Mar 5, 2018
Optimum Performance: Managed Approach
Francois Gazzano

Prescribing the right workload in training can make the difference between success and failure for the athlete. To get there, avoid these six common programming errors.


Sport scientist Rainer Knöller (far left) discusses training strategies with German junior tennis player Louis Wessel and his coach.

When athletes are being overworked, common consequences include illness, injury, or excessive fatigue. To reduce these negative effects of intensive training, strength coaches are tasked with implementing workload optimization strategies while still designing programs that maximize performance and allow athletes to train at high loads.

Finding and maintaining this delicate balance in workload management is both an art and a science. It’s a continuous process that usually requires four elements:

• Monitoring the work done by athletes on a daily basis (external load). This can include total time spent training and total distance traveled. In most cases, these metrics are assessed with tools like GPS tracking systems, heart rate monitors, or other wearables.

• Identifying the athletes’ responses to the work done (internal load). This can be found by asking them to provide their rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for each training session.

• Monitoring the athletes’ recovery and readiness. A common method for this is tracking subjective measures- such as fatigue, quality of sleep, stress levels, and mood-through daily wellness questionnaires.

• Analyzing the combined data and adjusting athletes’ training programs, recovery, and rest to minimize injury risk and optimize performance.

While the first three bullets are quite simple, the fourth step-interpreting the findings to make workload management decisions-is something many strength coaches find difficult. It can be made easier by closely evaluating the entire load management process and correcting any errors. Here are six commonly made mistakes and advice on how to avoid them.

1. USING THE WRONG TOOLS

In the current era of sport technology, it is easier than ever to use an improper device to assess a certain trait. If strength coaches are relying on the wrong tools, they won’t receive accurate information on how athletes are responding and adapting to training loads, making it difficult to manage workload effectively. For example, a GPS tracker is great for measuring a soccer player’s volume of high-speed running, but it will not provide any insight into how they tolerated the activity. Session RPE would be a better tool to monitor this metric.

What to do: Use technological devices for their intended purpose: measuring distances, power, and speed. To assess internal load, use low-tech-but scientifically validated-tools like session RPE and wellness questionnaires.

2. ILL-PREPARED ATHLETES

Athletes are often injured in the last period of a game, see performance drop at the end of a multi-day tournament, or become sick in the final stretch of training camp. Many times, these issues are predictable-they occur because athletes are not adequately prepared for the physical and psychological demands of the competitive task. This lack of readiness results in excessive fatigue, which in turn reduces motor control, impairs concentration, and increases vulnerability to injuries and illness.

What to do: To ensure athletes are prepared, start by accurately assessing the demands of the upcoming competition or training and identifying the key performance indicators (KPI). These are both objective (i.e., number of sprints, number of throws, and magnitude and duration of power output required by the activity) and subjective (i.e., what the athlete finds the hardest to do in the activity).

Then, administer KPI-specific tests to compare the athlete’s current level of fitness to the requirements of the competitive task. Afterward, progressively increase the athlete’s performance capacity to the necessary level required by the competition or training and KPIs.

3. RAPID INCREASE IN WORKLOAD

A fast rise in workload is a major risk factor for injuries. A 2016 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrated that the likelihood of injury jumps by up to 50 percent when workload increases by 15 percent or more from week to week. Athletes often experience this shift when returning to sport following an injury or when resuming a full schedule of training after a long period of reduced activity, such as the offseason. (See the chart below for more on the relationship between probability of injury and weekly load changes.)

What to do: Throughout the return-to-play process-either following injury or inactivity-be diligent in monitoring the athlete’s Acute-to-Chronic Workload Ratio (ACWR) for both internal and external load. The ACWR measures the relationship between the current week’s load (acute) and the average load from the last four weeks (chronic). Make sure the ACWR remains in the 0.8 to 1.3 range-this indicates optimum workload. Less than 0.8 means the athlete is at risk for undertraining, while higher than 1.3 suggests the athlete is under a greater load than they are prepared for, putting them at risk for overtraining and injury.

When athletes are coming back from an injury, return-to-sport decisions should be based on the latest sports medicine research and allow for appropriate recovery time. As the athlete resumes training, increase their workload gradually (less than 10 percent per week), using their feedback and perceived wellness scores to guide you.

Through careful planning, strength coaches can also minimize the potential negative effects of return to play after a period of inactivity. One strategy is to make athletes’ loads during the last week of the offseason about 15 to 20 percent lower than the loads that will be used in the first week of the preseason. This will help athletes better adjust to the change in workload.

Additionally, scheduling a fitness test at your first preseason session will show who kept up with their offseason work and can ensure that the planned workload doesn’t exceed the level they are prepared for. From there, keep week-to-week load increases under 10 percent.

