I just read an excellent blog post over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com, on the topic of the menstrual cycle, how it affects athletic output, and how female athletes should harness it to positively influence training. It’s great stuff. Click on the link if you’re interested.
I’m growing more and more interested in this topic for two reasons: (1) hormones are one of the two main interfaces between the brain and the body (the peripheral nervous system being the other), and (2) there’s very little consideration given in exercise prescription to how hormonal cycles in women differ from men, and how that can affect athletic output, injury rates, and training routines. Although there’s plenty of science on the matter out there, I very rarely see it consciously incorporated into women’s training programs. It’s mostly left to women fitness enthusiasts (and not their coaches) to study this colossally important cycle and then apply the knowledge themselves.
That’s a problem. Why does it exist? I’m sure the reasons are at least as sociopolitical and structural as they are about the science and women’s physiology. Asking why this isn’t in EVERY SINGLE TEXTBOOK AND EVERY SINGLE DISCUSSIONon periodization of training is just as important as discussing what is missing.
Ben Greenfield also discussed the topic in this podcast. I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m sure it’s got some great info. I’ll probably address this topic initially in two blog posts: (1) what the science is and what is being done with it, and (2) where the science should go and what we should do with what we’ve studied.
In the modern approach to training and fitness, the idea that you should (or need to) train at a low intensity is utterly neglected. This neglect is a huge problem. It benefits the few, and harms the many. And even when this philosophy works, it only does so up to a point.
A recent article in Outside Magazine bit into this issue with great abandon. The Outside article discussed the extreme example: Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) in ultrarunners. Many elite ultrarunners have become seriously overtrained, finding that their legendary competitive and running ability evaporates almost overnight. And we see this sort of thing across the board: in crossfitters who get exertional rhabdo; in recreational runners that start too hard. But why does this happen?
Our present fitness culture has an extremely damaging “more is better” and “no pain, no gain” mentality. If your favorite sport is HIIT or CrossFit, you’re prompted to increase the intensity, to “feel the burn,” and to “not feel your legs after leg day.” You name it, it’s out there. If your favorite sport is running, everything around you tells you to collect miles like they were baseball cards—the more the better.
The problem is this: whether you’re an elite ultraunner or someone who is just looking to shed some pounds, the amount (or type) of training that society pushes you towards typically means a lot of stress. It’s not that you won’t get quick results with that high-intensity training program (or by going out and clocking as many miles as you can). It’s that in doing this, a majority of people cross a stress threshold beyond which it’s impossible to keep these gains. It happens to Joe Smith at the gym, and it happens to the ultrarunner.
But in order to understand why it happens (and why you can’t cheat your way around it) we have to discuss a critically important biological system known as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal, or HPA axis.
The HPA axis is the system that creates the autonomic stress response (ASR)—which kicks up the organism’s stress levels (think: alertness) in order to survive a challenge to its existence. Let’s put this in a real-world example: alertness alone isn’t enough for an antelope to escape a lioness. There are two more components to ASR: First, the antelope’s heart rate has to go through the roof in order to bring a high volume of blood to the muscles. Second, the antelope’s anaerobic energy system—which burns sugar without the presence of oxygen, kicks in.
There’s another energy system available to the antelope: the aerobic energy system. It burns a much more plentiful resource—fats—but it takes some time. The fats have to be broken down into sugar, transported through the bloodstream to the muscle fibers, and combined with oxygen inside the mitochondria, before they can be converted into energy. Typically, it takes the aerobic system 15 minutes to get to full burn. But the antelope doesn’t have 15 minutes. It doesn’t even have a few seconds for the initial gulp of oxygen to reach the muscles through the bloodstream. There’s a lioness charging towards it at 40 mph. It needs energy now.
Stress, a high heart rate, and the anaerobic system are hardwired together in every animal. This wiring has to be absolutely reliable. If it wasn’t—if, given certain conditions, you could get a high heart rate and stress but no spike in anaerobic activity—you will die. As far as your body is concerned, in a “real-world scenario” the price for not having these three things occur together every time, with utter certainty, is death.
That’s what your body is thinking—thanks to your HPA axis—every time you get too stressed. Your HPA axis has to assume that there’s an imminent threat to your life, and make all of your internal systems react accordingly. If not, you will die.
