Picture or woman working out on the beach
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Who would believe it? Several days of unbroken sunshine in Manchester!

In case you missed it, check out this article on Rules for Primal Sun Exposure.

Writing the above article, however, got me thinking about the similarities between tanning and training.

Although these two activities may at first appear to have little in common, they can actually both be classified under the term “hormesis”.

According to the definition on the NIH website:

Hormesis is a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.

Though the term is usually applied to an environmental agent, it can also be extended to include any stress upon the body.

In the case of sun exposure, a moderate dose will allow the body to produce vitamin D (conveying a myriad of benefits), and darken the skin.  Too much however can result in sun burn, premature skin ageing and possibly even skin cancer.

In the case of training, the correct amount of stress will produce favourable adaptations in the body – Performance gains such as improved strength, endurance, power, etc, and favourable body composition changes such as increased muscle mass and decreased body fat. Over-training, however, can result in the opposite – Reduced strength, endurance and power, loss of muscle and fat gain, and worse still, fatigue, depression, injury and even chronic illness!

When it comes to both training and tanning, many people take what I term “The Benidorm Approach”

People that have had zero sun exposure for the best part of a year go on holiday and head straight for the beach. Rather than gradually building up their exposure over time, they fry themselves in the sun, turning themselves into bright pink lobsters. They spend the rest of the week shuffling around in pain, unable to enjoy the sun, and the following week they are back to the same whiter shade of pale they were to begin with. This is not a sensible approach.

Unfortunately, many people take the same approach to training. They attempt to go from zero to hero overnight, hitting the gym 5 days per week, pushing their bodies to the limit every time they train. Like the sunburnt lobsters in Benidorm, they end up hobbling around in pain from muscle soreness, and invariably end up reverting to their sedentary lifestyles in a matter of weeks.

When you make that decision to turn your life around, and make favourable changes to your health, fitness and body composition by starting a new training regimen, it is important to remember a couple of points:

  • Training is a stress on the body. The body adapts by recovering from this stress. If the stress is too great, or the recovery too little, the body will not be able to adapt before the next session and no progress will be made.
  • There is no rush. This is not going to be a week long excursion, but a life long move. Take your time and enjoy the process. Yes, you can get measurable and noticeable results in 6 weeks, but also think about what you want to be doing in 6 months, 6 years, and when you’re 60!

If you’ve been living a very sedentary lifestyle, the dose required to produce a training response is very small. A couple of easy sessions per week will pay dividends.

As your body adapts to the stresses of training, in order to continue getting results, you will need to start to increase the dose. This can be done by gradually increasing the intensity, duration and/or frequency of your training.

This process works great for quite some time. Just like the lucky soul that has emigrated to a hot country, who can gradually spend more and more time in the sun, and at hotter times of the day, and continue to get a deeper and darker tan, so the new trainee can continue to lift more weight, sprint faster and train more frequently while seeing tremendous improvements in all areas of fitness.

What both must eventually come to realise, however, is that this process cannot continue indefinitely.

Depending upon your genetics, there is a limit to how tanned your skin can become. Spending more and more time under hotter and hotter sun will not continue to make you look and feel better for ever. On the contrary, too much sun will start to prematurely age your skin, making it tougher, more wrinkled and blemished.

Rather than continuing to increase exposure time to the sun, or even maintain it, a more sensible approach would be to actually decrease it. Once a deep level of tan has been achieved, it can be maintained easily with a relatively low dose of exposure.

What a lot of people fail to realise, is that the training process is very similar. Like the ability to tan, everyone has a genetic potential when it comes to fitness and strength.

Over the first few years you can keep training harder, faster and longer while making fantastic gains, but eventually these gains start to slow down, or even stop. In the past, training plateaus have always been busted through by doing more and pushing harder, so this is what you resort to once more.

Unfortunately, as you get nearer your genetic potential, this approach will no longer produce the gains that it used to, and could even result in over-training.Fortunately, unlike getting a tan, all forms of strength and fitness have a high skill component – Whether it be lifting a weight, climbing a rock face or running a marathon, improvement requires not just adaptation in the tissues, but also in the nervous system.

In order to keep seeing gains, the frequency of your higher intensity sessions must actually eventually decrease, as the high levels of stress require more time to recover from, and it becomes more important than ever to pay close attention to your recovery – Proper nutrition, lots of sleep, and perhaps even some soft tissue work.

This doesn’t mean that you’ve got to spend more time on the couch though, just that more of your sessions should be at a lower intensity. Use these sessions to practice skills and tactics, and more importantly to have fun! Learn to enjoy that strength and fitness you’ve accumulated over the years, preferably with friends in the great outdoors.

You’ll be amazed, but by backing off the intensity, and focusing more on fun and enjoyment you’ll more than likely start seeing those gains again. Get outside in the sun, and you can even work on that tan at the same time!

2 thoughts on “Hormesis. What can tanning teach us about training?”

  1. Pingback: The debate: Sets, Reps and Training to Failure

  2. Pingback: Strength and Conditioning for Sports – Separating Fact from Fiction

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