4. FORGETTING NON-SPORT STRESSORS

Each athlete’s optimal load fluctuates on a daily basis and is affected by multiple factors, including external stressors like work, friends, school, finances, and family. When loads are not adjusted every day to account for these elements, substantial differences between planned and actual training effects can occur. This often translates into athletes falling ill before or after a competition, suffering an injury, or not being able to achieve peak performance.

What to do: A simple, reliable, and scientifically validated solution to identify non-sport stressors is to have your athletes complete a short daily wellness questionnaire. To maximize compliance, stick to five or six questions associated with symptoms of overreaching, such as mood changes, poor sleep quality, soreness, and excessive fatigue.

Once the athletes have finished the questionnaire, use their results to adjust daily load accordingly. When poor wellness measures are reported, reduce the planned load by replacing a hard training session with an easy one or simply decreasing the number of reps for a given exercise. If symptoms persist for more than two or three days, decrease the load by 40 to 50 percent for the next seven to 10 days and talk with the athlete about potential lifestyle, training, or environmental stressors that could be hampering their wellness. Excessive fatigue persisting beyond seven to 10 days may require complete rest and medical attention.

However, if an athlete’s questionnaire scores reflect a positive adaptation to workload, increase the next week’s training load by four to five percent. This process can be simplified and accelerated with specialized load management tools or apps.

5. NOT SEEKING FEEDBACK

Experienced athletes and sport coaches know what works well for them and what doesn’t. Getting their feedback can help identify a potential lack in motivation, stress, fatigue, and issues with the proposed training program. Busy strength coaches often overlook this crucial information.

What to do: Before you can receive meaningful feedback from athletes and sport coaches, you must develop mutual trust. To establish this dynamic, explain why you are seeking their input. Make sure they know that your goal is to help athletes perform better and stay healthy.

Once athletes and sport coaches trust you enough to share feedback, honor the gesture by tweaking your program to include their suggestions. If an athlete says a session was boring, too easy, too hard, or they didn’t like it, take them seriously. This could be a symptom of larger underlying issues, such as a loss of interest, issues at home, or burnout.

Similarly, if an athlete tells you they would prefer to back squat instead of front squat because of a sore collarbone or wrist, don’t hesitate to change the exercise. The impact on performance will be negligible, and the athlete will be grateful to you and even more committed to the team’s success. Remember, when athletes and coaches provide their thoughts and you don’t act upon them, they will eventually stop sharing.

6. WORKLOAD IS NOT AGE-APPROPRIATE

Recent research indicates that when young athletes train and compete more hours per week than their age-so when a 12-year-old trains and competes more than 12 hours per week-their risk for sustaining overuse injuries increases by up to 70 percent. We often see this when young athletes participate on multiple teams or play several sports at once.

Strength coaches can’t change the amount of hours athletes dedicate to practices and games, but they can monitor training volume and reduce it when needed. Although the ability to sustain high training loads while staying healthy is required to reach top performance, building this tolerance takes years. Trying to rush the process by prescribing high loads when athletes are too young will likely lead to negative outcomes.

What to do: Use the athlete’s age to guide their weekly training volume. Have them keep a training log of all workouts and competitions they participate in on a weekly basis. Then, if the total number of hours per week spent on these activities exceeds their age, cut some sessions. I recommend using this technique with all athletes under the age of 18.

It’s also important to educate young athletes, their coaches, and parents about the risks associated with overtraining and the need to keep weekly loads to age-appropriate levels. Accomplish this during meetings by sharing relevant printed materials, slideshows, and websites.

As these six common errors show, workload management is no easy task. But by following the tips outlined above and staying engaged with athletes, strength coaches can avoid potential pitfalls and keep their players healthy and ready to perform.

THE FUN FACTOR

The workload management strategies discussed in the main article are vital to a strength coach’s mission. But there’s so much more to our jobs than that. Don’t forget, training should be fun, too.

Enjoyment is a crucial determinant of intrinsic motivation-a direct predictor of effort and persistence. When athletes don’t like what they are doing, they will not be motivated to train or compete to the best of their abilities. In fact, young athletes have identified lack of fun as the number one reason for quitting their sport.

A simple way to maximize engagement is to have athletes report their level of enjoyment with workouts in a training log or specialized app. Then, if need be, tweak your plan to make it more fun. Your changes don’t have to be elaborate-they can be as simple as implementing warm-up games, team relays, and athlete-directed cool-downs.

In addition, you can make training more enjoyable just by altering the way you present yourself. Work with the highest professional standards, but do not take yourself too seriously. Smile often, chat with athletes, and be open to last-minute program changes.

To view the references for this article, go to Training-Conditioning.com/References.

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.


Francois Gazzano, BSc, is the founder and CEO of AthleteMonitoring.com, an evidence-based athlete management and workload optimization system used by high school, collegiate, national, and professional teams worldwide. As a full-time strength and conditioning coach and performance consultant for more than 15 years, Gazzano has helped dozens of youth, elite, and professional athletes reach their highest performance goals. He can be reached at: [email protected] or on Twitter @gazzanofrancois.
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