How to Improve Adaptability Through Physical Training

An injury three days before a big race helped me understand the importance of adaptability. Here’s how physical training can help us improve adaptability and adjust to setbacks in all facets of life.

The Setback

In 2012, I signed up for a Half-Ironman Triathlon in Branson, Missouri. At the time, the 70.3 total miles (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) represented the longest race I had ever done at the time. I trained all summer, swimming, biking and running through the sticky Chicago heat, sometimes squeezing in two workouts a day on top of my nine-to-five job and other activities.

In mid-September, I finished my last hard workout one week before the race. I felt ready. Just one more week of easy taper training sessions stood between me and my goal. On Thursday, the evening before I planned to fly to Branson, I did a relaxed half-mile run, followed by a mile-and-a-half bike, followed by another half-mile run. Compared to the training I had done the previous several months, it should have been a breeze. Just one final tuneup before the race.

How to improve adaptability and adjust to setbacks in all facets of life through physical training

Everything went smoothly until the last ten yards of the final run, when I felt a pop in my left calf and immediately limped to a stop. I knew at once that I had pretty badly pulled something in my lower leg. The pain lanced through the back of my calf as I hobbled to my bike and slowly pedaled home.

I spent the rest of that evening sitting on the floor of my condo foam rolling my calf and kneading it with an electric foot and leg massager. I hoped desperately that the pain would decrease overnight, and after a couple days of rest, stretching, massage and light movement, it would recover enough for me to race on Sunday.

But when I awoke Friday morning, the pain was just as bad as it had been the night before. I had no plans of running, but my calf hurt even when I tried to push off and walk quickly. I was extremely worried as I boarded the plane that night. How was I going to run a half-marathon in less than two days, especially after more than 57 miles of work?

My girlfriend (now my wife) and I met her parents in Branson and went to buy a velcro compression wrap for my calf. When I strapped it on as tightly as I could, my calf felt a little better—at least while I was sitting or walking slowly. The next day, we picked up my bike from a local shop and I took a brief ride. I could feel the ache in my calf, but it wasn’t bad. I might be able to make it through the bike portion of the race.

The Race

On Sunday morning, I came out of the water after the swim leg and ran limping to transition. I knew then it was going to be a long day. If my calf hurt despite the compression of my wetsuit, I had little hope of a pain-free run hours later. I slogged my way through the hilly 56-mile bike leg, my calf lighting up every time I tried to push a little harder to climb a steep grade.

Then I got to the run. For the past three days, I had hoped that my calf would magically recover before that moment. Yet in the back of my head, I knew it was going to hurt and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. But I had trained all summer. I had paid for this race, the flight and the cost of shipping my bike from Chicago to Branson. My girlfriend’s parents lived in Missouri and had come to stay with us and watch the race. Her aunts and uncles and cousins were there to cheer me on as well. I didn’t want to quit. I figured I could at least give it a try and stop if my calf got significantly worse.

It hurt from the first step I took on the run. I couldn’t run the way I normally would without pain shooting down my leg. I ran as usual on my right leg and hobbled on my left, crashing down on my left heel so that my calf didn’t take the impact. It was like driving a car with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake, but it kept the pain to a manageable level. I was slow, but I finished without further injury, the best result I could have hoped for given the circumstances.

Physical training can help us improve adaptability and strengthen our approach to all facets of life.

Murphy’s Law

According to the adage known as Murphy’s law, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” The saying has been attributed to several different Murphys over the years. In truth, it is probably the New World version of Britain’s Sod’s law: “If something can go wrong, it will.” It’s more dire form, Finagle’s law, was first coined by John W. Campbell, Jr., the renowned editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and states, “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.”

All these variations indicate that human beings have long been attuned to the caprices of the universe and have become quite adept at identifying moments of chance that prove particularly unfortunate. However, that does not mean the universe has it in for us. Bad luck is still luck—a chance occurrence that leads to unfavorable consequences. Instead, the point of Murphy’s law and its variants is that unexpected and uncontrollable events do occur. Some of them will help our cause; some of them will hinder it. But we must recognize that we always face elements outside our control which may force us to change our expectations and develop new plans.

My calf muscle wasn’t out to get me in the fall of 2012. Rather, despite months of carefully planned training, a dedicated approach to stretching, massage and recovery, and meticulous attention to my diet, my Branson Half-Ironman plans came to a screeching halt with one false step during the final workout of my training cycle. From that moment forward, however much I hoped for some miraculous recovery, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to perform at my best.

Trying to Improve Adaptability

I couldn’t do much about my injury, but I could adjust my approach to the race. I changed my expectations from completing the race in a specific time goal to just crossing the finish line. I crafted a temporary solution by altering my running form. My poor technique for 13.1 miles might have led to injury had I adopted it as a permanent approach, but it was acceptable as a temporary workaround.

Besides, the stakes were relatively low. I didn’t believe I was risking a more serious injury; at worst, I would have just reaggravated the earlier strain. If that had happened, my calf might have taken longer to heal, but I didn’t have any more races planned that year. And if the pain became too great, I could always drop out of the race.

Greg Hickey competing in the 2012 Branson Half-Ironman
An injury before 2012 Branson Half-Ironman provided a lesson in how to improve adaptability

Looking back on my Half-Ironman experience, I’m reminded of another way in which physical training also provides practice for a multitude of life situations. As Murphy’s law reminds us, we can expect things to go wrong in life, at least some of the time. At least some of those setbacks will prove more disastrous than not completing a triathlon. But physical training gives us an opportunity to improve adaptability when facing relatively insignificant challenges, experiences that may be uncomfortable or exhausting but usually lack significant long-term consequences. Instead, these experiences with challenge, discomfort and struggle better equip us to deal with other setbacks in our day-to-day lives. Physical training helps us learn to deal with disappointment and adjust our expectations to still recognize meaningful achievements.

Yes, what can go wrong often does go wrong. Our lives are complex and chaotic and not totally in our control. Sometimes the breaks go our way, sometimes they present seemingly insurmountable challenges. A successful life strategy demands that we adapt to setbacks and formulate new plans that account for our goals and limitations. Physical training can help us improve adaptability and strengthen our approach to all facets of life.