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Non-Responders: What to Do If Your Body Doesn’t Respond to Training

Not getting faster? There may be a reason for that.

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Would you still train hard and endure the early mornings and tired muscles if you never got faster? After all, with exercise, it’s an assumed contract—put in the effort, get the results. But what if that covenant was broken and hard work earned you nothing but frustration? Science has a name for those unlucky individuals who don’t experience any significant improvements after exercise: non-responders.

By now, alarm bells are going off. I didn’t PR that last race! That’s me, I must be a non-responder! So, how do you know if you are one of the unfortunates who feels pain without gain? According to Craig Pickering, director of sports science at DNAFit, you don’t really know. But the good news is that it doesn’t really matter.

As Pickering’s review article in the journal Sports Medicine explains, it’s unlikely that true non-responders to exercise exist, rather they’re just a group of individuals who haven’t responded…yet.

“I believe that people who are identified as non-responders are identified as such because they’re not doing the right thing,” Pickering says. Pickering cites research showing that if you give people who appear to be non-responders either more total training volume, more training intensity, or a different training stimulus, the rate of non-response is either significantly reduced or eliminated completely.

In other words, if you’re not seeing any improvement with your training—even if it’s working for your training partner, teammate, or the triathlete swimming one lane over—change what you’re doing. It’s an opinion shared by Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin. “One of the things that triathletes get disappointed about is their relatively low VO2max or maximal oxygen consumption when we bring them into the lab and test them,” Tanaka says.

In order to accommodate three different modes of exercise, triathletes too often sacrifice training intensity—one of the most important drivers for aerobic capacity improvement. Gibala says interval protocols ranging from repeated 30-second “all out” sprint runs to 5-minute cycling bouts at 80 percent of peak power have been shown to boost performance in trained athletes, without an increase in volume. This also speaks to the effectiveness of a varied approach to intensity training, he says. Pickering also maintains there are completely legitimate reasons why you may experience only slight gains in performance. For instance, the longer you have been training, the less you can expect to improve. What’s more, for masters athletes, “non-response,” rather than a negative response, might mark a good training year.

“In elite athletes, it is unreasonable to suggest that they will continue to improve year on year,” Pickering says. “At this level, which most of us never reach, a good response might be repeating the previous year’s performance or getting close to their best ever time.” Tanaka worries that endurance athletes frustrated by a lack of progress will attack non-response by simply packing on more and more volume—a strategy ripe for overuse injury, burnout, and overtraining.

Because sport is a continual balancing act between training and recovery, Pickering is in favor of collecting objective data on training (like time, power output, and heart rate) and recovery (like heart rate variability and resting heart rate) to determine levels of performance and fatigue.

Making sure you “respond” to exercise comes down to making informed decisions based on that objective information combined with research, experience, and training history.

Do the basics well, like sleep and nutrition, before you start to worry about being a non-responder.

The Non-Responder: Break the Cycle

  • Include intensity training for every discipline.
  • Change training if performance is static.
  • Pay attention to lifestyle performance factors (sleep, nutrition, and stress).
  • Use objective measures of training and recovery to gauge improvement.