Written By: Tim Leeming
Adaptability: the ultimate predictor of success
Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. Good ol’ fashioned evolution. The idea that we, as a species, have evolved over many thousands of years is a concept we’re all familiar with. When we refer to the characteristics of the members of a species that has survived any noteworthy existence here on earth, we think about things like physical strength and endurance, reproductive capacity, intelligence, environmental niche and so on and so forth. Perhaps less commonly considered is a single, distinct concept – a solitary word even – that encompasses all of these things and is therefore, arguably, the defining factor of an individual’s aptitude to survive and thrive: adaptability.
The Oxford Dictionary defines adaptability as “the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions”; “the capacity to be modified to a new use or purpose”. From these simple explanations it is easy to understand that the concept of being adaptable is all-encompassing. Anyone who is able to adjust themselves to changing conditions, to modify their actions to suit a new purpose more readily than their competition is going to have the greatest success in any exchange. Being adaptable is being able to use strength sparingly, to endure challenges wisely, to apply intelligence always and to learn from the changing environment accurately. To manage all of these things is certainly enough to survive existential trials. To exhibit excellence in these characteristics – and therefore superior adaptability – is to flourish, prosper; thrive.
As much as this concept applies to our hairier, humbler primitive predecessors, it stands rigidly true in the modern world. Think about any great sporting star; the top golfers, the fastest sprinters, the most decorated tennis players. There is very little that separates the greatest on the planet from the other players on the podium and below. Physical, mental, emotional; the world’s best work tirelessly on each of these components in their own unique ratios to ensure they arrive at the start line in optimal condition. I think we can all agree that the training load for these elite athletes is fairly similar across the board. So, what separates gold from silver, bronze or no placing at all? What characteristic is it that etches a name in the annals of athletic greatness?
Adaptability. The best on the planet are the most adaptable.
Roger Federer can change his approach in an instant. The degree of angle he plays the ball; how deep in the backcourt he hits it; how much spin each shot has. He can modify his response to an opponent’s change in mood throughout a match. The Fed can do all of this better than any other player ever has, and the record books show it.
The All Blacks can upset an uninspiring, up-front Northern Hemisphere style of play one week and then outclass the speediest and sharpest backline the following week. They can do this because they’re capable of adapting to differing styles of play, better than any other team in the world, and the record books show it.
Kilian Jornet continues to scale peaks that no other runner would consider sensible. Every year he adds several incredible titles to his jaw-dropping list of accolades. Kilian is the kind of guy who can dislocate his shoulder 21 kilometres into a 160km race yet still dominate a field of ultra-running’s “who’s who”. In trail running there has been no greater display of adaptability in recent memory. Kilian is remarkably adaptable on so many levels, and the record books show it.
Demonstrating excellent adaptability in order be the best at what you do goes beyond the dominions of sport. The world’s most powerful and prosperous leaders, entrepreneurs, executives, healers and educators are also the most adaptable. They move so quickly with subtle changes in their unique environmental climates that it’s almost as if it’s not a reaction – it’s like they’re ahead of the game. The same is true for the most successful companies on the planet (irrespective of the moralities of their products). No matter how big or far reaching they are, their success comes from an unrivalled capacity to “adjust to new conditions”.
Shifting your attention now from world beaters to your own athletic endeavours, whatever they may be. It does not matter whether you are a national champion, a weekend warrior or a stay-at-home mum. The more modifiable, adjustable, changeable you are in any given moment, the more likely you are to realise a higher potential in life. Greater adaptability allows for better training adaptations, faster recovery, improved performance (in case you hadn’t picked that up already), fewer sick days and a decreased likelihood of injury. Being more adaptable affords you the ability to be more balanced, more content and – ultimately – happier. The picture here really is bigger than a physical performance across a measured distance.
So now you’ve got this concept that being highly adaptable predisposes one to achieving highly. Let’s add a little bit of practical application. How about we measure it? Yes, that’s right, we can quite accurately measure one particular aspect of human physiology and it tells us a whole lot about how adaptable that person is.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the micro fluctuations in time between every heartbeat. We’re talking milliseconds here. The more variability in time that someone has between beats – or, the greater their HRV – the more adaptable their physiology is. On the other hand, if the heart beats like a metronome, with predictable and unchanging intervals between pulses, this indicates a low level of adaptability. It’s difficult to bridge the gap between fluctuations in heartbeats and winning Wimbledon or the Hardrock 100, because it really is quite a long conversation. In simple terms, it’s got everything to do with the body’s master control centre – the nervous system.
Sympathetic dominance is a state of elevated physical, mental and/or emotional stress; sometimes described as a general feeling of “wired but tired”. When we burn the proverbial candle at both ends for too long, we lose the ability to regulate a balance within the nervous system and we get stuck in a chronic state of sympathetic overdrive. People in overdrive tend to get sick more often, fail to recover well from training, and there’s a good chance they’re the same individuals who tend to constantly fall short of their goals.
People who have balance in their life have balance in their bodies. People who have balance in their bodies invariably have better health and performance outcomes. The very same people have wonderful little fluctuations in the time interval between each heartbeat. They have more heart rate variability.
Don’t just take my word for it though, the evidence is out there and it is a fascinating and growing field of research. So far we know that an athlete’s HRV reading can accurately reflect their recovery status after a training session, race or period training. Using this information, we can determine if an athlete is overtraining and risking illness. It’s possible that we might even be able to use HRV patterns to forecast injury.
While it is not yet adequately proven, there is some suggestion in the literature that resting HRV could potentially predict whether an athlete will perform well or not on a particular day (REF). This is perhaps the most exciting application of reading an individual’s heart rate variability. To take a simple, non-invasive metric of physiology in mere minutes and then use it to project athletic success is quite an astonishing concept.
The logical question then – for any athlete – is how do I improve my heart rate variability? Ultimately, how do I increase my adaptability?
Rest & quality sleep
Spending time in nature
Practicing mindfulness and gratitude
Variety in life
Decreasing your toxic load (diet, cosmetics, electronics, radiation, etc.)
The multifactorial nature of affecting your own adaptability is a direct result of HRV being a derivative of the most complex natural system known to man – the human nervous system. There once was a time when we thought the brain could not be changed. Now we know it is highly plastic. There once was a time when science would have laughed at the idea that taking a deep breath can measurably alter physiology. Now we know the instantaneous and profound effect that our outbreath has on sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and therefore the modulation of heart rate, blood pressure and even hormone production. That’s the amazing science of meditation, another fascinating field.
Understanding the vast role that your nervous system plays in managing every single human function – at least at a basic, foundational level – is an honourable step in the right direction for enhancing your training and running experience. We know now that thrashing your body day in and day out based on a predetermined programme or by following only heart rate zones is probably not the best way to achieve athletic success. As we grow in our understanding of the nervous system and of heart rate variability, the future of exercise prescription – of athletic training – looks like it will have a firm grounding in monitoring an individual’s adaptive response as a pattern of HRV. Utilising HRV to guide training intensity and volume, to measure progress and to predict success is not far around the corner. So, are you working towards a higher adaptability, or are you burning the candle at both ends? Are you just surviving or are you thriving?
Flatt AA. HRVtraining. 2016. Heart Rate Variability Explained: Part 1 | HRVtraining. [ONLINE] Available at: https://hrvtraining.com/2012/01/16/heart-rate-variability-explained-part-1/. [Accessed 01 June 2016].
Gisselman AS, Baxter GD, Wright A, Hegedus E, Tumilty S. Musculoskeletal overuse injuries and heart rate variability: Is there a link? Med Hypotheses. 2016 Feb;87:1-7. [PubMed].