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General Adaptations are Persistent

In Climbing, General Training | on July, 04, 2013 | by

The overemphasis of cardiorespiratory endurance and conditioning within mainstream consciousness impacts us all, and not necessarily for the better.  The collective assumption that “conditioning is good” is accurate, but this is true only to a point. For many people it’s usefulness has long run it’s course and has become a specific adaptation… more akin (in the sense of persistence) to balance or agility, when compared to general qualities like strength and power. Quick to develop and quick to dissipate, conditioning can inhibit performance gains as much as giving them a nudge in the right direction. Perennial attempts at remaining “conditioned” can cause far worse damage, even to the body’s organs. The near immediate return on investment, compared to the much longer process required for developing general adaptations like strength, makes conditioning a popular choice for today’s quick fix culture, or the go-to method for cross training.

General training practices, when done productively, focus on cultivating general adaptations because general adaptations persist much longer than specific adaptations. There is just more bang for your buck on training time invested. Strength is a general adaptation; it takes time to develop but lasts long after the dedicated strength cycle has ended. Strength is about neuromuscular recruitment and the process of improving the quality of muscular fiber. There is a change in the body’s architecture establishing new contractile proteins for increased contractibility (I.E. strength) of fibers comprising a muscle belly. Short, intense efforts of quality movement are used to produce general adaptations in a methodical and systematic way. Gains are made with consistency and constancy, along with a little faith in the process because results are not immediate; they must be cultivated over time.

All physical adaptation occurs as a result of a stressor. There are acute stressors and there are chronic stressors. The initial hormonal signature for both kinds of stress is similar in nature. Acute physical stress is very high in intensity, and by nature, cannot be sustained for very long. Alleviation of the physical stress allows for the initial hormonal stress response (HSR) to run its natural course inducing tissue growth (anabolic). If the stress response endures for a prolonged period of time the HSR loops, or repeats itself, and can become problematic in a myriad of ways, including tissue consumption (catabolic) and systemic inflammation. The cumulative result through repeated, longterm exposure to the two kinds of stress is demonstrated in this photo of a competitive distance runner & sprinter. Each athlete has achieved a very high percentage of their genetic potential specific to the chosen event. 

The type of fiber developed through training is intimately related to the quality of intensity being applied during training. The higher the intensity, the higher potential contractibility of the impacted fibers. Add a slightly higher level of intensity to the workout a couple of days later, then a slightly higher level of intensity a couple of days after that… and again and again… then after a time (a few months)… a slightly higher quality of fiber is the result. This kind of architectual adaptation takes time. At first, it’s simply a matter of recruiting more motor units to work together–the term is called pooling– to assist the trainee in meeting the demands of a progressively increasing workload (I.E. faster times, more weight or harder boulder problems). Changes in the body are primarily neurological at this point but critical to establishing solid movement patterns that can be stressed at greater and greater intensities. Inevitably, loads will have increased to the point where the raw capacity of the trainee’s movement patterns will be tested. The phrase “every fiber of your being” comes to mind for describing the quality of effort that is necessary during workouts like these. The description of  a car’s engine red-lining is another useful metaphor, except that when a human trainee walks through the door for the next workout, it’s not necessarily the same “engine”. Our physiology is always responding… sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse… this depends on the training.

Intensity is experienced in a variety of ways. The marathon is intense but so is the 5k or the 200m. Long duration workouts at relatively light workloads become very intense because it feels shitty mobilizing that much chemical energy to fuel muscular contraction for an extended period of time. The intensity that corresponds to the potential for increased muscular contractibility (at the level of the fiber) lies only in the 200m, from the 3 examples listed. The 200m example comes close our red-lining analogy for intensity; precisely the kind of stimulus needed for developing architectural changes to the body. Drawing from our automotive metaphor, the 5k and marathon examples are more like running out of gas (or the ability to produce the necessary fuel) than hitting the engine’s red-line by nearing its absolute capacity. Lower contractibility muscle fibers are efficient and maintain contraction for long periods of time (as in yoga poses) or used repeatedly, over and over, as in the 5k or marathon events. When your training time consists of lower intensity work, you are calling on the fibers that are lower in intensity; they may be efficient but they are not getting stronger.

