Podcast, Training

Manuel Sola Arjona – The Nature of Training and complexity science | EP#437

 July 11, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Manuel Sola Arjona - That Triathlon Show

Manuel Sola Arjona is a cycling coach and former professional cyclist, author of the book "The Nature of Training", and host of the popular Spanish podcast "Rendimiento Evolutivo".

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Complexity science, complex systems and endurance performance
  • The risks of reductionism in training and in sports science
  • An evolutionary perspective to training and performance
  • How to apply complex systems thinking in training planning and application
  • An overview of Manuel's training and coaching methodology
  • Common mistakes for endurance athletes and coaches to avoid
  • AI, big data, wearables, and technology

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Manuel's background

05:34 -

  • I have been competing in cycling since I was 14, covering all categories and dedicating my life to sports science. While actively competing, I studied sports science at the University of Granada and later pursued a Master's in nutrition. My passion for improving performance led me to start training cyclists, and since then, I've been committed to continuous learning and practice.
  • For the past 18 years, I’ve been immersed in cycling, both as a competitor and a coach. Each year, I dedicate more time to learning and training, which has become a lifelong obsession. This dedication has culminated in writing my book and reflecting on everything I've learned about training and performance.

Manuel's book title

07:06 -

  • By Nature, I don't mean just a forest. I mean everything in the universe. It's similar to the concept of style in Buddhism.
  • Complex systems are nested at different levels, and we are all dependent on each other—from molecules to cells, from organisms to communities, to the ecosystem, and planets. In the end, as I said in the book, there is only one complex system, which I call Nature.
  • That's why I chose this name. Until now, humans have been studied as if they were separate from the environment.
  • What I like about the book's title is that the same laws and properties that govern system behaviour also affect humans. By understanding the laws of complexity, we can approach our health more effectively.

The concept of complexity

08:42 -

  • Complexity science is a new field that merges insights from various disciplines. It studies how specific behaviours and patterns emerge in systems with many interacting parts, which we call complex systems. The term "complex" comes from the Latin word "complexus," meaning "intertwined" or "woven together," reflecting how the relationships within the system make it function as an integrated whole.
  • I like to illustrate this with an example: thermodynamics can explain how living systems decompose into dust, but it cannot explain how dust becomes a living organism. To understand this transformation, we need complexity science.
  • Complexity science has been applied to fields like ecology, economics, and sociology, but the human body is perhaps the most complex system of all.
  • Within complexity science, there's a branch called adaptive complexity, which focuses on systems that can adapt to their environment.
  • For example, while a hurricane is a complex system, it doesn't adapt or change direction based on external factors. In contrast, a human can adapt and change behaviour based on various influences.
  • Until now, we've tried to understand and improve the body using isolated, reductionist approaches. This is akin to trying to understand how a forest works by studying only one type of tree. To truly grasp the intricacies of complex systems like the human body, we need to adopt a more holistic perspective.

Reductionism in endurance sports

10:55 -

  • Reductionism is a scientific approach that attempts to understand complex systems by breaking them down into smaller, manageable parts and solving them separately before trying to comprehend the whole.
  • This method has been highly successful in technology, leading to the creation of increasingly sophisticated machines. However, it has limitations when applied to understanding complex systems, such as human physiology and training.
  • In the realm of training, the challenge lies in embracing an approach opposite to reductionism. While reductionism is inherent to some extent, especially within the biomedical model, it can lead to flawed conclusions when misapplied.
  • For instance, recommendations for athletes are often based on studies that measure the effects of isolated markers, far removed from real-world scenarios.
  • A prime example of reductionism in action is molecular physiology. This field can mislead when it suggests training methods solely because they activate a specific protein or increase levels of a particular hormone.
  • I recall a study claiming that caffeine increases the rate of glycogen resynthesis, making it suitable post-exercise. This is a reductive approach because the goal is not merely to increase glycogen resynthesis but to recover faster.
  • Focusing on one parameter might degrade others, such as disrupting sleep or relaxation, which are crucial for entering an anabolic state.
  • It's essential to understand that we are not just mitochondria, dopamine, muscle mass, or glucose spikes. We are the interaction of all these elements within our unique environments and personal histories.
  • For example, the concept of marginal gains, which has garnered much attention, can be misunderstood. Improving one indicator often comes at the expense of others, leading to a net negative effect.
  • When we over-optimize one parameter of the body, it usually detracts from another.

