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Optimizing your training and maximizing improvements with training load

Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS

Athletes train to improve their sports performance. Even if you’re not an athlete, you exercise to keep yourselves healthy and fit. But how do you know if your training has any effect on your health, fitness, and performance?

“Training” is more than just sweating it out in the gym. It is a process that consists of assessment, planning, execution, and monitoring.

As the saying goes: “he who fails to plan, plans to fail.” The same applies to training as well. Simply working out without a plan will most likely result in a mediocre training response. Before the start of any training program, tests that assess the physical qualities such as strength, endurance, flexibility, power, etc. are necessary to establish base measurements for planning and designing your training program. When a physical quality is inadequate, it can negatively influence the development of other physical qualities or sports techniques. Furthermore, one can easily overload or underload during training and at an increased risk of injuries.

To optimize your training and to maximize improvements, it is highly recommended to implement periodization in your training program. Whether you are adapting to training or not, you will need to monitor your training load and if necessary, adjust the program accordingly (Image 1). There are a few ways to track your workouts such as the use of a training diary, wearable technologies, and mobile apps. There are pros and cons to each method so find the one that best suits your needs.

Image 1

The importance of monitoring training load

As the standard of human performance increases over the years, it has become paramount to monitor training load to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a training program. Training load monitoring is about keeping track of what we have done during training and how our body is responding to it.

With the advancement of science and technology, monitoring of training load has become a modern, scientific approach employed by sports coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, and sports scientists. Aside from sports performance, training load monitoring in rehabilitation and return to sport from injury are encouraged to be included as part of the process as well (1, 13, 5). It is essential for optimizing and progressing our training, and in determining if we are adapting to it that ultimately improves our athletic performance.

Apart from providing a scientific reason for changes (or not) in athletic performance, training load monitoring is also used to prevent the risk of injury (or re-injury), illness, and overtraining (7, 2). This allows us to manage and plan our training with confidence, and reduce uncertainty when changes are being implemented. Since monitoring training load requires the athletes or patients to be involved, it empowers them and increases a sense of ownership in their training. Moreover, the data collected from the monitoring process is also useful to promote interaction between the athletes/patients, coaches, and support staff (7).

What are training loads?

Training load can be categorized as either external or internal. External load is simply the work completed during training or competition and it is measured without the influence of internal load.

Some common external load measures include training duration, distance, speed, volume load, etc (2). On the other hand, the internal load is the physiological and psychological stress imposed on you from the completed workload. A few common measures to assess internal load include heart rate, blood lactate, sleep, session rating of perceived exertion (RPE), etc (2, 7).

We might not always have the same response during training and I’m sure many of you have experienced this before; Some days a particular exercise feels relatively easy and another day the same exercise with the same weight can feel absurdly heavy! As a result, the perception of effort (internal load) varies even though the volume load (external load) is the same. The relationship between external and internal loads may help to determine if you are fresh or fatigued, and use that information to adjust the training program accordingly. Hence, to gain a greater understanding of your training load and performance, external and internal loads should be used in combination for the monitoring process.

How do we measure external and internal load?

There are a number of technologies available to measure external and internal load metrics, with wearable technology being most commonly used.

Apart from objective measures such as heart rate and blood lactate, an internal load can also be measured subjectively using Borg CR10 (19), session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE) (3), and questionnaires and diaries (17). The Borg CR10 scale (Image 2) is used to measure pain and exertion in relation to an exercise/ task (19). It is a scale of 0-10, with small descriptors that describe breathlessness, with each assigned to specific intensities. sRPE (Image 3), modified from the Borg RPE scale, is used to measure the overall intensity of the whole training session (3). The sRPE is designed to be taken approximately 30 minutes after a workout (3) and it involves multiplying the user’s RPE by the workout duration (7). There are a number of questionnaires that can be used to assess how ready the individual is to train. These include the POMS (12), RESTQ-Sport (10), and TQR (11). It can provide simple and useful information such as sleep quality, fatigue and soreness level, and the current health of the individual.

Image 2 (left), image 3 (right)

While subjective measurements are convenient, valid, and low-cost (15, 18), it is possible for the user to manipulate the data and/or over-or underestimate the training load (7). To ensure a balance between your feeling and the use of quantifiable data, it is recommended to have a combination of objective and subjective measuring tools.

How do we manage training load to help optimise training, reduce injury risks and improve performance?

The concept of training load management has been around for a while now. In 1985, when Michael Jordan was recovering from a foot fracture, the Chicago Bulls management team limited his playtime to only 7 minutes per half (that means only 14 minutes per game) before he was allowed to gradually return to sport (and to become the greatest basketball player of all time!).

Going even further back, Friedof Westman, the coach of Gunder Hagg, a Swedish middle-distance runner and multiple world record breaker of the 1940s, was careful not to overtrain him as he was also working physically on the farm all day, and a high amount of training increased his fatigue, causing him to fall sick frequently. As written by Hagg in his diary (20), “In the winter of 1939 I turned 20, and according to Friedof Westman it was the right time to progress to a more serious and rational training. Before that the wise “sport-lover” had not pushed me into a set schedule. He was afraid that I would break myself and grow tired.” These are examples of load management in (re-)injury prevention.

One of the misconceptions about load management is to reduce training load. Deloading is just one way to manage training loads. Increasing, decreasing, or maintaining training load depends on the individual’s capabilities and capacities (image 4).