How Your Emotional State Can Be More Powerful Than Your Rep Scheme

Next month I will be hosting a seminar in London with John Kiely on periodisation and planning. The key theme underlying the seminar is that current periodisation models are based on outdated or nonexistant science. The scientific understanding of stress and adaptation, for example, have changed a lot the past century, but periodisation has not changed with them. In our seminar we will discuss this new understanding, what it means to coaches, and how it affects the planning process with examples of effective solutions.

In a preview of our seminar, I sat down with Kiely to discuss how stress science has changed. In our previous chat he focused on the science of periodisation in general. Stress, as a critical component of adaptation, is central to periodisation and deserves a deeper.

Learn more: Enjoy this interview? Sign up for our upcoming seminar in London to learn even more about this and related topics.

Homeostasis vs. Allostasis

Martin: I think most people learned about homeostasis back in their high school biology class. But if you pick up a book like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers you immediately see the process is not as straightforward or relevant as we once thought it was. Is homeostasis still a concept that has relevance in the realm of training?

John: In a nutshell, the concept of homeostatsis suggests that brain and body have a preferred state of functioning. When this state is perturbed, through some imposed challenge, then brain and body immediately seek to return to this homeostatic level. How do we return to that homeostatic level? Via the stress response.

When we perceive a challenge the stress response is activated in the form of chemical alterations. These chemical alterations subsequently upgrade current levels of mental and physical function to confront the challenge, thereby enabling us to ‘escape’ the stressor and return to baseline homeostatic conditions. While the early pioneering greats of stress science, Walter Canon and Hans Selye, disagreed on the mechanisms triggering the stress response, they essentially agreed on the fundamental importance of the homeostatic concept.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that these theories emerged in the early decades of the 20th century and research has discovered a lot since then. For example, it turns out that there are actually few systems within the body that are truly homeostatic; few systems whose functionality is closely regulated within a very narrow range —an example would be the pH of the brain. The overwhelmingly majority of systems, and certainly all those we directly target in athletic training programmes, do not have a distinct homeostatic set-point. Instead, such systems are more accurately characterised as allostatic.

Martin: What is allostasis then and how does it differ from homestasis?

John: Allostasis is the process through which brain and body regulate function by consistently adapting multiple system outputs and interactions to accommodate an imposed challenge. Perhaps a good characterisation of the difference between the two concepts is that homeostasis seeks to maintain stability through permanency; whereas allostasis maintains stability through change.

Here’s a way to think about it . . . take a really large building, let’s say the White House. One way of regulating temperature is the obvious: set the temperature controller to your desired temperature. Then, when the temperature drops, the heating system will kick in and ramp up its output; when the temperature rises, the heating system will down-regulate. Makes sense, right?

But if you think of it in biological terms, there’s actually a far more efficient way to control temperature. Suppose the temperature starts to drop just a tiny bit. Sure, we can fire up the furnace, but wouldn’t that be a little over-the-top? Why not simply open a window; maybe open a couple of doors to create some air flow? And when you start thinking like that you can see how multiple small and widely dispersed interventions and systems can very economically regulate temperature. Essentially, that’s allostasis.

An optimally healthy stress response isn’t about releasing big dollops of adrenaline or cortisol at every perceived threat; instead it’s about the subtle and flexible reorganisation of multiple system outputs, such that no system is heavily taxed and the accommodation of the stressor is safely dispersed and distributed throughout neuro-biological networks. As mentioned, most of the systems that make up the components of fitness are allostatic, rather than homeostatic, in nature.

Periodisation is based on homeostasis, but training systems are not homeostatic in nature. Click To Tweet

Allostatis is not about retaining a permanently steady level; it recognizes there is no single set of steady-state conditions in life. Instead allostasis is about maintaining relationships between multiple interacting systems in the face of constantly changing constraints.

Martin: What is the potential impact of these developments on the field of periodisation then?

