Odds are if you asked 9/10 high school coaches or athletes, “what is the GAS?” you’d get a funny face back and quip about flatulence. Jokes aside, understanding the GAS (general adaptation syndrome) might be the most important nugget of training wisdom you apply this year.
The idea of the GAS flies counter to the sports performance marketing machine. The current pitch being a masochistic inundation of the “grind”, “no days off,” and “no pain, no gain.” This work until your weary and then work some more ethos is so deeply rooted into popular thinking that suggesting otherwise almost comes across as blasphemous. I too was seduced by the church of more, better, till injuries, lethargy, and burnout had me questioning what I was being sold.
“Does everything have to hurt?” “Should you dread your training sessions?” “Could there be a better way?” After years of “grinding,” these questions popped up with regularity and had me encountering the teachings of a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist named Hans Seyle and his insights into the world of stress.
Sports performance isn’t about who did the most burpees or battle rope whips. Performance is about feeling physically prepared, mentally fresh, and ultimately winning games. If you are too fatigued to move or think about your best, efforts aside, you are missing the mark.
Think about elite professional sports stars and what they do. It is said that success leaves clues. Most, if not all, prioritize recovery more than your standard amateur athlete.
The pros don’t get it all right. Some might do a particular style of physical training that might not make a lick of textbook sense. Whether it’s exercise selection that would make some trainers cringe, range of motion might raise an eyebrow, or diets that might be less than ideal, the GOATS on-field performance often transcends what happens in the weight room.
However, all pay attention physically and financially to the world of recovery. Millions are spent on hyperbaric chambers, masseuses, physical therapists, and sports psychologists to ensure the athlete is feeling their best when it is time to perform. I’d venture most have never even heard of the GAS or Seyle, but have figured out his fundamental teachings enough to prioritize recovery so intently.
At a minimum, athletes and coaches should familiarize themselves with the GAS and use it as a guideline to how they structure their training and practice sessions. If understood and applied, this newfound outlook can influence performance positively on game day.
The crux of the GAS is stress and adaptation. Ideally, we have a balance of a suitable stressor and subsequent transformation. GAS is the three-stage process that describes the physiological changes the body goes through when under stress.
Alarm: Shock Phase
The athletes’ resistance to the stressor drops temporarily below the normal range and may experience some shock level. This would be the initial training load, be it strength-based, plyometric or cardiovascular.
“The body attempts to respond to stressful stimuli via increased secretion of hormones” The body will release hormones as a counter to the initial shock.
Recovery or Exhaustion Phase
Recovery happens when the system’s compensation mechanisms have successfully overcome the stressor effect.
Exhaustion occurs when all of the body’s resources are eventually depleted, and the body cannot maintain normal function. If stage three is extended, long-term damage may result as the body’s immune system becomes exhausted and bodily functions become impaired.
It bears repeating. Training should be the interplay between the stressor and the adaptation. Too much stress and the body will tip towards the exhaustion phase. Conversely, not enough stress will not cause a positive adaptation. The magic lies in finding the suitable stressor that will continue to progress and enhance performance.
There are several programs out there that are mindful of the teachings of Seyle. Instead of “do as much as possible”, their battle cry is “do as much as necessary.” Many coaches are finding a lot of success in Dr. Yessis’ 1×20 method and other minimalist training approaches.
Coach Zaquan Irby, master trainer and owner of Build 2 Win Performance in Troy, NY, has some thoughts on youth athletes’ daily grind. “Long-term development should take precedence in program design. With that said, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Don’t overcook the meal from keeping the fire high for too long.”
There will be some struggling and adversity along the way throughout the training process. A minimum effect dose program that values the GAS isn’t a “just coast and take it easy all day” approach. These programs still prioritize intensity and hard work. They just realize that each session should supplement the next, not obliterate it.
Since it’s not possible to eliminate every stressor, it’s important to find ways to cope with stress. Knowing the signs and stages of stress can help you take appropriate steps to manage your stress level and lower your risk of complications.
Toppling the “no days off” army might be a daunting endeavor. But through education, communication, and ultimately results, I am confident that programs that are mindful of the GAS will emerge victorious come game day.