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Adaptation: Combining Stressors and Recovery to Achieve Sustained Growth

Part 2 of the XPT Foundational Principles series

In the previous part of this series, we explored the necessity of seeking out stressors that promote physical, cognitive, and spiritual growth. The importance of doing so cannot be understated, and yet without pairing stimuli with the appropriate recovery, we simply cannot get to the end goal of adaptation. This is why we don’t just combine Activate and Perform components in our daily training, but also add in a crucial third component: Reset. This encompasses restorative practices such as mobility, breath work, and contrast therapy to help cycle back down from high performance to premium recovery, which we also recommend people pursue at other points in their day as well.

Another component of adaptation that’s frequently overlooked is the degree to which you’re deliberately dosing stress. From the cellular level up, the body does not respond well when there’s too great a gap between homeostasis and the peak of the stressor. Picture for a moment the equipment that’s used to measure earthquakes. If the seismograph needle moves a little bit there’s only a small tremor that won’t cause much damage. But when that needle starts quickly tracing a mountain-shaped peak, it represents an earthquake of city-destroying magnitude.

This can lead to chronic fatigue, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, and a whole host of other issues. From a training standpoint, we must introduce the minimum amount of stress needed to stimulate growth (in keeping with General Adaptation Syndrome principles – see the graphic below), without under- or over-dosing. If the stressor is inconsequential, your muscular-skeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, and energy systems won’t receive enough of a stimulus to create a new, elevated homeostasis baseline. Overdo it and you’ll create too much damage to recover from.

“Listening to what your body is trying to tell you is key when you’re transitioning from stress to adaptation,” said XPT co-founder Gabby Reece. “Some days you need to push yourself and others it’s best to take a walk, do some breathing, and do something fun with your family outside. A big part of finding this balance is getting to know yourself better. If you’re tired, why is that? When you eat a certain food, how does it make you feel? Regularly taking inventory of every area of your life and finding ways to support growth is essential.”

Speaking of growth, when adjusting the duration and intensity of a stressor in training we must also consider how to tweak recovery practices accordingly. The low hanging fruit here is often sleep, but there are other considerations as well, such as post-training nutrition and rehydration. Breath work is another effective practice for ramping up recovery. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that calm nasal breathing at a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute significantly improved heart rate variability (HRV), which is a useful measurement of the balance between the fight/flight/freeze (sympathetic) and rest and digest (parasympathetic) branches of the autonomic nervous system and can help us assess athlete recovery and readiness.

The timing with which we introduce components of recovery is also crucial, as it can either blunt or amplify adaptation. For example, research by University of Queensland’s Llion A. Roberts and others has led us to recommend waiting at least an hour after training before getting in an ice bath or combining cold and heat exposure. This is because doing so sooner can blunt the inflammation necessary to kick-start the body’s muscle repair process, which is key to growth in size (hypertrophy) and possibly other adaptations such as increasing force production capability. Another example is drinking a shake that’s full of blueberries, green tea, and other anti-inflammatory foods right after a training session. This can also blunt the signals that promote adaptation.

On the flipside, doing contrast therapy or drinking a shake later on in the day can be beneficial and actually aid in the recovery process without hindering a positive acute response to stress stimuli. A research team led by New Zealand All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill concluded that, when appropriately timed, “Contrast water therapy was associated with a smaller reduction, and faster restoration, of strength and power.” Dutch researchers even found that following a hot shower with a burst of cold water for just 30 seconds elevates the immune system, with participants missing 54% less work days than those who didn’t combine contrast therapy and exercise and reporting greater overall wellbeing and lower anxiety.

The next aspect of the adaptation process worth pondering is when to introduce the next stimulus, and how great this should be. We know from the pioneering work of Russian scientists like L.P. Matveyev (who popularized periodization training) that the body doesn’t just have an acute reaction to each individual training session, but also a longer term rebound effect known as supercompensation. Introduce a new stressor too soon after the previous one and this will be minimized, as will waiting too long. We need to also recognize that different energy systems and branches of the nervous system recover at varying rates and that each training modality has a different impacts. For example, it can take the central nervous system up to 72 hours to fully recover from plyometrics, sprinting, or Olympic weightlifting, while recovery from a predominantly aerobic activity like swimming or cycling can be achieved in as few as 24 hours.

This shows the importance of a coach being able to understand the complex relationship between stimuli, recovery, and adaptation, and to create a holistic program that emphasizes certain physical characteristics while deemphasizing others, depending on the previous sessions in the training cycle. That’s one reason – another being encouraging versatility and new skill development – that XPT daily training is intentionally varied in terms of volume, density, and intensity. We know that to achieve continual growth we need to stimulate gradual and sustained change that’s interspersed with appropriate levels of recovery, versus the all-out, all-the-time approach that’s popular in certain fitness systems and can lead to burnout and injury.

“To achieve long term adaptation you can’t just train once in a while, but have to keep consistently challenging your system,” said XPT co-founder Laird Hamilton. “Then you need to pair this with nurturing yourself. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and use your breath to help control your state.”

Our balanced approach also aims to balance optimization with recalibration. As our advisor, Cal State Fullerton muscle physiologist and Unplugged co-author Dr. Andy Galpin said, “You can’t always be optimizing.” What he means is that there are times when you want to try and get everything just so for the highest levels of performance. But real life is far from perfect and randomness, chance, and unexpected circumstances – such as a child being up all night sick or a red-eye flight for business – can throw us curveballs that mean we simply cannot be at our peak in every area.

In such scenarios, we need to take a cue from Andy’s Body of Knowledge podcast co-host and frequent XTP Experience presenter Kenny Kane, who emphasizes the need for taking life circumstances into account when balancing training and recovery. On days where you’re experiencing unusually high stress in life, red-lining in the pool or during a land-based workout will do you more harm than good. So it’d be better to pivot and focus on skill development or movement quality than developing high-end strength or power. You’ll also need to build in extra recovery afterwards.

Whereas on other days that you’re fresh, you can dial up the intensity to prompt adaptation and your usual recovery practices should be enough. Understanding the nuances of contextual programming and developing in-the-moment situational awareness are hallmarks of an experienced coach and athlete. Honing such abilities are key to pairing sufficient stress and adequately dosed recovery to produce adaptation.

Check back soon for the third and final part of this series, in which we’ll explore the importance of cultivating a growth mindset.

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