When it comes to preparing for a sporting event, recreational and elite athletes alike are always trying to push their bodies to the limit to be as prepared as possible to be at the peak of their ability come game day. There is a very fine line between pushing your body to the limit to get the best training effect and pushing your body over its limit which can exponentially increase your chances of injury.
Tissue loading capacity
The most important factor to consider when training is the load capacity of your body tissues – bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons. These can only deal with a finite amount of load before they fatigue and become prone to injury. When you severely overload your tissues the results are normally very apparent and painful! Great example of this are sprained ankle ligaments after rolling your ankle or a torn hamstring when sprinting. As the person in these situations you know instantly know something has gone wrong, and the effects are instant. What about in situations when part of your body are slightly overloaded? Have you ever had a great preparation for your event, trained and felt great all the way up to the game day and then performed well below your expectations? Or are you finding that despite training harder and harder throughout the sporting season your ability come match day is not improving? This is classic symptomology of over-training or mismanagement of training loading.
Loading and stressing your body
For your body to adapt and get stronger and more efficient at movement you need to load it. Loading is more simply described as training, and comes in many different forms – lifting weights, circuit training, intervals on your bike or even tempo runs. Each different type of loading will stress your body, which grows in order to be able to deal with the same stress next time around. It takes time for your body to recover from stresses placed on it. When your body has not had enough time or is impaired in its ability to recover and grow before further stress or loading is undertaken is typically when overuse type injuries occur. Overuse injuries are normally not the result of an acute overload (eg: falling on your wrist and breaking a bone). They normally start as a bit of post-training soreness that just doesn’t seem to go away. Typically the pain is worse early in the morning, but seem to get better as you warm up and start playing/training, but then come back again as you get tired and cool down.
From a medical standpoint a doctor will often send patients with these complaints for imaging to have a look at the health of the region. Overtraining related injuries quite often get diagnosed as an “-itis”, and “-osis” or an “-opathy”. In simple terms, these diagnoses mean that the structures within the structure of tissue are unhappy. The tissue has been stressed beyond its comfort zone and cannot grow and adapt fast enough to catch up with the demands being placed upon it.
When less is more
Both recreational and professional sportspeople enjoy the sensation known as “feeling the burn”, however it is important to factor in recovery sessions into your training. This does not mean you cannot train on a recovery day – what it means is your training should be lighter than your average workout to still improve your physical condition whilst giving your body ample opportunity to grow and adapt. This may mean shortening your training session, doing some cross training or just dropping the intensity of a workout. You should feel like a recovery session is easy.
How to measure and record training load and stress
The regular use of a training log is imperative for the management of season long training programs. These allow you to monitor your response to each workout and gives you the best ability to track your progress across your training block.
Modern technology has come to the forefront when it comes to quantifying how much training you are actually doing. Apps such as Strava, TrainingPeaks and Today’s Plan gather the data collected from smart gadgets (eg: Apple Watch) and give a value of work intensity and time to each training session you record, and allocates the workout a Training Stress Score (TSS). The information is presented in neat charts and tables and helps to take the guess work out of your training load calculations.
If you are not so tech-savvy, a simple way to measure your training is to rate how hard the session was out of 10 and multiply that by how many minutes your session took. Eg: a 45min gym session at intensity of 7/10 would be given a stress score of 315.
What to do with all this information?
One of the most difficult parts of developing a training program for optimal performance at the right time and reducing the risk of over-training injuries is balancing the intensity of working out with recovering. Some basic guidelines about how to progress your workouts are:
Only increase you weekly training load by 10% per week – You can base this on distance ran or minutes played, or even better use the sum of your total stress score for the previous week’s training.
Every 4th week have an “unload” week – drop your training load by 30%, then pick back up where you left off the next week.
If you are training up for a big event eg: Pipeline Marathon, the week before the event should be a tapering week. Drop both the volume and intensity of your training to make sure your body is fresh come race day. Any last push this week is highly unlikely to improve your performance.
Include 1x day of no training per week. This is also good for the mind to stay fresh and focused.
What to do when things go wrong?
Should you be unfortunate enough to sustain an injury during your program, the first thing to do is not to panic! Only in the most severe of circumstances will you need to stop taking part in your chosen sport all together. In fact, total rest has been shown to hamper efforts for tissue healing. Consulting with a physiotherapist will help to identify any specific areas where tissue overload is occurring through motor control, strength, coordination technique analysis and/or training load errors. They will help you to continue training as best as possible whilst working in with your injury. You’ll be likely given some rehabilitation exercises to specifically target and deficits noted in your assessment, and ways to monitor the response of your injury to optimise your recovery.
You don’t need to be an elite athlete to take a more measure approach to the way you prepare for you sporting competitions. Being diligent with a training diary and working over a number of weeks to progress the amount of time/distance/speed of training efforts will give you the best opportunity to perform at your peak come competition time.
Author: Tim Castles, B.Sc.(Ex&Sports Sc), B.Sc.(Physio)