Properties of any complex system

14:16 -

  • I love discussing the properties of complex systems, especially the concept of emergence. Emergence means that new properties appear at the system level, properties that are unimaginable when only considering the behaviour of individual parts.
  • A prime example is consciousness, which emerges from the electrochemical interactions of millions of neurons. Similarly, a cell’s function arises from the union of various organelles and proteins.
  • These emergent properties result from the synergies between parts and therefore cannot be observed or predicted by studying each part in isolation.
  • Cell organization occurs through processes of interaction, communication, and synchronization between each component of the system, its neighbours, and the environment.
  • This process is autonomous and varies according to the needs of the entire system, considering factors like fatigue, strength, weaknesses, or personal history and learnings.
  • Key examples of emergent and self-organized processes include pedalling or running techniques and cadence. The cadence or technique can vary depending on the individual and the competition moment because the state of the organism changes and requires different compensations.
  • This self-organization process also happens internally, determining how different organs and systems contribute at any given moment to sustain the pace.
  • For instance, the body can maintain very high intensity despite the acidity generated by lactate accumulation due to buffers created through respiration or renal systems, which can compensate for these acidity levels through changes in breathing and urine composition.
  • Another crucial property is circular causality, meaning that the whole system interacts infinitely—changes in the parts modify the whole, and changes in the whole modify the parts.
  • There is no simple cause-and-effect relationship in the body because a cause can have multiple effects, which in turn become causes of further effects. This interrelation keeps the system in a state of dynamic stability.
  • This feedback mechanism generates another property: the nonlinear behaviour of the whole system. The magnitude of a disturbance and its effects do not have a stable relationship.
  • For example, an athlete can accumulate training load and micro-tears in muscles without apparent performance loss or injury.
  • The muscles or the organism can maintain activity despite some damage through compensation and synergies, but at a certain point, the damage accumulates to a level that the body cannot cope with, leading to injury or significant damage.
  • In a race, the stride that causes an injury evolves from the culmination of millions of previous strides.
  • Lastly, my favourite property unique to dynamic and plastic systems is that the system’s goal determines its functioning. The system can modify its internal functioning to achieve its goals. For example, a person’s cortisol levels or blood pressure are very different if they are relaxed and meditating compared to if they are anxious and ready to run.

The connection between evolution and training

19:03 -

  • Organisms, including humans, are not designed by a creator but have evolved through ecological and evolutionary processes to adapt to their environments. Our shapes and physiological functions are driven by the need to survive, not by any deliberate design.
  • In my book, I argue that function is more important than form. By understanding the stimuli humans have evolved to respond to, we can provide these stimuli without needing detailed knowledge of individual physiology.
  • For instance, hunter-gatherers didn't need scientific studies to understand the optimal balance of stress, rest, food, security, and synchronization; their bodies naturally adapted to thrive in their environment.
  • Today, despite technological advancements, we still possess the same genes and physiology as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our bodies are primed to respond well to these evolutionary stimuli.
  • We know that humans are not particularly fast, strong, or agile compared to other animals.
  • Usain Bolt is slower than a cat, we are weaker than chimpanzees, and we lack the claws and fangs of predators. Our physical strength lies in endurance. Humans excel in endurance, especially in hot conditions, due to our ability to sweat and our efficient upright posture, which minimizes solar radiation exposure.
  • This is why long-duration, low-intensity exercise was dominant in our evolution and why our bodies are well adapted to it.
  • This evolutionary background explains why successful endurance athletes often engage in large volumes of low-intensity training. It aligns with our genetic makeup.
  • Moreover, the idea of contextualized strength training gains significance when considering our ancestors.
  • The strength exercises they performed were explosive and involved natural movements like throwing, fighting, climbing, jumping, and sprinting. Sprinting, for instance, requires applying maximum force, making it a powerful workout.
  • In the book, I delve into many more aspects of training, but evolutionary stimuli should form the basis of all training. They provide health benefits and can be sustained throughout life without causing injuries or imbalances.

