Saturday, April 4, 2009

Homeostasis Is Not Your "Homie"

Wouldn't it be nice if every inch forward one made in their training could be progressively stored away in a time capsule, tucked away but easily accessed at any time? Fitness is elusive, becoming ever-increasingly difficult to maintain or improve upon. Even a small setback or injury can send you tumbling down the cliff it once took so much to ascend. If you've ever teetered on an upside-down bosu ball (pictured at right), you'll understand what I mean when I say fitness is like the balancing act one must perform to stay atop what is essentially half a big, blue, inflated circle of plastic. Despite our attempts to chase down optimal fitness, is it so difficult to stay on that peak of athleticism. The further you advance in running, it becomes exponentially harder to climb higher up this mountain of physical stamina. Why? Thanks to a little built-in survival mechanism called homeostasis.

Alas, such dreams of a fitness time capsule will never be realized. Due to homeostasis, our bodies naturally resist both internal and external change to remain in a state of equilibrium. This same factor affects many other aspects of human life, including difficulty with weight loss, sweating (i.e. body's attempt at staying at a constant core temperature), blood glucose levels, osmosis in cell membranes to balance the concentration of sodium and other minerals, hunger after exercise to encourage you to replenish the energy deficit, and the release of lactic acid during strenuous exercise. Sadly for us runners, this biologically well-intentioned tendency is what makes improvement ever more difficult after the first several leaps and bounds between a novice and well-trained runner.

The concept of homeostasis has many applications. Surely you've marveled at the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who dominate many competitive running events on a global scale. One particular study, in comparing similarly-trained East African versus Caucasian runners, found results indicating the East African runners were more fatigue-resistant because cellular homeostasis in these athletes was more efficient than that of the Caucasian runners.
Interestingly, discussion of homeostasis leads us now to the concept of quality vs. quantity miles. Scientific studies have shown that without increased intensity of exercise (i.e. harder or faster-paced running than the body is accustomed to), even remaining at the same training volume (i.e. number of miles per week) can result in fitness loss. Without increased intensity and workload, the body will not be forced to change, and improvement cannot be expected to occur. If you're amidst a training plateau and are struggling to make headway, reevaluate your current training intensity and compare it with your goals. Improvement isn't magnetized; it won't be attracted to you unless you reach out, firmly grasp it, and hold on tightly.

It's difficult to be best buds with that little homeostatic program we all have coded into us. My time capsule theory can remain nothing more than wishful thinking, and we all must continue our uphill battles on Mt. Fitness. But whether you're at the gently sloping base or higher up on the steep mountainside, you can fight fire with fire by utilizing that other underestimated, innate mechanism we have been given: human willpower. Willpower and determination can slowly chip away at the resistance homeostasis provides.

Perhaps you'll never reach the summit - but it never hurt to try. So strap on your hiking boots, ladies and gents, because it's time to find our true potential. If a mountain goat can do it, so can you.

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