“Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
A wave is not separate from the ocean. It’s just water moving in different ways. If un-enlightenment is seeing “a wave,” enlightenment is seeing “the ocean waving.” In the same way that a wave is just the ocean taking on different forms the “branches” of science are simply artificial boundaries placed on an open system.
Physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology are all different lenses you can use to explore nature. The first scientific revolution was about breaking things down into their constituent parts in order to understand them, but the second revolution is about holism and dissolving the necessary and artificial boundaries created in the past.
In my eyes, there are no boundaries between the hard sciences, philosophy, and so forth. It’s all just semantics, and by applying the principles from one field to another we can get a truly unique perspective. Over the past few years, I’ve spent less and less time reading “training literature” and more time delving into other seemingly unrelated topics.
The ideas I’m about to present here came from a seminal book in ecology and environmental biology, titled The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner, the founder of the modern environmental movement, where he lays out his four laws of ecology.
- Everything is connected to everything else.
- Everything must go somewhere.
- Nature knows best.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch.
At face value these laws, as Commoner intended them, don’t directly apply to training, but when the principles are distilled down they have a profound meaning that can be relayed to many disciplines, including sports performance.
Law #1 – Everything Is Connected to Everything Else
Adaptation is when the body changes, and it’s a process, not the prize. Meaning, adaptation for its own sake isn’t inherently good or bad—it’s simply a process that takes us from point A to point B. Too much of any stimulus and we can elicit an adaptation in the body. This isn’t always favorable and the end result may be less than ideal.
Within secondary education curriculums (think middle to high school biology) we learn about the body and all the various systems within it. It’s a reductionist way of looking at a complex topic, but it’s incredibly useful for conveying the ideas to students. However, it’s also fundamentally wrong, and instead of upgrading these ideas later in life we carry them with us.
After all, our minds crave certainty, and it’s easier to reach closure on a topic than it is to challenge your own beliefs, which is inherently an uncomfortable task. In reality, all systems in our bodies are interrelated and resources are distributed based on the largest demand. This means that in the face of multiple stressors we will adapt in order to overcome that which is greatest.
Because of this, training aimed at developing a given quality or “system” may create a deficit in another. For example, many athletes get sick during the CrossFit Open each year because of immune system suppression, which results from endocrine gland exhaustion. This is in no way a knock on the sport of fitness, but it is a testament to the fact that stress is stress, and the constant worrying about scores mixed with hard workouts all pulling from the same finite energy reserve takes a toll.
Additionally, this concept highlights the fact that performance does not equal health. We can improve sports performance by dismantling biological rhythms and by “stealing adaptation currency” from other systems which then are forced to compensate in order to create or support an adaptation elsewhere.
Law #2 – Everything Must Go Somewhere
Training doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We cannot isolate training from the rest of our lives. We all have lives, families, friends, and jobs that dictate time be spent elsewhere outside of training and recovering; or in other words, there has to be a balance.
This applies to training because it sheds light on the fact that every input has an output, and even the most seemingly inconsequential actions will impact the way our bodies “self-organize” to exceed despite whatever stressors are imposed on it (self-organization is a process where order arises from interactions between parts of a chaotic system, like our bodies).
We can’t just train, eat “clean,” take the right supplements and then neglect things like tissue quality and assume we’ll continue to excel in training. If we truly want to perform to the best of our ability we need to take a multi-faceted approach and tackle sleep, our perception of stress, food quality/quantity, and training.
Law #3 – Nature Knows Best
It’s speculated that the alternation of stress and recovery is what shaped us as humans. The idea that ancient humans alternated between feast and famine, hunting and resting, and stress and recovery, is relevant to training both from a physiological and psychological perspective. Where we go wrong is when we start ignoring the signs our body sends us that we need to back off—this can be in the form of disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue, injuries, and so forth.
When we push through these signs for too long we may be doing more harm than good from a long term athletic development standpoint; and if you are a coach, it’s your job to try and read athletes and figure out when they need to be reeled in. This is can be done by looking at a combination of both conscious and unconscious actions.
The conscious actions are fairly straightforward—talk to the athlete, and look at their deliberate behavior. The unconscious actions are a bit more subtle and include things like posture, facial expression, emotional reactions, and how they move relative to their “norm.” Understanding the later, which we refer to as “the human element,” is less of a hard science and more of an art form.
Admittedly, this has been the most difficult thing for me to understand as a coach. There have been points in the past where I’ve gotten so caught up in research and analyzing data that I have failed to see the bigger picture.
We’re not coaching “biological systems” or “adaptive organisms”—we’re coaching people whose perceptions and emotions have a larger impact on training outcomes that any study can account for. Because of this I’ve had to learn to shut my analytical mind off and really empathize with my athletes at times so I can lend another set of ears and listen to what their body is telling them.
