Load management seems to be the misunderstood teenager of the sports science and performance world. At times it has been vilified to help pamper athletes and prevent them from competing in full schedules. In reality, load management's goal is to add precision to simple concepts derived from classic training theory to build robust athletes that can withstand injury despite the rigors of training and competition. As Tim Gabbett states in his frequently cited paper, "training smarter and harder" is the goal, as recent research has shown that high chronic workloads protect against injury. But, you may ask, "What if I'm a high school coach and don't have the budget to access fancy sports science technology, like GPS monitors and force plates? How can I track load and make my athletes better?"
Fortunately, only a stopwatch, pen, and paper are necessary to practice sports science and manage the load. Before we dive into load management, however, we must first define a few basic terms.
What is Load?
A load is any stressor placed on an athlete. Stressor includes stress from the training and competition environment, as well as life stressors. Therefore, for the high school or college athlete, the stress of homework, social obligations, and lack of sleep, among other things, can all add load to the athlete and reduce performance despite no changes to the training or competition load. Though we will only discuss load management in the training and competition environment, keeping these life stressors in mind when planning training is important.
External load is work that is imposed on the athlete. One external load metric that is familiar to coaches is volume in the weight room. For example, the external load of a set of barbell squats can be measured by the amount of weight lifted per repetition multiplied by the number of reps performed. If you're more inclined towards math, this can be visualized in the equation below.
Load = Weight (lb) x Number of Repetitions
On the field or court, examples of external load metrics include total distance, sprints, accelerations, and decelerations. A simple way to monitor external load is to track the training session/match duration (in minutes) without access to technology.
The internal load is the body's response to the imposed; that is, it measures how the body reacts to the external load. Common metrics to measure internal load include heart rate, heart rate exertion, and perceived exertion rate. The internal load can vary between athletes despite the same external load being imposed. If Athlete X has a stronger cardiovascular system than Athlete Y, and if both athletes were told to run a 1 mile in the same amount of time, then Athlete X would record a lower average heart rate during the run than Athlete Y because Athlete X is "fitter." As mentioned earlier, Rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, is a commonly used internal load metric. Rate of perceived exertion is the athlete's subjective rating of how challenging a training session felt. To measure Rate of perceived exertion, you can simple ask your athletes how the training session was, using the following scale.
How can I calculate load?
Now that we have established what load is, let's examine how we can calculate it. Research has shown that a combination of session duration and Rate of perceived exertion is a valid and reliable tool when determining the load of a session.
Training load = Session Duration (minutes) x Session Rate of Perceived Exertion
Once you calculate training load for each individual athlete, you can also calculate the average training load for the session and for the entire team, as well as for each individual position group.
How can I manage load in the offseason?
Managing load in the offseason is about building resilient and robust athletes, and high quality offseason training is key to ensuring that your athletes are ready for the upcoming season. Appropriately planned training sessions can decrease injury risk and increase the likelihood that performances will be successful during the season. As mentioned before, research has shown that high chronic training loads can decrease the risk of injury (Bowen, Gross, Gimpel, Li, 2017). However, it is important to be aware of how those high chronic loads should be achieved. Avoiding spikes in training load is pivotal to ensuring that you do not increase your athletes' risk for injury while progressing their training. The principle of progressive overload is a classic principle used in strength and conditioning that advocates the gradual increase of load using small increments, allowing the athlete the chance to adapt to higher workloads and intensities over time.
The graph below shows an example of how progressive overload can be achieved in the training program over several weeks. The first week of each 4-week block of training can be thought of as the "floor"—the lowest training load value. The final week is the "ceiling," or the highest training load in the block. Each block progressively increases the training load each week, until the first week of the next training block. Though the first week of the second training block is lower than the final week of the first training block, it is essential to note that it is higher than the first training block's floor. Similarly, the second training block ceiling is also higher than the ceiling of the first training block. Therefore, both the floor and the ceiling have been raised progressively. By the end of the second block, the athlete will be able to tolerate a higher peak training load, but he/she will also have raised the minimum threshold for training adaptation.
