Posts Tagged ‘adaptation’

Whole Fitness

February 5, 2009

I’ll confess right now — I was an endurance junkie. In fact, I probably still am — give me an opportunity to go skate ski hard or ride a bike for several hours, and there’s a good chance I’ll take it. However, nowadays it’s all for fun. If I’m not feeling up to it, I’ll take it easy — maybe stay inside, nap, go for a walk. The compulsion to get out there, day after day, and push to the limits, is pretty much gone.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals — to the contrary, I’m hoping to document my pursuit of an endurance goal on this very blog, but I’m hoping to show that it’s possible to attain one’s goals without the banging of one’s head against the ceiling day after day. The philosophy that resonates with me is that of Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. He trained no longer than his lunchbreak during the week, yet still managed to break a world record. His philosophy was not to fatigue the body, but rather to train it with specific stimuli. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that during his training to break the record, Bannister was also going to med school.

You’ll hear similar thoughts echoed by proponents of Arthur Lydiard. The legendary coach from New Zealand was notorious for having runners who would run 100 mile weeks, but even he cautioned them with the adage, ‘train, don’t strain.’

If you spend any amount of time perusing the Net for fitness advice or training philosophies, you will undoubtedly encounter a whole lotta dogma. There are piles of it out there, so watch where you step. However, hidden in that dogma you can also discern patterns regarding what works and what doesn’t.

Folks who focus on distance cycling and triathlon will spend all day focusing on ways to convert all of their muscle fibers to the slow-twitch phenotype. For them, strength and power training are the bane of their existence due to mitochondrial dilution, whereby the cellular powerplants become diluted in a sea of MHC isoforms, cells that help produce strength but don’t contribute to aerobic metabolism. A lot of these folks also can ride a bike for five hours straight, climbing thousands of vertical feet, without getting tired. I know, because I used to be one of them. However, if you look around at any 24 hour type endurance event, you’ll see that the ability to sustain elevated aerobic metabolism for hours does not translate into favorable metabolic fitness. A lot of the competitors are, to borrow a term used by Athur Devany, ‘skinny fat,’ meaning they are carrying excess adipose (and inflammation) even though they seem slim. It doesn’t help that conventional sports nutrition advocates a steady stream of sugar to fuel these activities, driving up insulin and contributing to insulin resistance in the cells, which in turn drives fat storage.

In the other camp, you’ll find the High Intensity Training (HIT) folks, who swear that you can get by on a diet consisting solely of sprints two to three days a week. While they tend to have much more ‘desirable’ body composition, they’d have a hard time going the distance if all they did was sprint. Perhaps they’ll cite the HIT study done at McMaster University, in Canada, whereby untrained participants who only did sprints exhibited similar aerobic gains to participants who performed steady state activity. While that will work for the untrained, what happens when you apply the same principle to trained athletes?

What both camps have in common is that they show the principle of specificity in action. This just goes back to physiology 101. Organisms adapt to specific stimuli. The biochemical pathways that lead to fat storage, mitochondrial and vascular proliferation, and MHC development are still being studied, and they are complex, but you don’t have to have a degree in physiology to understand that you’ll get better at what you practice. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book ‘Outliers’, there are no shortcuts to success — you have to practice your activity. Applied to my particular goal, of maintaining 330 watts for half an hour, I need to practice for it regularly.

Where the nuance comes in is the importance of judiciously combining the endurance junkie’s ‘more practice is better’ mantra with the HIT proponent’s call for adequate rest between training sessions. And, since I have neither the means nor the desire to measure my waking cortisol, GH, or inflammation markers, the next best thing is just a simple question: how do I feel today? The more honestly you can answer that question, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

Advertisements