Tissue adaptation- overload and recovery

As biological organisms we adapt. That is pretty much what enables us to survive. As individuals, we don’t necessarily evolve as such, but individual adaptations certainly show a wide range of ability to specialise in specific things. It could almost be said that as an organism, failure to adapt is an indication of something going wrong with the system- or that the system has been overloaded somehow.

Rate of adaptation to an external stimulus is moderated by a number of things. How fast we learn, how mobile the tissues are, how much recovery they need etc.

If the stimulus exceeds the ability to improve, there is breakdown. 

If the ability to improve keeps pace with the stimulus, hey presto, you get better.

The problem comes when we underestimate how hard the stimulus is, or overestimate our ability to adapt. This is perhaps most obviously demonstrated every year when the 16 week marathon plans get released. Some people get along fine with them, others are ok for a few weeks and then break down, some get most of the way through, some barely make it through the first week.

Why is there such a difference in reaction to the same plan? Well, it’s pretty much because we all start at different levels, and have different tissue response rates, so no wonder we adapt at different rates.

Along side this, we have underlying health issues, training history, food and drink intake, amount of sleep, age, etc etc – there are many confounding factors which mean that a one size fits all training plan is really a one size fits none.

To get to the main point though, a normal, healthy human should be fairly good at adapting to external stimuli. Sometimes that stimulus need only be pretty small, sometimes it needs to be fairly large. Failure to respond in a positive and healthy way is indicative of either the stimulus being too large or the organism not being healthy enough to absorb the stimulus. Either way, it means overload and injury. 

This has implications for both physio – rehab, and training in general (be it strength, endurance, skill, or whatever). We need to be able to understand what our capacity for absorbing change is, and not overload it. Learning a new skill might take up a lot of brain power – a vocabulary test might mean you can remember 10 new words, but 20 are too much. You might be very good at learning new languages – in which case, 10 words is fairly easy, but 100 is too much. Each time, we are looking at a threshold of ability.

In terms of physio we need to work out what needs to be stronger, how to make it stronger, and how long that might take – this is much the same way as getting people to lift more or run faster… where do you start, how do you get better, and how often do you need to do it in order to keep getting better without injuring yourself.

The thing with physio is that you are starting at a point where you are (potentially) already broken. You have failed to adapt to whatever stimulus you were putting on your body – be that an overtraining injury where you broke down over time, or an acute problem – like a crash where you overloaded your tissues in a rather sudden fashion. Whichever way, you are starting from a non-adapted position, and will need to start thinking about the lowest strength level that you are at and how to adapt from there.

You are in a weakened and compromised state. This is not a moment to get out and go crazy and not listen to the physio. This is the time to realise that you need more recovery than previously. Yes, you need the stimulus, but recovery is absolutely key. Previous levels of overload will be far too great. Ease back. Be intelligent. Be patient.

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