While watching a Cleveland Cavaliers game the other night, I heard the commentators explain that Larry Nance Jr. was resting due to “load management.”
I laughed at how popular this buzzword has become.
Managing training load is something that good strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers and physical therapists have been doing for years. Recent research and high-profile storylines have made it mainstream.
In the past five years, 38 new studies have been published on the topic. A bevy of new apps and activity trackers promise to help you manage your load. People are taking the balance of rest to training more seriously.
Why is load management so important?
If we get better at monitoring our training, we can ramp up at the right time and rate for the best results.
Doing too much, too soon = Increased risk of injury
Doing too little = Suboptimal performance
Most injuries occur when an athlete is exposed to a workload that exceeds their capacity. This typically happens with excessive, rapid increases in training intensity (think preseason two-a-days).
In contrast, research has shown that gradually increasing a workload reduces the risk of injury.
The most effective sports performance programs aim for a “sweet spot” where training is intense enough to make athletes better, faster and stronger, but not too much to sideline them.
Regardless of the sport, coaches should look at two factors when building an athlete’s training program:
- Intensity of workouts or movements. This is also known as “load.”
- How fast that intensity “ramps up.”
What is Load?
Load is important because it gives us an idea of how much stress is placed on the athlete’s body with each training session. There are two types of load: internal and external.
External load is the “volume” of training, such as the number of miles run, pounds of weight lifted, sprints performed, or jumps performed by a basketball player. Internal load is the body’s response to training. It’s measured by things like rating of perceived exertion, heart rate, blood lactate levels and oxygen consumption.
We can compare the load on an athlete in the short term (called “acute” load) to the long term (called “chronic” load). This gives us data on how “trained” or ready they are for competition, or on how at risk for injury they are.
Researchers have found that athletes should aim for an acute-to-chronic ratio between .8 and 1.3. Anything over 1.5 has been found to significantly increase risk for injury.
“A series of studies in cricket, rugby and Australian rules football that have shown that when an athlete’s training and playing load for a given week (acute load) spikes above what they have been doing on average over the past four weeks (chronic load), they are more likely to be injured,” write the authors of a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
To calculate acute load, take the volume from the past week’s workouts. Chronic load, on the other hand, is the average of the past month. These numbers can be tracked and compared weekly.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Example 1: External Load for a Distance Runner
In this case, the external load is measured as total weekly mileage.
Week 1: 21 miles
Week 2: 23 miles
Week 3: 25 miles
Week 4: 30 miles
Acute load (mileage in the most recent week): 30 miles
Chronic load (average mileage over 4 weeks): 24.75 miles
Now, take the acute load (30) and divide by the chronic load (24.75) to get a ratio:
Acute load ÷ chronic load = acute : chronic load ratio
30 ÷ 24.75 = 1.21
1.21 is safely in that .8-1.3 acute: chronic load ratio we discussed earlier.
Example 2: External Load for Athlete in Offseason Strength Program
In this case, the external load is measured as total pounds lifted per week (number of repetitions x pounds or kilograms of weight lifted).
Acute load: Say the athlete performed the Squat and Bench Press on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the most recent week.
Squats: 3 sets of 8 reps with 100 pounds = 2,400 pounds volume x three workouts a week = 7,200 pounds of weekly volume
Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps at 50 pounds = 1,600 pounds volume x three workouts a week = 4,800 pounds of weekly volume
In this case, the acute load is 12,000 pounds.
Let’s say the athlete’s chronic load, or the average weight lifted per week, is 11,000 pounds over the past four weeks.
Acute load divided by chronic load: 12,000/11,000 = 1.09.
This athlete, as was the runner in the first example, is within the right volume of training.
Obviously these examples are rather straightforward, but if the variable(s) being measured remain consistent over time, this equation can be a great tool for finding your training sweet spot.
The newest research on this topic has shown that simply calculating load as above can be useful, but relying solely on such numbers while ignoring other factors is unwise.
It’s still important to track internal and external load, but also important to understand the influence of the following factors:
- Age: certain aged players may be more or less prone to injury
- Physical qualities: this refers to the athlete’s baseline level of fitness, speed, strength, etc.
- Experience: has the athlete trained in this particular manner before?
- Timing: is the athlete starting a new program? Or have they been training for months prior?
- Injury or health history
- Mobility or biomechanics
- Stress or anxiety levels (social, family, academic, emotional)
Talking to a sports medicine professional (strength and conditioning coach, physical therapist, athletic trainer) can help accommodate for these.
The bottom line is that training intensity matters, but both overtraining and under-training can prevent an athlete from reaching their peak performance. Finding your own training sweet spot depends on a variety of factors, and the best approach may take into account both relevant data and other less quantifiable factors.
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