Manuel's training methodology

22:29 -

  • I define my training method as a delicate balance between giving the body the stimuli it needs to stay healthy and those stimuli that help improve performance in competitive sports. Focusing solely on overall health might not lead to spectacular performance, which is the goal for most athletes.
  • However, concentrating too much on specific performance can lead to short-term gains but ultimately result in imbalances, injuries, or illness.
  • I've moved away from traditional training models that emphasize intensity exclusively. Instead, I believe training should be co-directed between the coach and the athlete.
  • A good synergy between both parties is greater than the sum of their contributions. The coach brings theoretical and practical knowledge of human physiology, training processes, and emotion-influenced decision-making. Meanwhile, the athlete provides insights into their feelings, preferences, and motivations.
  • Trust in the plan is crucial for adapting to training. Since the training process is dynamic, we start with the athlete's current state and aim for short-, medium-, or long-term goals.
  • The path between these points is uncertain and requires adjustments as we progress. It's about dancing with the system rather than adhering to a rigid plan, as the same training that improves performance today might not be effective tomorrow.

RPE training prescription

25:21 -

  • RPE, perception, sensation, and other evolutionary tools help us make the right decisions based on what we need.
  • For example, we know when we're hungry, thirsty, or tired, and we can recognize emotions like fear, anger, or sadness.
  • These instincts helped our ancestors survive. In essence, we use a tool called "perception of effort" to maintain balance and avoid burnout.
  • Without this, our ancestors wouldn't have been able to pace themselves during hunting or gathering, which could have led to exhaustion and failure.
  • I like to explain the perception of effort as a high-tech processor that monitors stress data affecting the whole body in real time and weighs it accordingly.
  • RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort) is what we use for training because it's influenced by fatigue, mood, and stress. However, focusing too much on data from devices like Garmin can make us lose track of this subjective awareness.
  • While data can provide peace of mind, they only measure part of the system with some margin of error. For example, a drop in lactate levels might indicate less effort or more efficient fat-burning due to fatigue.
  • You could be stronger in squats but have less power on the bike, or lower your fat percentage but still lose performance.
  • So, it's not about focusing on one parameter alone but considering the entire system. Relying solely on devices to tell us when to train based on simple indicators is a mistake, in my opinion.
  • We need to reconnect with our bodies and learn to listen to ourselves.

Prescribing workouts with RPE metrics

28:54 -

  • Let me clarify something that's often misunderstood in training: while we can control the stimuli we apply, predicting how the body adapts afterwards is quite challenging.
  • In practical terms, training stimuli depend on three factors: type, magnitude, and frequency, and they all influence each other.
  • Firstly, the type of stimuli refers to what physiological structures are primarily stimulated.
  • For instance, high-intensity stimuli of less than ten seconds focus on fast-twitch fibres, while low-intensity stimuli like endurance cycling primarily stimulate slow-twitch fibres and enhance aerobic capabilities. The type of stimuli isn't just about intensity; it also considers metabolic pathways, such as glycolysis or lipolysis.
  • Secondly, the effect of a stimuli type depends on its magnitude. The same low-intensity stimuli, like cycling for 30 minutes versus 6 hours, can have vastly different impacts.
  • Higher magnitudes involve greater physiological stress, such as increased oxygen consumption, higher levels of catecholamines, more fatty acid oxidation, and potential muscle damage and systemic stress.
  • Thirdly, frequency plays a crucial role. It dictates how often we can repeat high-magnitude stimuli sessions. Higher magnitudes necessitate longer recovery periods to allow for adequate adaptation and prevent overtraining.
  • When designing my training, I focus on creating specific types of stimuli with varying magnitudes.
  • These include aerobic capacity sessions lasting over an hour, aerobic power sessions lasting 3-6 minutes, aerobic capacity intensity sessions lasting 30 seconds to 3 minutes, and neuromuscular power sessions.
  • Regarding low-intensity training, I prefer using heart rate or perceived effort as metrics. These metrics provide internal load feedback, which helps in managing cumulative fatigue and adjusting training intensity accordingly.
  • For example, maintaining a stable power output for four hours might be monotonous and unnecessary for achieving training goals unless specific endurance adaptations are targeted.