John: Within training and periodisation domains we still regularly cite the works of the early stress giants. More importantly, periodisation theorists continue to use homeostasis and Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) to justify the underpinning logic of periodisation structures. But these theories have not been current for close to fifty years.

So, for example, within the sports science literature, the only periodisation reviews published in high-ranking journals (both in Sports Medicine) cite Canon and Selye’s work as a cornerstone of periodisation theory noting, for example “the biological background of periodised designs exploits homeostatic regulation and stress adaptation as fundamental theories of human adaptation.”

My point is that these philosophical foundations have disintegrated, and clearly do not accurately reflect the true nature of the biological adaptation subsequent to stress application. My suggestion is that if we want to be better at designing and managing training plans and processes, we need to clear away the debris of these ideas, because currently they get in the way of true conceptual clarity.

Planning for Emotional States and the Complexity of the Stress Response

Martin: Allostasis is about the complex interplay between system and, in our seminar last year, you discussed six major areas that influence the stress response. In other words, these are six factors that determine how much benefit we get from a training stimulus. Of the different factors, are there any that you feel are overlooked more than others?

John: A re-alignment of training theory, with contemporary stress theory, potentially highlights a number of learning points for those of us involved in athletic preparation domains. Mounting evidence has progressively eroded Selye’s early doctrine. I’ve already mentioned that the assumed predictability of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome — beloved by Periodisation theorists since the 1950s — turns out to be an unsupported illusion. But, more importantly, Selye’s assumption that physical stress is essentially a physical phenomenon that induces a predictable physical consequence independent of the brain is clearly and demonstrably in error.

That’s the issue that I’m currently most obsessed about: the role of emotional context in driving both training adaptations, and the probability of injury or other negative outcomes.

In a very real sense ’emotions’ are the shifting weather systems that dictate the background chemical environment in the brain. This neuro-chemical environment, in turn, drives the cascade of down-stream regulatory responses that sets background levels of the various hormones, chemical modulators, pro- and anti-inflammatory agents and so on, upon which we overlay the chemical consequences of the training stimulus.

The relevance of this is that regardless of the mechanical makeup of your session (i.e. the sets, reps, loads, speeds, etc), the adaptive responses are greatly dependent on the background chemical environment upon which training stress is overlaid. And so, if you are unduly stressed — about the session or some other aspect of life — you are essentially overlaying the chemical consequences of the imposed mechanical training stressors on a suboptimal chemical backdrop. As a consequence, adaptations are inevitably compromised and risks, of injury or illness, escalate.

Training stress is placed on a backdrop. Optimize the backdrop before focusing on training. Click To Tweet Emotional stress has the power to kill, so why don't we factor it into our planning? @bingisser Click To Tweet

Martin: That makes complete sense. Undue stress can cause sudden cardiac death, so it is not a big leap to say it can have a massive impact on the training adaptations. How doe sthe coach translate this idea into practice though?

John: As coaches, we can greatly influence the athlete’s emotional landscape as it relates to training and performance. We can positively influence environment to collectively mitigate background levels of stress by looking at the training group ethos, athlete’s pre- and post-training habits and athlete’s perceptions of both security and risk.

Crucially, however, this type of intervention sits totally outside conventional training dogma. We spend so much time and energy designing programmes and arguing about ‘best’ exercises or ‘best’ session designs, and yet so little time reflecting on how best to positively manipulate training and competition contexts to optimally reduce the negative impacts of stress.

Martin: You look around and the most common tool in this situation, if any is used at all, is restriction. If they do anything, they will cancel practice. That might be the best thing in some situations, but there are other options for coaches. Once you know the athletes emotional state you don’t simply have to react to it, you can also influence it so that you can get more out of the athlete. Is that what you are saying?

John: I’d go a step further and suggest that often cancelling a session pushes the athlete further into a distressed condition: because now they feel they’re losing ground. But yes, you’re right. Ideally, the coach has a playbook of tactics for such an eventuality and has progressively educated the athlete to effectively self-regulate in such circumstances.