Law #4 – There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
Everything has a cost. As coaches and athletes, we only focus on the positive aspects that come with training, but never the negatives. If you’re a strength and conditioning coach, you know you’re a dealer of stress, and with the athlete’s adaptation to that stress comes specificity, which creates compensations in our body elsewhere by default.
Newton’s third law, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” can also be applied to training. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does tie back into the first law, which is that everything is connected to everything else. In an optimal scenario, our bodies match its response to stress based on the magnitude of the stressor.
If we’re faced with a large stressor, the response should increase in scale accordingly, and vice versa. This indicates health and a proper adaptive response. Trying to combat a large stressor with a minuscule response means we lack adaptation currency and matching a low demand stressor with a large response contraindicates a chronic stress state. Both of which are indicative of poor health, and consequently an improper adaptive response.
It’s critical that we consolidate stressors, or “balance our budget,” and spend less adaptation currency on things like mitigating the negative effects of inadequate sleep or nutrition. Then we will have more to spend on actually improving performance.
Exercise, in and of itself, is a stressor. If we have a finite ability to recover, why waste it on missed sleep, poor food choices, or junk training volume that doesn’t bring us closer to our goal? Abstract “training theory” is all well and good, but if we can’t actually apply it, some of its inherent value is lost.
Training Guidelines: 1. Respect the Interplay Between Strength and Energy System Training
You can’t just throw a squat cycle together with some Misfit workouts, and a dash of Hinshaw’s running intervals. You may get lucky, but most likely you won’t succeed long-term. Each of these programs was constructed with an optimal balance of stress and recovery in mind.
Strength training, energy system training, and movement training all fundamentally impact the way our brains regulate adaptation, and in order to leverage this process, we need to respond to both how these types of training complement one another, and consider what is the systemic impact they have on our bodies.
Training Guidelines: 2. Don’t Neglect the Fundamentals
I get it, training is fun, but at the end of the day, it’s the least sexy puzzle pieces that ultimately determines an athlete’s long term success. Are sleep, stress, food, and tissue quality in check?
If the answer is yes, then have at it. If not, you need to spend less time at the weight buffet and more time taking care of the basics. Training hard is a privilege, not a right. You need to earn it.
Training Guidelines: 3. Balance Intensity and Recovery
Hard days are hard, and easy days are easy. You should be able to tell the difference. The majority of workouts should be small to moderate stressors which compound and cement adaptations over time—then layer in some “see God” workouts at the top. Too much of the latter, or a steady stream of monotonous volume/intensity work, and we’ll inevitably hit a roadblock.
Training Guidelines: 4. Build and Maintain
Traditional block periodization structures are concerned with building a given training quality (like an aerobic base) for a handful of weeks, then switching the focus to something like speed training in hope that the athletes end up in a better position than where they started.
I believe this is a waste of time, and for Crossfitters specifically, I’m of the opinion that we should never drop one training quality off entirely. Instead, I like to keep touching on everything at all times, but the relative contribution of each training quality (in terms of volume/time spent on it) will be dictated by an athlete’s training priority at that moment.
Training Guidelines: 5. Take the Next Logical Step
Let’s say we have a CrossFit athlete and this week I have him do 6 sets of 10 power snatch, 10 bar facing burpees, and a 200m run; resting 1 minute between sets. I know he can handle 10 sets of that the following week, but will the magnitude of adaptation from that be greater than, say, 8?
Maybe, but not by a huge margin. What matters is that the magnitude of stress increases from week to week—whether or not we push it to the physical maximum isn’t as important in the vast majority of scenarios, and in most cases, it leaves the athlete less room to grow. Instead of going for broke each and every week, it’s better to take the next logical step, collect all the low hanging fruit, and then ramp things up when the need arises. In other words, don’t “go there” before you need to.
Training Guidelines: 6. Have Self-Compassion
You don’t need to look far to find fitness quotes about hardening the f*ck up and the like. It’s pervasive throughout the entire industry. This leads to a culture that encourages pushing through mechanical pain, ignoring our bodies signs of fatigue, and dysfunction in our biological rhythms (wired at night, tired in the morning).
Sure, you’ll look like a badass to your buddies at the gym, but is that worth the cost of your health and performance in the long run? Equally as misguided is the idea for “punishing yourself” because you failed to PR, or ate something off your diet plan. Adding more stress to a stressed system doesn’t pan out well.
Instead, you should try and show compassion for your body and learn to listen to its signals—ignoring hunger, having a lack of motivation, experiencing fatigue, pain, and so forth doesn’t make you tough, only misguided.