The anaerobic system takes over to ensure the immediate survival of the organism. It doesn’t just happen to burn the fuel we use in the short term (sugar). We are wired so that when our bodies are thinking and acting in the short-term (that is, prioritizing escape from a threat over long-term health) we use the anaerobic system.
On the other hand, when our bodies are behaving with the long-term in mind, we use the aerobic system. In the long-term, it doesn’t matter if all the energy isn’t available right now—we’re not running away from anything. On top of that, we have fats, which is a more reliable and plentiful energy source. Sure, it takes a little bit more time to get energy from fats than from sugar, but time is something we have.
In the short-term, the antelope’s body doesn’t care about its pH balance. If it doesn’t move, NOW, that lioness will take it down. The temporary acidification of the body is a small price to pay for escape. If everything goes as planned, 45 seconds from now, the antelope will have a chance to calm down. Its stress levels will drop, it’s heart rate will slow down, and a powerful aerobic base will kick in and all the lactate will get churned through the muscle mitochondria and converted into more energy. The proton build-up that happened during the chase will be quickly negated. In that process, a final acidic by-product will come out in a form that the body is designed to quickly and competently expel: CO2.
As soon as the body’s short-term survival has been secured, and it starts thinking in the long-term, it uses its aerobic system.
But if you are under chronic stress, your body never gets a chance to think in the long-term. Remember that stress, an elevated heart rate, and anaerobic function cannot be untied. If you are under stress all the time (even if it’s work stress), you’ll have at least some anaerobic function. Your body will be burning more sugar and less fat. As you use the aerobic system less and less, it will grow less inclined (and less capable) of fueling your daily activities with fat. You’ll have to rely on dietary sugar to keep your energy levels up. You’ll burn even less fat. You’ll slowly and steadily gain weight. But your body will also have a higher proton concentration than it should. It’ll remain more acidic. You’ll wear it down, putting yourself at risk of chronic disease.
Just look at how this snowballs. The media (and your peers) are kind enough to pelt you with exercise programs that promise quick, short-term gains! You can see where this is going. You’re piling acute stress on top of chronic stress. Your problem wasn’t the excess fat itself: it was that your long-term energy system—the aerobic system—was compromised. And those quick, short-term gains that you’re promised? You might get them, but at the cost of keeping them.
Yet again, you’re using the short-term energy system. Yet again, you’re training your body to think in the short-term. The energy system that is responsible for your body’s long-term upkeep is incompetent. By definition, you’ll be unable to maintain that level of activity in the long-term. You’ll lose those short-term gains.
The problem isn’t that you’re flaky, or that you’re not an athletic person, or that you’re not determined. No amount of discipline or determination will be able to overcome the fundamental problem: that you trained for the short-term instead of the long-term.
Most people do not know that Bruce Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington. His project was to bridge Western philosophy with classical Daoism and the traditional Chinese worldview, including yin-yang cosmology and the empty-mind practice we associate with Zen Buddhism. His form of martial expression, Jeet Kune Do, is a manifestation of his philosophy. This is his warning to not try to duplicate the wisdom or insight of others, and to look for your own:
“The founder of a style might have been exposed to some partial truth, but as time passed by, especially after the passing away of the founder, this partial truth became a law or, worse still, a prejudiced faith against the ‘different’ sects. In order to pass along this knowledge from generation to generation, the various responses had to be organized and classified and presented in a logical order. So what might have started…
When we see a 7 year old kid running a football down the field like a pro, we say, “wow—what a natural.” And although nobody would argue that genetics and emotional predispositions play a huge role in determining someone’s athletic potential, we often miss the rest of the picture: that the reason this kid is such an outlier has less to do with their athletic ability than with factors that are preventing other kids from expressing themselves athletically with that same ease.
What separates this “natural” football player from the rest of the kids is most likely not VO2 Max or aerobic capacity (which only grows significantly as we get older) but rather that they have a very strong foundation in what researchers call “fundamental motor skills,” or FMS.
The authors of the article in question write that “locomotor skills and object control skills are . . . the equivalent of the ABCs in the world of physical activity.” When a child acquires these skills at an early age, they are far more likely to seek movement opportunities as they get older, meaning that they will have much greater chances to develop the more complex skills necessary to participate in organized sports.
