In the first part of the article, we examined the General Adaptation Syndrome and its general principles. These principles are always true as they’re part of the physiological response of the body to any form of stress.
In this second part, we’ll take a closer look at the GAS and see how things behave in the context of training. That is to say when training is the stress.
When Training Is A Stress
Anything can be a stress for the body as long as it has the potential to disrupt its homeostasis, and training is no exception.
Regardless of the training goals, we should forget the idea that training makes us better while doing it. It eventually does, but not during the workout. Improvement occurs as part of the adaptation process which takes place after.
If anything, proper training challenges the homeostasis and fatigues the body making it less efficient in the short-term. After all, this makes perfect sense because once the homeostasis is disrupted the body is in a state of alarm. It’s literally in fear of its life! Do we really expect it to perform any good?
The good news is that being training a stress, it behaves just like every other form of stress. This means we can place a controlled amount of training stress (workload) on the body and expect a fairly predictable outcome in terms of responses and adaptations (training effects).
It’s important to note that because the context is now specific to training, general terms like “stress amount” and “tolerance” become replaced by the corresponding and more specific terms “workload” and “performance”.
We can think of the workload as the total amount of stress that comes from a single workout and of performance as our fitness level, our potential to exert physical energy.
With this in mind, let’s go through the GAS once again.
Stage 1 is the stage of shock. Shock results as a short-term response to the training workload, perceived from the body as a threat. Literally.
The body doesn’t know we just had a challenging workout and we enjoyed putting effort into it. It is still set on ancestral mechanisms and anything that perturbs its inner equilibrium is perceived as a dangerous menace to combat.
Loss of muscle tone, local inflammation, and mild muscolar discomfort are some of the major indicators of possible disruption of the homeostasis, and are typically experienced towards the end of a workout.
Regardless of subjective perception, a momentary reduction in performance accompanies this stage. Performance reduction largely depends on the level of training advancement and the workloads involved in the workout.
While a novice athlete might barely perceive muscle soreness and is more likely to describe the sensation as stiffness, that would probably be the case for an intermediate or a more advanced athlete.
Stage 2 is the stage of long-term adaptations. Once the stress is removed (i.e. the training is over) and Stage 1 dissipates, the body has a chance to relax and evaluate the situation.
During this stage, not only does the body want to repair what’s been damaged (a proper training will induce microtrauma) but also to equip itself and be prepared for the next time it might happen. In other words, it wants to build tolerance against a stressor and does so by adapting.
In physiology, this phenomenon is known as supercompensation.
Now, because our stressor is training, adaptations will be some kind of physical improvements to better tolerate future training. If this sounds good you’re absolutely right because Stage 2 is where we make gains!
Keep also in mind that adaptation is specific to the stress that caused it. If we want a certain adaptation (strength, power, endurance, more muscles, etc.) we’ll then have to provide the body with a certain type of stress.
Again, the duration of this stage varies greatly. While a novice will complete Stage 2 fairly quickly (probably within 48-72 hours), an advanced athlete might need months to fully recover from the huge workloads needed to disrupt homeostasis and induce adaptations.
Stage 3 is the stage of exhaustion. If the stress on the body is just too much, it won’t be able to adequately adapt and exhaustion will occur.
If we’ve come this far, we’ve pushed too hard, too long, or too hard for too long.
Either way, we have outpaced the body’s adaptation capabilities, and we’re left with what is known as overtraining. At this point, taking a break from intensive physical activity is mandatory to recover.
I won’t go into details, the bottom line here is that nobody wants to be in this stage. A proper training progression should be focused on triggering Stage 1, letting Stage 2 complete and re-start the process over without ever pushing into Stage 3.
The Stress-recovery-adaptation Cycle
So, to recap. Stage 1 marks the disruption of homeostasis (good thing), Stage 2 is where we make gains (very good thing), and Stage 3 is where we have to interrupt training to recover from too much stress (bad thing, obviously).
Seems then like a smart idea to avoid Stage 3 altogether and keep the gains coming by ensuring the body remains in the Stage 1 – Stage 2 cycle, also known as the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle.
This is how a single cycle would look like.
Point 1 marks the beginning of Stage 1. The stress coming from the workload of our training is enough to disrupt the homeostasis and this is linked to a drop in performance. The downtrend continues until Stage 1 dissipates and Stage 2 begins (point 2 in the chart).
From point 2 to point 3 the body recovers and uses its energy to adapt to the stress. This reverses the trend because, via adaptation, the body raises its tolerance to the stressor and prepares to come back stronger than before.
The supercompensation results in a net gain in performance above baseline (point 3).
At this point, we are fully recovered, adapted from the past training and ready for some more.
Because we gained performance and fitness, we also need to increase the workload to repeat the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle at a slightly higher level.
It’s also important to note that, once point 3 is reached, not supplying our body with the next dose of stress would result in a loss of performance. This is shown in the chart by a downtrend which returns to baseline (point 4) and below.