Adaptive Progression: A new twist on an old training tool

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It occurs to me that most things are cyclical in nature. Tides. Days. Seasons. Hunger. Sleep. Relationships. Your laundry situation. Projects. Success. Fitness. Popularity. You name it, if it is something that is enduring in some way, it is dependent upon some sort of cycle.

In the world of athletics, cycles can be looked at in two ways: The first is an annual competitive macro cycle, starting with pre-season training, then taking you through an increase in intensity, or endurance or specificity, then to a series of peaks, and then back down to a post season-recovery (which leads you back to the pre-season training). The second type of cycle is a micro cycle, which instead of looking like a circle, looks more like a wave pattern of small peaks and valleys along the way.

The idea behind this type of training is simple: Stress the body, adapt, recover, & repeat.

Most endurance training micro cycles are 4-5 weeks long: Increase intensity and distance for 3-4 weeks, and then reduce this intensity for 1 week to allow your body to recover and adapt, then start again. (4 weeks up, 1 week down.)

Just as every consecutive week gets harder, every micro-cycle gets harder.

The object of the game is to push your body to produce progressively faster times.

If done correctly, this type of training works like a charm.

If done incorrectly, however, the progression stops, and you get stuck in what we call a performance plateau. I know a lot of people who fall into this trap. It's always frustrating for them.

What do they do to get stuck in a rut? Simple: 9 out of 10 times, they don't stick to their training plan. (They miss a few workouts.) Their initial reaction is to make up the workouts. Next thing you know, they're trying to make up the missed sessions. Because they have now increased their training load, they are not able to train at a high enough intensity on their hard days. Because of this, they feel guilty about their low intensity days, and train too hard on their easy days. (The intensity gets pushed away from the effective extremes, and falls somewhere in the soft ineffective middle.) They stop recovering adequately. They feed a vicious cycle which - while burning calories and keeping them fit - doesn't help them move forward in their training.

Their performance stalls.

If you were to track their progress on a chart, it would start looking completely flat.

They start putting in more training time. They increase their mileage. They rationalize that they aren't getting better because they aren't training enough, so they start training more.

Sadly, quantity over quality doesn't work. This is not the type of problem you can just throw more mileage at. More man-hours at. More technology at. More money at.

This is simply a question of stress and recovery.

This is a question of adaptive progression. In order to get better, you have to keep stressing your system and then let it recover and adapt. If you stop increasing the stress levels, your system will settle for whatever performance level it has reached and adapted to, and you will plateau.

In other words, do the same thing every day, every week, every month, every year, and you will not move forward. You will plateau. Your performance, however great it may be, will flatline, and that sucks.

Do things differently on a consistent basis, manage progressive change, keep throwing new challenges at your team and allow them the time and opportunity to adapt, and you will see progress on every conceivable level.

In every industry, there are busy periods, and less busy periods throughout the year. There are weeks or months best suited for preparation and recovery, while others require a very high level of intensity and focus. Map them out. Get a visual understanding of what your annual business cycle looks like, and start putting together a plan that takes this progression, this evolution of performance into account. Understand how to push past performance plateaus, and gain progressively better numbers where they matter.

Remember: Most people (and companies) are too busy dealing with day-to-day crises and busy-work to actually look at each workweek as being a very specific piece of a carefully crafted annual business cycle (designed to generate notable improvements from month to month, year to year, and decade to decade). This is an area in which someone with a bit of insight into the world of endurance sports training methodology and a bit of ingenuity could make a big splash.

Food for thought.

photo: David Zabriskie on his way to winning the 2007 USA National TT Championship.

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