Coaches need a playbook of tactics to optimize the emotional state's influence on training. Click To Tweet

There are a number of tools that we can use: some just common sense; some suggested by scientific study. Ultimately the coach can help the athlete construct effective habits and practices, and educate them in terms of potential tools and space to experiment. As with other dimensions of training, the optimal fit is ideally personalised to the individual. Some people go parachuting to relieve stress; but most people will be completely freaked out by it. Having said that, there are some practices that are nearly universal in their usefulness: here I’m thinking of things like exposure to nature; various breathing and/or mindfulness practices. Even expressive writing, which may sound a big wiffly-waffly, but which is supported by extensive research (see, for example, the work of Dr. James Pennebaker). I’ve used each of these with athletes previously, and while it’s impossible to definitively say whether they worked or not, the athletes certainly felt they did.

Finding Your Own Path

Martin: For me, just being aware of the topic is perhaps the most important thing. Previously I would train twice a day and my morning session, at 7:00 a.m., was always better than the afternoon session, at 4:00 p.m. This made no sense when looking at the most research on circadian rhythms. I tried playing around with my diet, with my warm up, with my schedule even. But after our seminar last year the reason became quite clear: in the 8 hours between training I am at work staring at my computer. I am mentally fatigued before I get to the afternoon training. Once I was aware of that I tried out a few strategies and found one that worked. Rather than taking a 5-minute tram ride to training, I take a 20-minute walk up river to the track. Other than some music, I am not distracted and by the time I get to the locker room I am ready to go.

John: Perfect example! If we want to train effectively, we need to assure we get ourselves into the right state to train in. Not flat, physically; not drained, cognitively; and not distressed or otherwise out-of-balance, emotionally.

Effective training requires the right state physically, cognitively, and emotionally. @simplysportssci Click To Tweet

Ultimately we need to realise that training adaptation, and athletic performance, is very much a Mind-Body dependent phenomenon. I think we all realise that at some level, but the training theories we grew up with, didn’t. Now, we need to discard the comforting security blanket of tradition, and devise training processes and practices more reflective of current reality.

Martin: I was chatting with a top rugby coach and their team has taken similar steps along these lines. Rather than offset the effects of fatigue, he attempts to eliminate it in the first place. Previously they would do lengthy video review before high-speed sessions with the intent to help the team focus. But that was mentally demanding and they noticed speed sufferred. Now they have separate days for each topic: learning days focused on video review and high speed training days where they only have to focus on the session. They find the athletes are now fresh and ready to go.

John: This is very much common-sense stuff, but when did you ever read about anything like that in conventional periodisation literature? And certainly issues such as accumulated stress, excess cognitive load — having to concentrate excessively prior to training or performance — and emotional state before, during and after training are absolutely fundamental to subsequent training adaptation. But . . . we don’t necessarily think or talk about them; we don’t necessarily factor them into our planning philosophies and, critically, the periodiszation literature just ignores them despite the fact that they greatly influence training outcomes.

None of this is intended as a slight on Selye or on past periodisation theorists. Remember that Selye’s method of assessing stress was to put a rat under extreme discomfort for a prolonged period; sacrifice it, and measure the weight of its adrenals! This was not hi-tech. The miracle is not that they got so much right, but that they got anything at all right! Similarly, it is easy to criticise the doctrines of a Matveyev or Verckoshansky through a 21st century lens. Yet these were smart people, and we should respect the bodies of work they left behind . . . BUT respecting the past doesn’t mean we should blindly perpetuate its failings. We honour no-one by unthinkingly repeating their mistakes.

Martin: Thanks for taking the time. I’m looking forward to presenting more on this topic. If people want to learn more about it they can hear us dive into it at our upcoming seminar on periodisation in London on May 20th. Sign up now before it’s too late.

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