. The training modality which is predominately aerobic is not the problem, the distance is. When you explain that every stride the leg has to absorb, decelerate and control eccentric loads of up to and greater than 2.5x bodyweight it shouldn’t be a surprise. Without proper incremental loading, tendons don’t function optimally, the stretch shortening cycle isn’t efficient and the nervous system isn’t prepared = high risk of potential overuse injury.

If you have been training for 6 years would it be ok to dabble in higher intensities? Most likely. I say most likely because as with everything there are some exceptions.

Being reactive as a coach and using your intuition is paramount, stress comes in many forms
So where do we start?

As a coach or anyone interested in taking the next step in terms of training smarter, you have to constantly ask yourself - how do we measure the efficacy of our training methods?

Persistent evaluation using measurable tests.

It is imperative to be able to adapt and learn from our clients every single time they step in the gym or into the competitive arena to perform. Use measurable tests to determine levels of stress. You can use performance testing, heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring or something as simple as 1-10 “how do you feel” scale. Future blog posts will go into detail some methods which you can copy and paste into to your training. It gives you a baseline and without this data at hand, how do you know when to push the envelope and when to ease off. Being reactive as a coach and using your intuition is paramount, stress comes in many forms. I had a client come in after 40,000m in the pool that week, looking a little sheepish. He had work experience 9-5 on top of that and just having finished school exams. The programme says I’ve got an 85% back squat with 5 second eccentric focus… if I go through with that, I need to have a sit down.

Bridging the gap

Whether you have a high training age or low training age, you should probably start with a General Physical Preparedness (GPP), sometimes known as General Preparatory Phase. Joel Jamison a MMA S&C coach and author of 8 Weeks Out writes “The nature of training done during this phase should be both general and performed with the goal of preparing the body for more specific training to come. It can typically take place over several months focusing on energy system development, necessary for supporting a higher level of physical performance. In conjunction with developing skills that aren’t high complexity and building a foundation of strength enabling positive connective tissue adaptations”.

I would typically vary the length of a GPP phase depending on a few things, some of them below;

  • Training age (the lower the training age the greater emphasis on GPP)

  • The needs analysis of the individual (strengths/weaknesses)

  • Needs analysis of their sport/goals e.g. what do they require in terms of future specificity

  • Movement capacity (previous injury’s, ROM, loaded ROM)

  • Motivation

  • Personality type

There are many methods to increase performance, some work specifically better for a certain fitness components than others. One I like for more experienced trained individuals looking for the next step in their strength training and velocity based training would be Cal Dietz triphasic method. It consists of training the 3 stages of contraction – Eccentric, Isometric and Concentric (we’ve got to learn to absorb force before we produce it, right?!)

He also describes the importance of an inverse relationship between volume and intensity and how he manipulated it to his benefit. This was something the Bulgarians at the time didn’t figure out. If the intensity is high the volume can’t be high too, or certainly not for long training blocks. The training effect would be dampened and the stress over time would be too great to recover from. Again, Cal found this out when he implemented Bulgarian high intensity methods to his collegiate athletes. They were burnt out by the end of one training week – note; it was a much more remedial programme but still created too much stress for his drug free athletes.

He figured out the undulating method had to change where the high intensity days and high volume days were situated. This is so they wouldn’t interfere with one another creating fatigue (higher intensities start of the week, higher volumes later in the week with rest over the weekend – this on a 3x split) Whether that be linear progressive or block periodisation, both could be implemented with this style. To read more about this check out Triphasic training vol. 1 by Cal Dietz.

For individuals wanting to get involved, don’t run before you can walk. Build a solid foundation.
Final thoughts

Still one of my favourite quotes when it comes to physical performance.

“You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe”.

For some reason in this day and age where science is far more advanced, some of us get it all backwards. We get excited by the glamour of athletic triumphs and the strive for superhuman excellence, demanding it at the drop of a hat and we forget where it all should start. Shortcuts aren’t a part of the process, as soon as we realise this the chance of injuries decrease and performance increases. Not just for a week, a month, or even a year but for 3,4,5,6 years and so on. As a coach, I want to keep my athlete or my client as healthy as possible, ready to perform. It’s not sexy, it takes time but when we buy a pair of quality denim jeans, how many of us look at the stitching. I understand it’s not always possible to stay 100%, specifically for those in competition when the animal gets unleashed so to speak but I haven’t done my job if they don’t get there in the first place. Once I’m happy with the progression through general means (GPP) we can look to push the envelope. We can do so because we have made them as bulletproof as humanly possible. Longevity is everything, it has to be incrementally layered and stacked, like building a pyramid so the structure can be sustainable and successful over time. Remember Medvedev was still producing Olympians and we still are today with those same methods slightly more polished. And here is the gem, something we need to fully grasp. For a beginner, who has a low training age, 10 minutes of something as simple as finding the correct position in a squat can create sufficient positive adaptations. Let that sink in for a while.

The Take homes

1) For individuals wanting to get involved, don’t run before you can walk. Build a solid foundation. Maybe see the wonderful coaches at One Performance to get a better understanding of what works for YOU.

2) For both coaches and gym goers. Use measurable tests to determine levels of stress, performance testing, HRV monitoring or something as simple as 1-10 “how do you feel” scale. It gives you a baseline.

3) For coaches, challenge the efficacy of your programming.

4) Again, I stress (excuse the pun) this isn’t a get out of jail free card for those who want to take the easy route. If you’ve gotten that from this piece then you are on the wrong tracks. Stress is necessary for becoming a better version of you, set the parameters, put in the work and use the measurable data.

Jamie Scott