by Steve Bechtel
On an intuitive level, we all understand the basic principles of training. These principles include specificity, individuality, and overload, among others. Most basic of all the principles is the idea of adaptation; we adapt to the demands placed upon us. Sports science has logically followed the lead of Hans Selye, who put forth the theory of a General Adaptation Syndrome in 1936. The theory states that any external stressor causes us to go through responses (short term) and eventually adaptations if the stress is repeated long enough.
He proposed that stress causes the body to go through up to three stages. These are as follows:
Shock/Alarm. This is the acute response to stress. In an exercise context, this is the tiredness and soreness you feel after a training session. The response can be mild (a feeling that you just worked out), or severe (very sore muscles, nausea, joint pain). During this phase, which usually lasts less than 48 hours, performance declines. The more advanced the athlete, the shorter this phase tends to be in relation to any given load.
Resistance/Adaptation. This stage represents the body’s long-term response to the stress. This response is in the form of increases in hormone activity, protein accumulation, and enzyme secretions. These processes occur as the body attempts to “bullet-proof” itself against further similar stresses. The theory (which is quite accurate in terms of exercise) is that if the body is exposed to the same stressor over and over, it will reach full adaptation in about a month. This is what happens when sedentary people “get in shape.”
Seyle proposed that this stage was completed in about 48 hours post-stressor. Depending on the training load and the athlete’s experience, adapting to an acute stress can vary from as short as about 12 hours to 3 days. More profound stresses, such as learning to do pull-ups, can take multiple months (several GAS cycles between stage 1 and 2) to effectively adapt to. More advanced athletes take much longer to adapt as their abilities develop. In many cases, the second stage of adaptation can take weeks or months.
Exhaustion. The third of Selye’s stages represents an overload that is either too great or too frequent for the body to successfully adapt to. A continued stress of this magnitude will naturally lead to overtraining and injury; Selye proposed that three months of such an overload could lead to death. Although athletes occasionally reach this third stage, doing so represents an error in programming and if an athlete reaches such a state, the training cycle should be considered a failure and must be restarted after a prolonged recovery period. This is what physiologists call “overtraining.”
In exercise context, you can look at any given training stimulus as either being too little stress, appropriate stress, or too much stress. Progression occurs when we apply an appropriate stress, recover, and then apply a stress of slightly greater magnitude. This is the essence of all training.
Consider this analogy from Mark Rippetoe, which really hammers the point home. Spring rolls around, and you go outside for 15 minutes and sit in your lawn chair to get some “sun on the guns.” That afternoon, you’re a little brown. You do the same the next day, and get a little more tan. After three or four days, though, your tan doesn’t get any deeper…why? Because your body has made the necessary adaptations to being exposed to the sun for 15 minutes at a time. In order to get more bronze, you have got to spend more time outside.
Increasing the minutes each day you spend in the sun will lead you toward your goal, but unless you increase the “stress” you won’t make any more adaptations. We all know what happens if we increase the stress (sun exposure) too rapidly – “exhaustion” in the form of sunburn. There is no way to get over it except to stay out of the sun, let the body recover, and then start over again once homeostasis has been reestablished.
One of the mistakes climbers make which lands them on a plateau is to stop overloading the system. They build up the ability to endure a typical day at the crag which might include two or three warm-ups and a few pitches at a comfortable level. They don’t push the grades, or the volume (total pitches), or the number of days they climb in a week. It should be of absolutely no surprise that this climber fails to advance.
In order to advance, some of us start projecting. We (somewhat) erroneously think that since elite climbers have projects that the projects are why they have become elite. But high levels of performance are developed on multiple levels, not just by working on limit-level routes. Stress can be added in several ways (more climbing, different rock types or angles, smaller holds, etc.) and should be. In fact, successful overload has to happen on several levels if it is to continue.
Going back to the training principles, we recognize this cycle as overload and accommodation. By carefully increasing load, we get stronger/faster/more flexible. When we adapt to the level of stress, we are experiencing accommodation, and when we take a long break from training or climbing, we experience reversibility. Reversibility is nothing more than the idea of use it or lose it; athletic adaptations are “expensive” for your body to keep up, and as soon as it seems like there is no longer a need, the body reverts back to a more comfortable and sustainable state.
Reversibility leads us to the idea of adaptation persistence, which is simply how long a given facet of training takes to build and how long it takes to go away. Certain qualities develop fairly quickly, such as cardiovascular endurance. Others, such as muscular hypertrophy or strength take a long time to develop. This is true on the downhill end, too. Each of the primary fitness qualities detrains similarly to how long it takes to train. Hypertrophy, once gained, sticks around a long time. Cardiovascular endurance, as endurance athletes know, begins detraining in as little as 48 hours…thus the need to run or ride or ski almost daily to maintain fitness.
Adaptation to any stimulus, be it learning a language, riding a bike, or crimping, requires many cycles of the GAS. If you place these cycles too close together (i.e. bouldering sessions 4 x per day, every day) you end up fast-forwarding to the exhaustion phase. On the other hand, if your cycles are too long (i.e. bouldering once every three weeks) you end up getting only the shock/alarm phase, with no adaptation.
We have a limited adaptive capacity. Trying to adapt to too many stimuli will land you in much the same place…too much volume and you get exhaustion, too much variety, and all you’ve got is shock. A somewhat simplistic, yet wholly valid way of looking at adaptation is to picture a full glass. With every overload, you take a little out of the glass. Every workout, every missed hour of sleep, every stressful phone call – every stress – takes a little out of your glass. When you empty the glass, guess what? No more adaptation.
You refill the glass with nutrition, sleep, and rest. It’s easy to let stress outpace recovery, though, and the result is an inhibited adaptation potential. Even without any change to the program, adaptation can halt because of diminished recovery. This is worth keeping in mind if you are following a set training program from a book or from a friend. In general, the less your lifestyle matches that of the author of the program, the less it will work for you.
So What to Do?
To successfully train for a given facet of your fitness, you need to offer a regular, appropriate overload that tells your body what needs to happen. Because climbing is a sport that requires managing many facets at once, you have a lot to maintain. When it feels like you’re stuck, pick one thing to focus on and train it exclusively for a month or 6 weeks,while keeping all of your other abilities “on the back burner”. Once a noticeable gain has been made, switch to the next needed adaptation. I know this sound simplistic, but it’s really the whole ball game.