Plateaus are boring. They’re flat, unchanging, predictable. As a runner, I admit it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. You get used to doing the same workouts, the same number of weekly miles. Sometimes, it’s hard to do more mileage, more speedwork. In sport, as in life, if you want to improve your performance, you have to increase your workload. If your training stays the same, your performances stay the same. The human body is very good at adapting to stress, but it also does something annoying—it habituates. And so do our minds. Our minds habituate to the stimuli we feed it.
What does it take to bust through plateaus and get fitter, stronger bodies that can leap tall buildings in a single bound and sharper, fitter minds that can think outside the shoebox? The first step is to understand adaptation and add stress gradually, systematically, and progressively. Systematic means that the training isn’t arbitrary, with a smattering of workouts here and there, it doesn’t include abrupt changes in volume or intensity, and each cycle of training builds on what came before so that entire program is seamless. Progressive means that the training stress—volume, intensity, volume of intensity—increases steadily over time.
How much you adapt to a stimulus ultimately depends on how responsive your cells are to signals. Cells are able to detect all kinds of signals—mechanical, metabolic, neural, and hormonal, which are amplified and transmitted via signaling cascades and lead to the events involved in gene expression. This signaling is fast, occurring within minutes of completing a workout. A single workout alone, especially if it’s a new type of workout you haven’t done before, introduces a specific signal and activation of transcription factors—proteins that bind to a specific part of DNA and control the transfer of genetic information from DNA to RNA, which ultimately results in the formation of new proteins that function to carry out specific tasks. Repeated workouts lead to a concerted accumulation of messenger RNAs that can be translated into a host of structural and functional proteins.
The second step is to periodize your training program and your life by structuring it into periods using a programmed variation of workloads in a cyclic fashion. Focus the work to one or two variables at a time that attend to your strengths and manipulate and systematically change those variables over the course of the training program and your life.
The third step is to allow for adequate recovery. Although most people focus on the components of workouts and the components of life, improvements in fitness and life actually occur during the recovery period between workouts, not during the workouts themselves. If recovery is not adequate between workouts, fatigue accumulates and your ability to adapt to subsequent workouts declines. You’ll adapt best to the workload when you’re recovered from previous workloads and fully prepared to tolerate a new stimulus.
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