In the 1930s, Hans Selye first described the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) as the predictable way in which the body restores itself to balance, or homeostasis, in response to stress. The GAS offers important applications for designing effective sports training programs.
While Selye focused on how hormones dealt with non-athletic stress, Russian sports training theorists in the 1960s used his ideas to explain how an athlete’s performance improved with the correct application of training stresses. GAS theory also offered a physiological rationale as to why adequate recovery was as essential part of the athlete’s training program. Around the same time exercise physiologists began exploring adaptations taking place due to different forms of training stresses.
The General Adaptation Syndrome has three distinct stages:
The Alarm Stage, or alarm reaction stage, is the initial response when stress is first recognized. This fight or flight response is a very quick hormonal response that served to help animals survive in the face of danger since ancient times.
We might respond to narrowly missing a serious car accident in the same way. Our bodies immediately release hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline to provide instant energy. Adrenaline immediately raises the blood pressure and heart rate. When the stress is removed, the body returns to normal state of homeostasis.
The Resistance Stage, or adaptation stage, occurs if the stress continues or recurs for a period of time. In this stage, the body makes adjustments in its structures or enzyme levels to give it added protection against this specific type of stress. Rest must occur in order for recovery and rebuilding to take place.
The type of training the athlete performs determines the type of protein synthesized during recovery. This is the reason for “specificity” of the adaptive response to training. A speed training session will mobilize the energy, building projects and immune responses in the cells and tissues involved in producing speed. The stimulation of these reserves during a speed training session will dictate the type of structural changes during recovery to make the cell stronger for the next speed training session.
Mobilization of the immune system strengthens the defense capacity of the body and stimulates the repair process by dismantling and rebuilding damaged cells. The immune system plays a critical role in the outcome of the response to training.
The Exhaustion Stage occurs when long-term stress is not removed. At this point the athlete becomes fatigued and irritable. The body runs out of reserve energy and stress takes its toll on the athlete's mental, physical, and emotional abilities. When excessive long-term stress persists, as in the case of overtraining, the athlete is unable to function and is forced to take time for recovery.
General adaptation syndrome theory has important applications for sports training. Here are just a few:
1. The purpose of training is to cause the body to adapt to sport-specific stressors. Training should (a) strengthen physiological systems, (b) mobilize the correct energy systems and fuel supplies, and (c) repair damaged cells.
2. Train each athlete according to their current level of physiological functioning. The athlete's training age and biological age will impact the amount of tolerable training stress.
3. Use a training stress that produces a recoverable level of fatigue within a reasonable amount of time. The optimal training program stimulates adaptations by causing a recoverable level of fatigue to the cells and organ systems. After each bout of training the athlete should feel fatigued to some degree, but not so exhausted homeostasis is disturbed to the point of overtraining.
4. Always incorporate the recovery time as a recognizable part of the athlete’s training program. Once the structural and enzyme protein adaptations have occurred the body will be at a higher physiological level of functioning.
5. Recovery should be long enough to allow for supercompensation. During supercompensation the internal body structures, enzymes, energy and fuel stores build beyond the normal biological state. The effect is specific. While the goal is for the total recovery period for younger athletes, including supercompensation to be around 24 hours this could be as short as 8 hours or longer than 24 hours for the higher training aged athletes.
The General Adaptation Syndrome information and illustration is courtesy of Dr. Christine Brooks. For more essential knowledge and applications of training theory, consider enrolling in her highly innovative and informative course on Training High Performance Athletes.