A fitness threshold?

(March 26, 2018) After a few years of working with elite, well-trained athletes, it started dawning on me that we all seemed to be caught up in some kind of bizarre ‘arms race’ of strength and conditioning. All around me it was more, more, more. In the rugby world, coaches wanted players to be bigger, stronger and faster, seemingly without a thought for what that might mean for their playing ability. Players too were trapped in this cycle of competition inside of competition, where the ultimate goal was to be better conditioned than your opponent(s). Nobody was asking the questions – ‘Is all of this really helpful? Is this really necessary? Is this at all healthy?’.

In our understanding of the first principles of exercise, we are all usually introduced to Selye’s general adaptation syndrome; namely that the body’s physiological response to stress can move through the stages of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The take-home learning from this was that stress followed by appropriate recovery would usually result in systems adapting and thereby providing greater resistance to subsequent stress – a good thing!. We tacitly interpret this to mean that the human body will somehow continue to positively adapt to stress so long as that stress is progressively incremented and sufficient recovery is provided. Of course, the search was also on to find ways to speed recovery so that we could cram more stress into the training week.

So that all got me thinking – how can we be confident that more conditioning is always going to result in positive adaptation? How do we know that by continuing to reach for bigger, faster, stronger, that we are not actually adversely affecting performance, or maybe somehow upsetting the delicate ability of muscle and tendon to produce, control, sense and absorb forces?

I can understand that for certain sports and events, bigger, stronger and faster makes good sense. Of course, a track runner wants to get stronger and faster, cos fastest wins of course! But for a lot of team sports, that attitude would seem to be devaluing the skill and decision making that also contributes to successful performance. So the question for me – how much is really enough? How much adaptation do we really require to be successful? Clearly, we don’t understand sport enough to know what really determines successful performance. If it was as simple as physiological fitness, then the highest VO2max, the best bench press or squat, or the fastest 40m sprint time would always win. Research profiling successful athletes in various sports has generally shown that there is no single physiological parameter that is conclusively more important than others. Observation and research tells us that simply isn’t so. For example, Faria et al (2005) found that a group of elite female road cyclists needed a good VO2max (all were in the 57-65 ml/kg/min range), but having a higher VO2max did not correlate with success in the sport – so there seemed to be a threshold of aerobic fitness for elite participation.

My slender glimmer of hope was a paper on the physiology of rowing training by a German researcher. Steinacker (1993) states that although strength and anaerobic capacity are important for rowing, they need not be increased above a “critical” value. OK, so it is one obscure observation, but I liked his concept of a fitness threshold for certain parameters, beyond which there would be no appreciable benefit. What if a rugby forward really only needs to be able to squat 175kg, or to have a vertical jump of 55 cm to successfully carry out their roles in the game. I get that generally athletes are afraid not be doing more because you know the opposition is working hard on getting more. But, as a diehard 10th man, I love this ‘threshold’ idea. If we could get our heads around fitness threshold, then we could spend valuable training time and energy doing other things. Seems to me that there are so many other things that we could be focusing on instead of obsessing with bigger, faster, stronger. What say you?

Best, Phil