Prescribing intensity based on max effort perception

34:13 -

  • There are two ways I measure the intensity of training. Firstly, there's the average Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) over the entire session. For instance, if I complete a four-hour ride, I might rate the overall RPE as a five or six.
  • Secondly, there's the maximum RPE within specific sets or intervals. For example, during aerobic power training with three sets of one-minute efforts at near-maximum sustainable power, the RPE might peak at seven, eight, or even nine in the final set, indicating a high stimulus magnitude of nine out of ten.
  • Determining the appropriate magnitude of training stimuli is critical. It involves careful consideration of an athlete's recovery capabilities based on previous weeks or sessions.
  • However, it's challenging to balance intensity with recovery, especially when prioritizing long-term health. Personally, during phases focused on health maintenance, I avoid sessions that induce excessive fatigue, aiming to recover fully within 48 hours.
  • Typically, my RPE targets range between seven and nine, with occasional spikes up to nine, scheduled once a week.
  • Conversely, in race-specific training phases, the goal shifts towards pushing boundaries and achieving maximum adaptation.
  • During these periods, I prescribe more demanding intervals, often reaching RPE levels of nine or even ten on two to three training days per week.
  • These sessions are strategically interspersed with easier recovery days, creating a polarized training approach. In other weeks, the training load is more balanced and stable, avoiding prolonged periods of high intensity to prevent overtraining.

Recovery and adaptation to training

37:25 -

  • In my approach to designing training programs, I emphasize a smooth flow that's easy to follow. The key is training hard when the body is ready and slowing down when fatigue sets in.
  • While occasional training sessions when tired or unmotivated can be okay, they should be rare.
  • It's crucial to understand the body's signals and respect its need for rest and recovery.
  • Many people rely heavily on training metrics assuming that more training equals more progress. However, the relationship between training load and improvement isn't straightforward or linear. Metrics like CTL or Strava's fitness score may indicate increased training volume but don't necessarily reflect actual performance gains.
  • For inexperienced individuals, increasing the training load can initially lead to improvements simply because they're transitioning from no training to regular training.
  • However, for seasoned athletes, there's a delicate balance where excessive training can diminish performance rather than enhance it.
  • As a coach, I often witness athletes falling into the trap of overtraining due to a misconception that more is always better.
  • Training is a stressor on the body, and too much stress without adequate recovery can lead to negative outcomes like injury or stagnation.
  • Cyclists, in particular, may experience rapid improvements initially by pushing harder, but this often leads to a cycle of plateauing or even regressing due to fatigue or injury.
  • Patience is key in training. It's about achieving long-term, sustainable adaptation rather than short-term gains that fizzle out.
  • It's important to strike a balance, listening to the body's cues, and knowing when to push and when to pull back. This approach not only enhances performance but also ensures athletes stay healthy and avoid burnout.

