Progressive Overload, Stress and the CrossFit Athlete

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Progressive Overload, Stress and the CrossFit Athlete

Photo Credit: Kate Webster Photography

When it comes to stress, there are two major categories into which it can be categorized: (There are two major stress categories:)

Eustress – good/beneficial stress, and

Distress – bad/harmful stress

The difference between a good or bad stress often has more to do with the context than with the stressor itself.

[A]s CrossFit athletes we often have a tendency to think “more is better” and to put more emphasis on applying the stress (training) than we do on removing it (rest/recovery).
When we train, we are essentially applying (and removing) different types of stress to our bodies in varying amounts. Over time, when done correctly we become increasingly resilient, which in turn allows us to become stronger, faster, and fitter athletes. The stresses we apply are “good” so long as we know when to stop and when to back off (i.e. take a rest day/deload week) and allow our bodies time to recover.

Unfortunately, as CrossFit athletes we often have a tendency to think “more is better” and to put more emphasis on applying the stress (training) than we do on removing it (rest/recovery); as a result, we end up training in a constantly fatigued state. We forget (or are hesitant) to take time off for fear of “falling behind,” and in doing so, we risk turning our training from a source of eustress to a source of distress, thus damaging our progress along the way. Essentially, rather than training ourselves to be resistant to fatigue, we are simply training fatigued — a distinction to which I never paid much attention until I heard James Fitzgerald (OPT) mention it in an interview. Since hearing that interview, that idea has become lodged in my brain; while the difference may sound minor in writing, in reality I think it is more important than many of us realize.

Stress and Progressive Overload

The exact amount of stress that can be applied before it transitions from good (eustress) to bad (distress) can vary significantly between individuals based on a number of factors such as:

  • genetics (some athletes simply handle more volume/higher intensities better)
  • predisposition to being “high stress”
  • athletic experience and training
  • age
  • presence of external stressors (work, relationships, etc), etc.

And even within the same athlete, the optimum level of stress can change in relation to factors like:

  • how much sleep an athlete is getting
  • their nutrition
  • what is going on outside of training
  • menstrual cycle (this one is just for the ladies)

Which is why it’s so important that we monitor our training/progress, schedule regular rest/recovery days, and be conscious of any extended dips in performance.

Temporary dips in performance and “off days” are to be expected (it’s part of being an athlete), and it’s perfectly normal to be sore/tired after a hard day or week of training. After a hard day (or week) of training, however, it is important to dial back the intensity (temporarily) so that our bodies can repair and recover.
By systematically applying stress and removing it, we become more resilient and more capable of handling increased intensity and load. This is what’s known as progressive overload, and it is one of the key training principles behind pretty much any successful, long-term training programs.  Progressive Overload

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