An unfortunate setback in the science of human performance is the large emphasis currently placed on muscle physiology as a means of maximizing performance. While obviously the muscles play a critical role in athleticism, the muscular system is completely at the whim of the nervous system; the junction of these two is known categorically as the Neuromuscular System.
In an ongoing effort to inform our athletes, parents, coaches, and general audience, we will be regularly detailing some specific segment of the Nervous System or the aforementioned Neuromuscular System. These are the areas of human performance which should be of primary interested to clinicians and academics rather than the simplistic if-A-than-B relationship of the muscular system as it works when viewed in isolation.
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis)
A critical element to training progress is the management, application, and adaptation to stress. Many will correctly point out that the improvements associated with practice and/or exercise come not in the training bouts themselves, but in the subsequent rest and tissue regeneration/ restoration. As a coach tries to monitor training loads and competition frequency to optimize the stress response, the HPA Axis performs this function internally.
The HPA Axis refers to the interaction of 3 fundamental structures. The Hypothalamus–a part of the limbic system which up/down regulates various hormone levels to maintain homeostasis (the drive to maintain stable internal states) in the body. Also it is comprised of the Pituitary Gland, which may be the most widely-known of the 3 parts; the pituitary is responsible for a wide array of physiochemical reactions like water retention, sexual development, and importantly for the HPA Axis, stress responses. Lastly, the Adrenal Glands function as the response to deviations in stress levels. Among others, the adrenals generate both of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
To bring these three structures together, think of it like this: the Hypothalamus wants to maintain a cohesive and stable environment among all internal systems. The pituitary manages stress and interacts with the hypothalamus to mitigate deviations to equilibrium. The adrenals generate the chemical messages (hormones) necessary for the stress response to occur and bring about homeostasis.
The HPA Axis and Performance
As alluded to, performance enhancement comes in the form of an adaptation to a stressor. In the case of an athlete, that stressor would be a rigorous training bout. With this in mind and a better understanding of the HPA Axis, it should now be a bit more obvious how managing and overcoming training stressors relates to a neuroendocrine system that deals directly with stress.
Through various methods, we can optimize the function of the HPA Axis to better deal with training stressors.
The role that the pituitary gland plays changes drastically in scale throughout adolescence, during puberty, and into the late teenage years. To maximize an athletes long-term potential, a great deal of care should be placed around ensuring an optimal stress load throughout this time.
On one hand, a young athlete may be under-stressed, as in the case of a single-sport and otherwise sedentary individual. This particular athlete’s long-term ability to generate stress hormones would blunted. In contrast to this, an athlete of the same age who competes year-round in the same sport, in addition to various other roles and obligations may be overstressed. A sign that over-stress is occuring is athlete burnout. The long-term biochemical response to prolonged periods of stress in adolescence can be a lifelong hypersensitivity to stress. This minimizes the total training load an athlete can undergo, lessening potential athletic adaptations, and increasing the overall likelihood of mood-related illnesses (like depression or anxiety).
The solution to this is an intermediate stress load to maximize stress tolerance and sensitivity. This can be done by ensuring a young athlete is engaged in multiple types of sports, only specializing in a singular sport with age.
As athletes develop they are still susceptible to changes in the HPA Axis. Recreational drugs and alcohol can impede the ability of the adrenals to produce adrenaline under normal stress environments like sport-specific training. This, in theory, seems to indicate a higher training load would be needed to achieve similar results.
Regardless of an athletes age, this stress response is a reason why lifestyle stress should be minimized during periods of high-stress in training. This is why it is common for elite athletes to minimize contact with boyfriends/girlfriends during the training leading up to a big event. Similarly, chronic sleep deprivation limits the downregulation of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to chronically elevated cortisol (stress) levels.
By simultaneously minimizing various stressors system-wide and effectively delivering a training response to overcome, an athlete’s short and long-term performance can be drastically enhanced. The scope of the HPA Axis goes far beyond athlete development. The HPA Axis also plays crucial roles in immune system function, emotional stability, and even in the activation of various genes.
Its easy to imagine how a lecture scheduled for 30 minutes, on a topic as encompassing as optimizing performance, could end up being an hour and 6-minute open-ended discussion. This is precisely what happened this past week at Bloomsburg University during our guest presentation on how Ruthless Performance trains individuals to achieve high performance.
The content of this lecture ranged from specific exercises to an exploration of the Central Nervous System; similarly, questions ranged from the efficacy of BCAA’s to proper running gait—all of which led to an extremely informative and productive talk, filled with content and subsequent questions.
Below is a summary of some of the most important takeaways from this lecture. Remember, human performance is a broad topic, but the information below meets some objective criteria for significance within the theories and practices we endorse at Ruthless Performance.
First, a Definition of Terms
Because there is not one set definition of ‘high performance’ across sports and fitness endeavors, let’s assume the definition is as follows: high performance is the ability to perform within the top 10% of your own ability within any fitness doctrine.
For a 5K runner, this means being able to run a 5K within a margin of 10% of your best time at your current state of training. Similarly, for a weightlifter, this means being able to Clean & Jerk or Snatch within 10% of your current capacity for a 1RM. This is not to dismiss linear periodization (though Ruthless Performance typically does shy away from this style) nor is this a sleight on tapering for a significant bout or competition.
During a high-mileage segment of a marathon runner’s training regimen, she may be outside of this 10% margin from a previous race or time. The 10% margin of performance as defined here is referring to a precise training state. In the case of the marathon runner, her ability to complete a half-marathon trial within 10% of her previous season’s high-mileage training cycle is what we are referring to. The closer the training variables are, the more applicable this rule becomes.
The Motivational Training Montage is Just the Icing on the Cake
The significance of training to perform is predicated on fundamental health and wellness practices. A 6-hour a day training program would get world-class athletes no where were it not for a broad base of fundamental behaviors.
These behaviors are known universally at some intuitive level, but not always acted upon. What could be viewed as boring and frivolous can make the difference between 6 more weeks of training and 6 weeks of sitting out with the flu while your competition trains because you didn’t get a flu vaccination from your primary care provider.
A similar situation could be ignoring the necessity for injury care work and corrective exercise during the early onset stages of shoulder pain or movement dysfunction as presented in a movement screen. The examples here are limitless, suffice it to say that all of the traditional variables of wellness like sleep quality, nutrition, lifestyle stress, and on, are all predecessors to your ability to train and compete within our newly defined parameters of ‘high performance’.
More to Come…
This just grazes the surface of the lecture but provides valuable insights into some fundamentals of high performance. First, high performance must be defined; when a term is open-ended, its implications are only speculative and unattainable. Second, high performance is the sum of the boring but necessary components of life that makes an athlete healthy enough to train and compete within their specific doctrine.
As we continue to review the Ruthless Performance Methods & Practices for Peak Athletic Function lecture, we’ll cover nutrition for high performance, ‘anti-specificity training’, universally essential exercises, and the role of the central nervous system in high performance.
Have a question on this topic or want to train with Ruthless Performance? Contact us via email at info@RuthlessPerformance.com, RuthlessPerformance.com/contact, and be sure to follow us on social media at @RuthlessPerform on Twitter and Instagram.