Training zones and thresholds

40:08 -

  • In exercise physiology, we often discuss the concept of steady states, typically characterized by models like critical power or FTP (Functional Threshold Power), which are based on hyperbolic functions.
  • For instance, MFTP (Modeled Functional Threshold Power) estimates FTP using power curves, similar to critical power models. These models define the highest sustainable power output without significant fatigue, usually for around an hour.
  • In my book, I argue that the power-time relationship doesn't exhibit clear thresholds. Analyzing world records from 1500 meters to the marathon on a logarithmic scale reveals a consistent loss of power or speed, disproving the existence of distinct thresholds.
  • In practice, I've observed that for every doubling of sustainable time, the power an athlete can maintain decreases by approximately 10%. For example, someone capable of sustaining 400 watts for 5 minutes may maintain around 360 watts for 15 minutes and 324 watts for 45 minutes. This trend challenges the notion of stable points in power or speed.
  • Regarding physiological markers like lactate threshold or oxygen consumption, while they provide valuable insights, the body's complex interplay means thresholds are continually fluctuating.
  • Watching cyclists like Pogacar and Vingegaard pushing each other highlights this complexity. They can sustain high speeds despite varying physiological responses.
  • I caution against viewing zones or thresholds as fixed physiological limits.
  • They serve as useful training tools but should be understood as artificial constructs rather than absolute boundaries.
  • Adjusting training intensity slightly around these markers can optimize performance without fixating on narrow physiological interpretations.
  • Ultimately, understanding these concepts can enhance training strategies, emphasizing adaptability and long-term performance gains over rigid adherence to supposed physiological thresholds.

The impact of psychology on the training process

48:11 -

  • In racing or training, slowing down isn't merely about physical markers like lactate levels or heart rate. It's when the effort becomes unbearable, regardless of these metrics.
  • Understanding this distinction is crucial because endurance isn't solely physical—it's also about managing the involuntary perception of effort, heavily influenced by motivation and mindset.
  • Endurance training involves three key areas. Firstly, physical conditioning aims to reduce physical strain, which is the most conventional aspect of training.
  • Secondly, there's an emotional component: boosting motivation by setting compelling goals that excite us, thereby minimizing perceived effort. Lastly, the rational aspect involves enhancing willpower to sustain effort even when facing challenges.
  • Motivation hinges on personal activation and our attitude towards tasks. Engaging goals can reduce perceived effort, whereas unappealing tasks can increase it.
  • Goals should be ambitious yet achievable to maintain motivation levels without overwhelming us.
  • Mindset, the third component, is about the negotiation between perceived benefits and costs of the effort. This dynamic process influences our decision to push through or slow down during intense moments in competition.
  • What seems manageable at the start may feel daunting as effort accumulates, affecting performance.
  • Competitive experiences illustrate how our perception of effort evolves during the race. Managing this dynamic requires mental techniques honed through training and race experience, rather than relying on quick fixes.
  • Building endurance involves setting clear goals and gradually acclimating to varied efforts over time, ensuring readiness for critical moments in races.

Training environment

52:37 -

  • The connection between an athlete and their environment plays a crucial role in performance and well-being.
  • I recall vividly during my racing days, especially when transitioning from a busy summer race schedule to altitude training camps. There were times when all I longed for was the comfort of home, surrounded by familiar faces and routines.
  • When I found myself in that state of mind, staying at altitude felt like a struggle, and it noticeably impacted my performance.
  • This experience highlighted to me the profound influence of environmental factors on athletic adaptation and success. It wasn't just about physical training; my emotional state, stress levels, and overall happiness significantly influenced how my body responded to training stimuli.
  • Research backs this up, showing that high levels of stress, including elevated cortisol levels, can hinder the body's ability to adapt and recover optimally from training.
  • The analogy with training camps is also telling. When athletes immerse themselves in a supportive, stress-free environment—away from the demands of daily life—they often find themselves capable of pushing their training further.
  • The relaxed atmosphere, combined with camaraderie and ideal training conditions, can lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes, even surpassing the results of a typical training week at home.
  • In essence, human beings, unlike closed systems, constantly interact with and respond to their surroundings. Our physiological processes, including those crucial to athletic performance, are intricately linked to our emotional and social contexts.
  • Therefore, understanding and managing these environmental influences can be just as important as fine-tuning training programs and nutritional strategies.