Fleshing out these distinctions is helpful for having a fuller understanding of the many training suggestions that are presented by others who may or may not understand themselves the fullness of what it is they are suggesting that others do to increase their performance. Equally helpful, and even more valuable, is understanding the context in which these individual training recommendations are productive. The Build and Taper method of training is an excellent periodization model used by intermediate and advanced athletes. The difference in the intermediate’s and the advanced’s rate of adaption is accounted for by the length of time that this particular periodization model repeats itself (one week for the intermediate & six weeks for the advanced). To keep the conversation simple, we’ll focus on one sport at the intermediate level and make the necessary distinctions to give it fullness and perspective for better application for those desiring a more deliberate approach to their training.

Periodization models account for the trainee’s ability to produce a significant amount of stress that cannot be recovered from by the next workout (see Simple Intermediate Progression for more information). The “period” of time that the training schedule is built reflects the time necessary for the athlete to go through the complete physiological process of homeostatic disruption (physical stress) and it’s return to equilibrium (adaptation to stress). When linear progress stalls, the athlete experiences a performance plateau that is hard to break and frustrating, especially if you’re unaware that you’re no longer a beginner. Two things that are at play in this stage of development is not enough stress or not enough recovery (most likely, some combination of the two). Because every climber has experienced a distinct performance plateau at this stage, we’ll construct a simple Build and Taper Model for the intermediate route climber.

At its simplest, the weekly intermediate period for a route climber consists of one Heavy Day, one Medium Day and one Light Day. The Heavy Day insures the stress response; 4-5 routes at the climber’s relative intensity is adequate and often much more than the usual amount of hard climbing done in a single session by most route climbers. Relative intensity refers to your project level; it’s a level of difficulty that is just beyond your current ability and also the most productive training stimulus. The Medium Day is 2-3 routes at the same intensity as the Heavy Day, and the Light Day is 1 route… one good burn on your project (again, the same high level of intensity & always after a thorough warm up). Because the Intermediate Climber has already adapted to the activity of climbing, it’s important to understand that you are still recovering even though you are climbing at maximum intensity by tapering your workload throughout the remainder of the week. Medium and Light have nothing to do with intensity levels, they pertain only to the volume of work being done. This kind of periodization model is simplified when dealing with Non-Repeating Motor Pathway Sports (NRP sports) like tennis, wrestling or skiing. (See The Map of Athletic Performance for further explanation.) 

The classic Build and Taper periodization model used by runners, swimmers and weightlifters manipulates both intensity and volume as a means to effectively drive progress. For a weightlifter, it’s hard to practice lifting 405# when you can only lift 385#; it’s just not practical. Similarly, an intermediate sprinter with a 200m time of 26.71 doesn’t practice a 200m at 25 seconds (except by doing 12.50 second 100m). Out of necessity, the sprinter has to manipulate both variables in the Build and Taper model. By slightly reducing the intensity from the max effort (ME), so that ~8 repeated efforts (I.E. the volume) can be maintained at the slightly reduced intensity (85%=30.72 seconds) for a disruption in homeostasis; the Heavy Day. Tapering the volume to ~4 efforts at an increased intensity (92%=28.85 seconds) for the Medium Day allows recovery to continue with 1 or 2 MEs to finish off the week and recovery. Rarely are the needs of the intermediate athlete taken into account, as they are in this example. They are often clumped together with advanced athletes when in a team environment and subjected to weeks of high volume “building” before weeks of “tapering”. This can work but development will not be as fast, and  could even be counter-productive for less adapted trainees.