On the other hand, children that did not develop FMS (and consequently did not have these opportunities) tend to become more sedentary. According to the article cited above, not only do they judge themselves as being relatively less skilled than their friends, but they also don’t have the motor skill competence that would allow them to participate in the majority of sports.
The fortunes of the two groups of kids—those with a motor skill foundation and those without—begins to diverge right around here. A recent study showed that the development of aerobic fitness, which helps reduce risk of cardiovascular problems and associated illnesses, is linked to the acquisition of basic motor skills. As we would expect, the opposite is true as well: the lack of foundational motor skills correlates well with sedentary behavior, ultimately leading to obesity. In other words, we can’t just ask someone to go develop aerobic fitness.
Obesity compounds the situation: not only does the increased mass physically make movement difficult, but the roots of obesity and diabetes are is a dysfunction in how the body manages its energy supply—a condition known as “metabolic syndrome.” And since sustained athletic expression is all about correct energy management, it becomes very difficult for someone with obesity to make a lasting change in their health and mobility, particularly if we emphasize that the solution is to “get out more.” That’s not addressing the problem. It is the underlying lack of motor skills that must be changed.
While the genetic and environmental roots of obesity are well documented, these are merely conditions for the proliferation of obesity. They don’t guarantee obesity. Consider why obesity was so well correlated with a lack of foundational motor skills: if someone with every genetic predisposition towards obesity has an extremely strong motor foundation, they would find themselves making the most of every opportunity for athletic expression. The conclusion of the first article cited reads: “the degree of motor skill competence is a critically important, yet underestimated, causal mechanism partially responsible for the health-risk behavior of physical inactivity.” In other words, those predispositions would likely never manifest, much less turn into a full-blown case of metabolic syndrome.
The fundamental solution isn’t to get kids moving more—at least not when they are already in grade school. By that time, those who are getting left behind are already lagging in their foundational motor skills. We’ve all seen the effect that PE class has on certain kids: for those without the requisite skills, every class, every athletic situation, brings nothing but humiliation. That subset of children, along with a significant portion of those who are overweight or obese, won’t—or rather, can’t—benefit from the opportunity provided by PE class: not only is the social importance given to competitiveness and competence toxic to the motivation of someone who has neither, but also, their skills are often subpar in some important way.
Whatever the minimum standard for competence may be in that particular sport, they aren’t capable of meeting it. As a pitcher, they don’t have enough accuracy with the baseball to be confident they won’t hit the batter. As a soccer player, they don’t have enough gross agility or fine motor control of the feet to go after the ball, expect to win it, or know what to do with it if they did. And the problem—the unseen, unacknowledged problem—is not that they don’t have the skill, but instead that they don’t have the foundation they need for that skill to grow in the first place.
The reason this situation is so well-known to us, and why it exists as such a common trope in coming-of-age movies, is that its underlying causes are so damn opaque to the eyes of the typical athletic coach. Most coaches, even the good ones, just don’t understand what is happening: they focus on the lagging students and attempt to teach them the sport, and consequently destroy their motivation on a wall of frustration. All along, their focus should have been on the foundation. And even those who catch on to the fact that it’s the foundation that’s missing often don’t know where to begin.
Sports or physical education in the classical sense just won’t do the trick. Nor will your average coach or gym teacher. We need a more skilled, more inquisitive, and more creative specialist to deal with this situation. Already, the challenges that face most of these kids aren’t personal—they are systemic. It is not a lack of drive, or willpower, or audacity that stops them. It is their relative motor ability, the laughter of society’s persistent superego, and often, the mass of their own bodies. There is no effective way to address this problem, except at its roots.
And the effects of good motor ability reach far beyond the athletic domain. As recent research has shown, the ability to perceive objects as three-dimensional, and being able to manipulate them, grows alongside motor skill competence. In other words, developing a solid motor foundation has untold cognitive benefits. We owe it to these kids, to the very young kids (and to those who are already highly skilled) to make every motor opportunity available.
Enough of telling little kids to sit still and be quiet. Enough of expecting those same kids to know how to move under their own power two or three years down the line. Enough of forgetting (or never realizing) that the least skilled and least competent are often the most focused and driven. We need to be better than that, for everyone’s sake.
Biological, psychological, and social systems affect our development of speed, power and endurance. Let's discuss them candidly.