Thoughts on AI, big data and new device trends

56:27 -

  • It seems like we're entering an era where having more data isn't necessarily the advantage—it's about having the right framework to interpret and apply that data effectively.
  • While AI and machine learning can correlate variables, applying those insights specifically to individuals requires understanding causation rather than just association.
  • The challenge lies in deciphering what each person needs at any given moment and why, considering a myriad of factors like physiology, genetics, previous training, motivation, emotional state, and cultural influences.
  • These factors vary greatly in their impact and interactions between individuals, making it complex to generalize or create an "average elite" template.
  • Despite technological advancements in data collection and analysis, such as real-time monitoring, we often find that the promise of total control over training outcomes falls short.
  • Even with sophisticated tools, like continuous glucose monitors or power meters in cycling, the actual transformative impact on training outcomes is limited.
  • These technologies aid in better pacing and performance management, yet they don't fundamentally change the process of becoming stronger or fitter.
  • Moreover, there's a concern that AI could reinforce biases or limit our thinking to predefined patterns, constraining innovation and progress. Language models, for instance, reflect what we input into them, potentially perpetuating existing mindsets rather than challenging them.
  • Reflecting on history, not every technological innovation in sports training has revolutionized performance as initially hyped. Each advancement contributes incrementally rather than drastically altering outcomes.
  • While technology undoubtedly enhances training, it's essential to maintain a realistic perspective on its actual impact and continue seeking innovative approaches beyond what current tools offer.

Common mistakes made by athletes and coaches

1:00:44 -

  • The issue often arises for athletes who work with multiple coaches who do not communicate with each other. This lack of communication can lead to conflicting or redundant training sessions, causing confusion and potentially hindering progress.
  • It's essential for coaches to collaborate or at least have access to each other's training plans and athlete data through platforms like TrainingPeaks.
  • This way, they can align their efforts and ensure a cohesive training approach that optimally supports the athlete's goals.
  • In cases where communication between coaches isn't feasible, athletes must take responsibility for managing their training intensity effectively.
  • This involves being mindful of their overall training load and adapting sessions as needed to avoid overtraining or undertraining. While group sessions can be motivating and practical, they may not always align perfectly with an individual's long-term training plan.
  • The athlete should consider adjusting his participation or effort level during these sessions based on his personal fatigue and training goals.
  • The balance between quality and quantity of training sessions is crucial, particularly for athletes who have experienced overtraining in the past.
  • It's important not to push too hard in every session designated as hard by group coaches. Instead, occasional slower sessions can provide necessary recovery and prevent burnout.
  • This approach prioritizes the athlete's long-term health and performance sustainability over short-term gains.
  • Athletes should also focus on gradually rebuilding their confidence in their training and overall health after previous overtraining experiences.
  • This involves listening to his body, making informed decisions about session intensity, and being willing to modify his training plan when necessary.
  • By adopting a flexible and individualized approach to training, he can avoid the pitfalls of overtraining and maintain consistent progress toward his athletic goals.

Pieces of advice to endurance athletes

1:03:20 -

  • First and foremost, I believe in enjoying the training process because there are numerous ways to achieve success. It's not always about hitting specific intervals or metrics.
  • Sometimes, running or cycling at a steady pace can be just as beneficial. Mixing it up allows for enjoyment and the flexibility to train with friends.
  • Champions are made through consistent, uninterrupted training over many years. To reach elite levels, one must find fulfilment in the training journey and the lifestyle it entails.
  • It's crucial to avoid getting fixated on too many metrics. While metrics can provide valuable insights, overly focusing on them might lead to training errors.
  • It's equally important to listen to your body's signals and how you feel day-to-day, rather than solely relying on predefined fitness numbers.
  • Taking a holistic view of training and avoiding excessive optimization is key. Performance is influenced by various factors that need to work together seamlessly.
  • For instance, occasional social outings with friends and your partner, including a glass of wine or having sex, can contribute positively to overall well-being 


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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