Adaptation and Antifragility

When we open the history books, there is a common trait seen amongst many successful people, civilizations, and complex systems - they adapt. During the times of hunters and gatherers, the humans who adapted were the ones that lived. If a hunter lacked the skill of hunting, they were forced to adapt in order to become successful… or else.

Lucky for them, adaptation may be the strongest, most productive quality of complex systems.

We can look at adaptation through both a short-term and long-term lens.

In the short-term, we adapt to the dynamic environment we find ourselves within. For Midwesterners like me, 45 degrees in spring feels much different than 45 degrees in fall. Maxing out your car speakers to Kenny Chesney sounds a lot quieter after the 6th song, as compared to the first.

In the long-term, we adapt to our environment based upon the stressors we absorb. Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that species evolve (adapt) over time in subtle ways in order to introduce functional advantages. For example, cacti developed needles to protect themselves from predators. Giraffes necks grew in order to reach the leaves on the acacia trees. Peppered moths have altered their external appearance from light to dark in order to blend in with our pollution filled air better.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty and disorder - while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness (6).

Did you know, over 75% of the world is lactose intolerant (1)?

After infancy, the majority of the world’s population stops producing the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose, the carbohydrate found in dairy products. It is believed that somewhere in the last 10,000 years, as livestock became more popular, along with their milk production, humans began developing the enzyme lactase (and maintaining it) in order to properly digest this new, caloric dense food source.

Prior to creating this adaptation, humans had to ferment the products that were being produced by the livestock, which removed upwards of 50% of the caloric density of the food. During times of famine, the individuals that could consume these additional calories were much better suited to survive.

Let’s look at another form of adaptation… vaccinations (I know, topical).

Vaccines create active immunity of a harmful agent, by injecting a small dosage of that harmful agent into our body - a pretty wild concept if you ask me. Once injected, our body becomes sensitized to that harmful agent, exposing and stimulating B-Lymphocytes to prepare them for future instances of the harmful agent.

By exposing the body to a small stress, we can create an adaptation to protect it from larger stresses in the future. Incredible.

Let’s relate this to sport.

Looking through the short-term lens, a sporting environment represents a constantly changing, dynamic problem that is in need of solving by the athletes and coaches. The teams that can most successfully mold (adapt) to the environment, will be able to solve the problem it presents most efficiently - and therefore win the game.

Once the opposition starts reacting to and trying to thwart the game plan, the coach must make adaptations and corrections that improve the team's ability to reach its objectives and win the game in the conditions in which it finds itself (2).

Individual athletes need to adapt to the sporting environment that each individual play presents. A basketball player driving to the basket will have to adjust her finish around the rim based on the defenders attempts to stop her. A running back needs to adapt his movement to create space based upon how his teammates open running lanes and defenders actively try to close them.

The critical word, adaptive. To sustain success, each unit - and I include coaches in this as well - needs to be able and allowed to adapt (2).

Looking through the long-term lens, athletic development requires periods of stress and novel stimuli, paired with periods of recovery, in order to promote adaptations. If an athlete wishes to gain strength, they must stress the body through lifting. If an athlete wishes to improve speed, they must stress the body by sprinting at max velocity. If an athlete wishes to improve mobility, they must stress the body in new ranges of motion.

The body will adapt to the stresses and stimuli it is given.

In the end, humans, and more specifically athletes, need to be adaptive in order to better fit the present and future dynamic environments that they find themselves within. Lucky for us, our bodies are created to do so.

The General Adaptation Syndrome

Hans Selye, famous Endocrinologist and Scientist, first coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) to discuss the way in which living creatures respond to stress.

Selye breaks down the body’s adaptation mechanisms into 3 phases (modern scientists have added a fourth) (7):

  1. Alarm Reaction Phase

  2. Resistance Phase

  3. Supercompensation Phase (added by modern ‘experts’, not Selye)

  4. Exhaustion Phase

1. Alarm Reaction Phase

Within the initial phase, a new stress or stimulus (basically synonymous for our purposes) is presented to the body. This new stress is going to cause an initial decrease in biological processes and performance.

