Breaking Out and Forging Ahead: Stress and Adaptation

This year I want to challenge you to do something a little different. Break out of your comfort zone and embrace your New Year’s motivation. I’m talking to everyone out there. I bet you can find an area of your active life that tends to fall into a rut. Perform a little inner reflection. Dig deep, and the regularity is there. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t always a bad thing to stick with a schedule or focus for a while on a particular aspect of training. And I do realize that it isn’t always practical or possible to increase the amount of time you put into your sport. But this year, find that one stale spot (or several) and make a conscious effort to mix it up.

The body is a wonderfully adaptive specimen. When we put the right amount of stress on the body, it responds by acclimating to that stress. And in the case of training stress, the body responds by gaining speed and/or endurance. That’s why it’s so important to continually add small amounts of new stress to your activities to gain fitness in the areas that you want to improve.

Picking a new race is a great way to quantify how large a goal you’re going to pursue this year. Check the current issue for our race guide to the Northwest’s best races, you’ll find everything you need to break out of that rut and conquer a new adventure. Choosing a race that’s slightly out of your comfort zone can also help motivate you to modify your training accordingly. Choose a race that will require you to make small, incremental changes to your training — one that will also be a realistic challenge to help make the goal attainable.

Of course, if you’re ambitious and want to make the jump from 5K to 100-mile ultras, well, who am I to judge? It can be done, no doubt. But careful training and planning is highly encouraged, and can make the transition more attainable and enjoyable come race day. For most of us mortals, a jump from 5K to 10K is more manageable.

Changing up your racing, and therefore training, can have unintended benefits when you learn just what your body can or cannot do. Rising to the next level is often only possible after experimenting with a race outside of your comfort zone. Bend resident Lauren Fleshman says she gets “to see (herself) as an athlete from a totally new angle. When I try something new, it exposes new weaknesses (which is never fun) but, without fail, every single time I discover strengths that I never knew I had! Then I take those strengths into everything else that I do.” The training involved in preparing for a distance above or below your normal race distance often has unintended fitness benefits that result in better performance at your standard distance. That’s the power of stress and adaptation.

So this year, mix it up. If you’re a roadrunner, try out a trail race and focus on improving your trail running skills. If you’ve been running 5Ks for a couple of years and your improvement has leveled off, shoot for a 10K or 10-mile race. Adjust your training to include longer endurance runs to break that rut. Similarly, if you’ve been running the trails for years and would like to find out how fast you can run a 5K or 10K this year, take a running form class. Learn how to make your gait more efficient and smooth to reduce the impact forces from running. This is particularly helpful if you’re nervous about the pounding on your knees on the road. The next frontier for all you marathoners out there is the trail ultra. This is going to require several adaptations to your training, but can often be that event that takes running to the next level of enjoyment. Making the jump from a road marathon to a trail 50K requires some new trail running skills, electrolyte replacement, and an increase in calorie intake. But it’s also more forgiving on the legs and requires less recovery time after the event. What about those 100-mile runners out there? This year, bring it back down and focus your training on some shorter events. Supplement your training with shorter, more intense training that will help increase speed and put that spring back in your step.

Making sure you’re well prepared for a new challenge will help ensure that it’s a successful one. “The best preparation for me is to welcome new challenges. Fearing them only lowers your ability to succeed,” says Joe Gray, a World Mountain Running team member and Lakewood, WA resident. He’s constantly jumping in new mountain races. Ryan Bak, former member of the Oregon Track Club Elite and recent runner up at the USATF Trail Marathon Championships, has been stretching his comfort zone recently with multiple trail races, a 6-day stage race, and his first ultra. He uses a positive mental attitude and specific training to tackle those unknowns in new races: “The best way to prepare for a new challenge is to do specific training that will give you the greatest chance at success. Learn about the course or the new distance that you are going to race and do specific training that will help prepare you for the upcoming challenge. For example, If you are preparing for your first hilly trail race, make sure that you add some hill repeats into your training (if they are not a part of your normal training routine) and spend some time on trails (if you have access) so that you can prepare for more technical terrain. Also, make sure that you go into your new challenge with a positive attitude and an open mind. You need to be happy and enjoy yourself in order to get the best performance out of your body, so stay positive and have fun!”

Variety is the spice of life, so they say. And if that’s true, then I like my training hot and spicy. No matter what your event or training pattern is, it’s important to include various elements that touch on different physiological systems to maximize your potential and increase your fitness from year to year. Once the body adapts to a particular stress, fitness gains are over. A new stimulus needs to be added for you to continue to grow as an athlete. There’s no better motivator than to have a quickly approaching race that requires you to train and stress your body. So, pick a new race you’ve never done. Travel to a race somewhere you’ve never been. Choose a distance that’s a bit out of your comfort zone, and make some adjustments to your training. Stress and adapt.

Max King lives in Bend, OR. He’s constantly going out of his comfort zone thanks to an active two-year old, working at the FootZone, and running races from 5K to 50 miles.

Originally published in the February 2012 print issue.