Prioritization is another kind of Periodization Model, different from the Hormonal Fluctuation Model (HFM, already referred as Build & Taper in this article). We can use Prioritization by identifying the physical qualities that will best support the athlete’s goal, and then assign those qualities adequate training time so they can be developed in anticipation of that goal. Goals can impose a time constraint, but let’s say our intermediate route climber just finished the fall season and wants to plan a training schedule in anticipation of the spring. Strength is the most persistent of all the physical qualities for reasons already mentioned, and because bouldering is strength training for climbers, bouldering is prioritized on the schedule. Three months during the winter training season of dedicated bouldering still allows plenty of time to get “conditioned” before the spring. Very little conditioning (if any) is scheduled during this time because it can easily interfere with architectural changes previously described. Remember, the accumulation of highly concentrated efforts repeated consistently over time are required to develop strength & power. Highly concentrated efforts require adequate rest. So if you’re bouldering like a route climber and throwing yourself repeatedly at a problem during a single session, you are not developing strength or power, you are asking to get hurt. If you added up the total time that you are actually “stressing” the body during a 90 minute bouldering session, it adds up to only 4-6 minutes. So boulder like a boulderer, and sit around and rest, to make the most of those 4-6 minutes.

The nature of the physical stress during strength training is acute; it’s potent but it’s over quickly. Acute stress, in all its forms, is what makes us grow. Whether it’s literally growing tissue for strength from physical training or the figurative “chops” that help us handle life’s professional and personal demands in an emotional and mental sense; acute stress is the catalyst for increased growth. It sounds bad, but acute is good. The kind of stress that gives stress a bad name is chronic stress. That’s the kind of stress that is at the root of hyper tension, strokes, decreased bone density, chronic fatigue syndrome and a host of other ailments (including gingivitis!). It wears both the mind and the body down. That the body can endure chronic stress is good for the perpetuation of the species, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be when you’re training. Ten years ago you’d be swimming upstream to convince others that marathon runners were not healthy. Today we understand that the damage to the heart is real (and documented); mini heart attacks are suffered during competitive distance events at a shockingly high frequency. Does this mean to stay away from all types of conditioning ? Of course not !  Is it a sincere warning to those addicted to the powerful endorphins associated with endurance activities ? Yes it is ! And if you’re one of them, you may want to think about developing a taste for something more wholesome and nutritious than junkfood-junkmiles to get your fix.

To bring this back to training smart as a climber, please do not lightly choose to follow 4 weeks endurance- 3 weeks power endurance- 2 weeks strength- and 1 week rest because you read it in a book or are following the advice of a well meaning friend. This kind of program recommends 7 weeks of chronic stress followed by 2 weeks of acute stress; obviously developed with out the awareness of Prioritization and the impact that these different kinds of physical stress have on the body. However, if something in this template strikes a chord in you, simply turn it on it’s head and schedule the inverse. Boulder like a boulderer for 4 weeks, transition into power endurance for 3 weeks and follow it up with 2 weeks of endurance. If you are effectively using a Build and Taper Periodization Model within the context of this Prioritization Model, the last week of rest is obsolete. Building and Tapering is based on the body’s hormonal fluctuation as it goes in and out of homeostasis, meaning the athlete is periodically “rested” after the Taper, while following this kind of model. 

There’s a lot to know about training, but getting a grasp on a few different principles is all that’s required for moving towards your goal with confidence. It might take debunking a couple of myths, rising above collective influences or reordering your thoughts (in relation to what you’ve done in the past) to streamline your efforts, but that’s just a small price to pay in the bigger picture. General training adaptations are not yet in vogue. It’s still a sleeper, but it’s catching on slowly… often the way that things that stick around for the ages tend to do. So if you’re interested in health then do some research on lean body mass and increased bone density. What are some of the ways to acquire those significant markers for health ?  And as far as increased performance goes, there’s still a whole lot… not just to be learned, but unlearned… before the collective consciousness catches up with what is being offered here. The specific examples given to climbers in this article are just a few of many posts that relate to the sport of climbing. Read through some the different posts and see how it sheds light on your own experiences.