Looking at this phase through a strength and conditioning example, a stress could be the loading mechanism placed on the body. It also could be a new movement that challenges our motor control and central nervous system.

Let’s look at muscle growth…

The initial phase of muscle growth is microdamage. In order to grow new, more resilient (and larger) muscles, we actually need to break down our current muscles, to allow them to grow back bigger.

When skeletal muscle is subject to an overload stimulus, it causes perturbations in the myofibers and the extracellular matrix. This sets off a chain of myogenic events that ultimately leads to an increase in the size and amounts of myofibrillar contractile proteins actin and myosin, and the total number of sarcomeres in parallel (3).

In order to elicit adaptation, there needs to be an initial stressor causing damage to the system that is greater than a given threshold.

2. Resistance Phase

The resistance phase represents where adaptation occurs in the cycle. Stress causes a decrease, but the system will recover and adapt to levels higher than those previously established before the stimulus.

Look at vaccines… We inject ourselves with a small dosage of poison (stress) and become subsequently stronger and more resilient (adaptation).

Look at muscle growth… We cause microdamage at the muscular level through training (stress), in order to subsequently grow those muscles (adaptation).

Look at learning… We are presented new information (stress), initially confused, but subsequently grow by learning the material (adaptation).

In fact, let's dive deeper into learning…

A 2009 study by Kornell and Metcalfe tested sixth graders in their ability to learn vocabulary terms. During practice sessions, terms were presented in either condition 1 or condition 2. In condition 1, the term and the definition were given simultaneously, providing immediate feedback. For example,

A temporary stop in action or speech: Pause.

In condition 2, definitions were provided without the term associated with it. After being presented the definition, the student was forced to type in a guess regarding the matching term, and only after doing so were they provided feedback regarding the correct answer. For example,

To make or become better: ________

***Delayed feedback until the student has generated a potential answer***


The results showed that by providing immediate feedback (presenting both the definition and the term immediately) the student was much less likely to learn the term, as compared to the delayed feedback condition. Researchers concluded that this was, in part, due to putting in additional effort and struggle while coming up with a guess in condition 2. Forcing the student to generate an answer, even if that answer was incorrect, led to heightened levels of learning (4).

Stress led to struggle, which was necessary to promote heightened learning. Adaptation.

3. Supercompensation Phase.

Although not specifically a part of Selye’s initial GAS, many experts have begun including a phase in between (2.) Resistance and (4.) Exhaustion, and they are calling it the Supercompensation Phase.

In this phase, we reach and maintain the new level of performance, above and beyond our initial level prior to the stimulus.

On a trip to Yellowstone National Park last year, I had the opportunity to learn about a strategy employed by firefighters to improve the ecosystem and safety of forests called controlled burns. Essentially, firefighters set forests on fire in a controlled manner in order to do 2 things:

  1. Manage future larger forest fires by removing highly flammable material.

  2. Increase the overall health and performance of the ecosystem.

After the initial stressor (the controlled burn), the forest will lose performance. Trees will be burnt, wildlife will lose habitats, and the food supply will decrease. However, with time, the forest will grow back bigger and stronger, the wildlife will flourish and the ecosystem will thrive. The forest will reach its supercompensation phase.

The human body is no different. Whether the stress is a foreign substance through a vaccine or a barbell with 450 lbs. on it, an initial stress will lead to a certain decrease in performance, but after we allow adaptation to take place, we will be stronger, healthier, and more robust. We will reach our supercompensation phase.

4. Exhaustion Phase

It would be inappropriate if we didn’t bring up the fact that, yes, it is possible to overstress. If proper recovery is not instituted in between bouts of stress, or an overpowering stimulus is applied, we reach what Selye calls the exhaustion phase.

Back in my day (he said like an old man about to relive his glory days), I would landscape in my time off of school. One task I remember enjoying was trimming the Boxwood Shrubs (and cutting grass, but we’ll save that example for another day). Every spring we had to cut back these 24-26 inch bushes to about 12-15 inches off the ground.

But why?

Why are we tearing them down?

Should we not be lifting them up? Giving them nutrients? Helping them grow?