So how can we ensure that we safely progress our athletes from week to week? The acute to chronic workload ratio is a simple tool you can use to ensure that the difference from week to week is not too significant. Acute to Chronic workload ratio, or A:C ratio, is the ratio between the athlete's workload in the current week and the athlete's workload over the previous 3-4 weeks. Different research has used both the average of the last three weeks and the previous 4 weeks. For this example, we will use the previous three weeks.
In this formula, the training load of a single week is divided by the average training loads from the three previous weeks. Research points to a sweet spot of 0.8 to 1.30 to avoid injury. However, this is dependent on the sport and the level of athlete that you are working with. Therefore, you need to determine what is most appropriate for your athletes based on safe progressions and communication with athletic training and sports medicine staff.
How can I manage load during the season?
Managing load in season is about minimizing fatigue to maximize fitness to ensure that your athletes perform at their peak during competition. During this time, it is essential to realize that the competition itself must be factored into the training load equation.
With this in mind, not every training session should be a maximum intensity training session. Therefore, it is essential to strategically vary training load throughout the week to ensure that your athletes are ready to compete at the critical time. Below we have a sample training program over a single in-season week.
As you can see, the game provides the most significant load for that week. Following this game, it is essential to ensure the athletes with a day off to recover. After this recovery day, the principle of progressive overload can be implemented on a micro-scale by gradually building into the most challenging training day of the week. As you near the competition, the tapering load will ensure that the athletes are still able to maintain fitness throughout the week while not becoming fatigued too close to the game. If you have multiple games throughout the week, recovery becomes even more critical. There may also be weeks in which there are no "high" training days because there are 2-3 games per week.
The above is simply a blueprint. It is important for you—as the coach—to determine your week's structure based on your team's schedule, tolerance to load, and communication with athletes and sports medicine staff.
How can I "Assign" RPEs?
It is essential to keep in mind that because the rate of perceived exertion is based on the athlete's perception, several factors can affect it. These include an athlete's improved fitness throughout several weeks of training and external stressors such as sleep, nutrition, school, and social life. Based on this, there are three critical steps to ensuring that you are appropriately progressing your athletes and team.
- Communicate - Without communicating with your athletes, it is impossible to know what external stress may be affecting them. This is particularly crucial in-season when many high school athletes can be in the peak of the exam season while going through post-season competition.
- Catalog - If you are using the session-RPE method as your primary tracking load method, it is crucial to keep all training plan records. By cataloging each drill, you will determine which training drills and types of training days elicited higher or lower training loads. Instead of manipulating predicted RPEs, you will be able to manipulate drill parameters—such as field dimensions or number of players in the drill—to ensure that the appropriate effect is achieved.
- Collaborate—similar to communication, and it is impossible to know the full effect of training load without collaborating with other professionals on staff. Athletic training staff keeps detailed records of all injuries. If you are fortunate enough to have your own sports performance staff, their insight into periodization and progressive overload is crucial to ensuring that your athletes receive an optimal experience and maximize their potential.
As you utilize these strategies to inform your preparation process, it is essential to keep in mind the big picture: sports science is not the be-all-end-all. It should provide clarity to decision making and open the door to conversations with athletes and sports medicine and performance staff members—conversations that are sure to provide further detail to numbers you will collect. By keeping open lines of communication with all parties involved, you can ensure that everyone remains on the same page to achieve collective success.
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Foster, C., Florhaug, J. A., Franklin, J., Gottschall, L., Hrovatin, L. A., Parker, S., Doleshal, P., & Dodge, C. (2001). A new approach to monitoring exercise training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 15(1), 109–115.
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Bowen, L., Gross, A. S., Gimpel, M., & Li, F. X. (2017). Accumulated workloads and the acute:chronic workload ratio relate to injury risk in elite youth football players. British journal of sports medicine, 51(5), 452–459. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2015-095820
Gabbett TJ, Hulin B, Blanch P, Chapman P, Bailey D. To Couple or not to Couple? For Acute:Chronic Workload Ratios and Injury Risk, Does it Really Matter?. Int J Sports Med. 2019;40(9):597‐600. doi:10.1055/a-0955-5589