Deconstructing the Plateau: Part 2

When our athletic ability plateaus, and we no longer see the gains in speed, strength, or endurance that we used to see before, we tend to increase our training volume: more hill repeats, more squats, more miles.

Training like this is rarely the right answer. The human body is a phenomenally complicated system—those of us who have been chronically overtrained and injured know that for a fact.

Obvious, straightforward approaches aren’t enough for a system like this. Sure, there are parts that are plainly related to particular abilities: fast-twitch muscle fibers, sugar and ATP to speed, slow-twitch muscle fibers, lungs, fat, and mitochondria to endurance, and muscle size and maximal effort to strength. But ultimately, we need to appreciate the behavior of the system as a whole, and tailor our training to the system as a whole.

If we want to achieve this, there is no idea more important to understand than the systems thinking notion known as emergence.

Emergence addresses the fact that a whole is larger than the sum of its parts: while the parts of a particular system, whether they be atoms, muscles, cars, or people, have properties of their own—atoms are vibrating at certain rates, muscles can be strong or weak, cars can be fast or slow, and people can be skeptical or not—when you put these parts together into a system, you get properties that apply only to the system, and not to the parts.

In other words, these properties emerge from the interaction of the parts, and therefore, of their organization into a system.

These are called emergent properties.

Solidity, for example, is an emergent property. A liquid becomes a solid when the molecules that compose it get colder (and therefore closer together) and move beyond a certain temperature threshold. Nothing happened to the molecules themselves. But the changing nature of their interaction changed a property that expressed itself in the system of molecules: that system went from being a liquid to being a solid.

In the same fashion, speed, strength, and endurance are emergent properties of the human body in the athletic domain. How so? Even if one muscle is strong, fast, and possesses good endurance, it can’t express that speed, strength, or endurance unless the rest of the body’s faculties—opposing muscles and circulatory, endocrine, and nervous system, to name a few—are also functioning properly and interacting correctly with each other.

What does this tell us?

That the particular capabilities of particular muscles or internal bodily systems don’t matter as much as the proper interaction between those systems.

To develop greater endurance, it is not enough, for example, to train simply the aerobic engine (even if you think of the “aerobic engine” as comprising the lungs, blood vessels and capillaries, diaphragm, all the way down to the mitochondria). Bone, tendon, fasciae, and even the fluid sacs around the joint must be developed enough to withstand the added use made possible by a more powerful aerobic system.

Without developing these systems—and others—together with each other, and ensuring that they are equally balanced and capable of interacting with each other at the highest level of performance, we’ll see our increases in athletic ability slowly grind to a halt.

Why?

In a previous post I mentioned how different variables—say, the power of different bodily systems—go from being apparently unrelated to being frustratingly interrelated as we develop the system’s capabilities:

“The perceived set of independent variables changes to a formidable set of interdependent variables. Improvement in one variable would only come at the expense of the others.”

-Jamshid Gharajedaghi

That is essentially what is happening here: as we develop the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, or the nervous system, we find that further increases in our cardiac output, muscle power, or ability to concentrate lead us down a problematic path. If we develop too much capability in one of these domains, without training others, we’ll end up creating conditions—like running too many miles on untrained calves—that will end up destroying our athletic ability.

But there’s more to this than just training each given component, and more to it than even training them to match each other’s capabilities. As I mentioned above, systems aren’t really built from parts; they’re built from interactions. So we must train the ability of the different parts to interact with each other.

To name one common example of what happens when we don’t, there is the Valsalva manuever, which consists of holding our breath when we exercise. We do this because of a dysfunction of the deep muscles of the hip and the spine, and their inability to work together with the diaphragm. The Valsalva manuever can raise thoracic blood pressure to dangerous levels, and put the athlete’s life at risk.

It is typical to see runners with hip/spine dysfunctions hold their breath every few steps, or time their breath to the landing of a particular leg. This has the potential to exacerbate a whole bunch of gait problems, not to mention the loss of speed, power, and endurance, and the effort implied in having to overwork the lungs to make up for the dysfunction at the hip and the spine.

This, or some form of it, is typically why as runners and athletes we plateau. We can’t move forward with our development: the components themselves are preventing each other’s ability to evolve.

The underlying problems must be resolved, but above all, the functioning of these systems must be synchronized. They must interact; their functioning must assume that the other system is also at play.

When we achieve this with more and more of the body’s components we will observe dramatic increases in the emergent properties of the athletic body: speed, strength, and endurance.

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