Phil Learney is a performance coach specialising in strength, conditioning and nutrition, and is the author of the N1 Nutritional Programming. He is based in London.
Your body, in many respects, is quite simple. If you counteract stress and bouts of physical exertion with adequate recovery and restoration then your health, mentality and physique will improve.
The more stress your place on your body then the greater an emphasis you must place on recovery and restoration. Removing as many stressors as possible is tantamount to success, particularly in elite athleticism, which is an area where recovery techniques are most warmly embraced. The general population would undoubtedly benefit from the removal or reduction of controllable stressors, complemented by improved recovery and restoration methods.
Adaptive reserve is a term often used to describe the substrates and energy reserve we have available for recovery and positive adaptation. The human body – in its constant quest for homeostasis – is incredibly dynamic so the level of adaptive reserve is always in a state of flux. But you can determine if it becomes compromised and, through trial and error, understand what causes too much stimulus and stress, and/or inadequate rest and recovery.
Adaptive reserve is determined by both genotype and phenotype, so the recovery ‘potential’ you have will be often related to your genes. It is a limited resource so the extent of your adaptive reserve is spread across your own requirements and demands. For example, if we use weight training as a basic method, if you want to increase muscular size as your primary goal then you must consider that any activity outside of this objective will diminish your adaptive reserve for this purpose.
This is not a negative thing. For many people the desire to be a fitness Jack-of-all-trades is more important than reaching the extremes of a fitness spectrum. Most people want to be fit and healthy and have no desire to be a catwalk model or a pro bodybuilder.
However, it will compromise your goal if substrates are not managed according to demands. In this particular example, if glycogen levels are being used up by distance running then the substrate available for muscle building is not only diminished, but the specific stimulus of weight training is now adapting to the need to carry bodyweight over long distances.
That is not to say it’s impossible to build muscle when doing a lot of distance running, but the demands placed on the nutritional and endocrine substrates would be enormous and – with the exception of someone genetically gifted, hormonally assisted, or with a capacity to handle large amounts of nutrients – practically impossible.
Adaptive reserve must be considered with an individual’s current lifestyle. When the stock market crashed I reduced the training frequency for several of my clients who were emotionally affected by it.
It was a simple management of stressors, but I assure you, they appreciated it. If you or your client is returning to training following a more ‘social’ weekend, then you may need to adjust training accordingly, if the adaptive reserve has potentially been compromised by that weekend’s activities.
A big weekend is not inherently a bad thing, and can be fine in moderation, and for some it might even be a requirement psychologically. But the proportion of such events must still be in line with the overall goals.
Relaxation and a positive mental approach is a big part of building a sustainable improvement strategy to work towards a better and healthier lifestyle and physique. The important thing is to intrinsically monitor the variations in reserves and adapt accordingly.
Proper training programming in conjunction with adequate nutrition and recovery are all keys to progress. But one of the major quandaries is that some of the primary symptoms of stress, overtraining, and adrenal fatigue overlap. Unfortunately, failing to self-regulate makes the problem worse and can cause the following:
• Tiredness and a sense of sleepiness during the day
• Food cravings, both comfort and physiological related because of an elevation of orexigenic hormones
• Needing stimulants or high doses of caffeine
• Poor immune function
• Physical soreness and poor recovery
• Difficulty waking up and regulating energy levels
• Abrupt weight loss or weight gain
It is essential, therefore, to consider your lifestyle carefully and evaluate your stressors. A perfect scenario for physique development would be one in which the release of stress hormones would be exclusively reserved for acute and goal-specific bouts of training and periods of excitement we often define as ‘living’, opposed to the chronic dull level of stress that overshadows many of us on a daily basis.
This is not to say stress is by any means bad: stress hormones are not only critical to our existence and adaptation, but a significant part of the excitement in our lives. We need them to build muscle and to burn fat. The goal is to avoid chronic overexposure. Become efficient. Try to pinpoint what exactly causes stress for you – or your client – external to your goals and pleasure. If you can, remove it or find a way to manage it better.
Minimise your exposure to stimuli you do not need. Reserve the heavy use of stimulants for when you want to enjoy a good cup of coffee, or when you have a workout pending that’s worthy of a little jolt prior to it. Elevated stress hormones can positively assist training. Acute elevation helps mobilise fatty acids, this being through an intense focused exercise or training session and/or the use of exogenous stimulants such as caffeine.
Over-stimulus means we lose this acute positive impact and a resultant down-regulation of everything responsible. Over time, we fatigue important endocrine glands and create a cascade of negative adjustment the whole body over.
This does not just end here. Part of this process is to remove the emotional turmoil that may have inevitably come with overly restrictive dieting and repair the internal conflicts the body and mind go through when food is restricted or omitted for any length of time. For many people, the emotional stress that accompanies dieting far exceeds the physical stress.
If you can improve recovery by 10% through restoration strategies and an improvement in nutrition, you can increase training stress by 10%. This gives us a performance improvement of 20%. The difference between a full time professional athlete and a talented amateur is often far less than 20%.