We’ve all been there, the legs feel stiff, your mind isn’t in it, the intensity that felt easy last week feels a chore this week. Often if we are in tune with our bodies, we pull the pin on these sessions and opt for recovery, sometimes feeling guilty for doing so. But should we feel guilty? Is there an objective way to make informed decisions about training? The answer as with most things related to sport performance is it depends.
What we’re going to talk about in the post is managing the training load through monitoring. When monitoring training we want to think of two key things: Internal and External Training Load.
What is external training load?
External training load can be thought of as the work completed by the athlete, measured independently of his or her internal characteristics1. From an endurance sport standpoint, we can think of this as power measurements, GPS data and neuromuscular function among a handful of other similar options. The external load is something that seems to be held in high regard within the endurance sport domain.
What is internal training load?
Internal load aims to measure the physiological and psychological stress experienced by the athlete2 in a session, a training week or a training block. Again, from an endurance standpoint, we can think of this as heart rate monitoring (during exercise, heart rate recovery, heart rate variability and resting heart rate among a host of other options), perceived exertion or RPE, lactate responses, blood profiling, sleep monitoring and psychological evaluation. We can already see here bar the occasional exception that monitoring internal load may be slightly harder than external, this does not make it any less important!
Are the two linked?
Yes, the complex nature in which the internal load and the external load interlink may help us uncover training adaptation and likewise training fatigue. A simple example in cycling would be the relationship between power, heart rate and RPE during a specific interval – at a submaximal level if heart rate appears lower it may be an indication of increases in aerobic fitness and vice versa if heart rate appears higher it may be an indicator of an impending illness and or fatigue. It goes without saying that it is not purely as simple as this but it’s a great place to start.
Choosing Your Monitoring Tools
Firstly, lets add the caveat – NO FANCY TOOL IS BETTER THAN AN EFFECTIVE COACH-ATHLETE RELATIONSHIP.
But, if our relationship is solid and our communication open and honest what are the tools we can choose from with certain athletes, what do we personally use as coaches at Premier Endurance and how do we action on the information we get from them.
The below from Halson et al.2 is very helpful when determining what tools you’re going to employ to your monitoring system.
|Key features of a sustainable monitoring system|
Monitoring Options for External Load
Power output from a reliable device sits on top of the list of priorities here. A good power meter will be accurate, dependable and limit day to day variation in measurements. Power output from sessions, tests and competition help us massively to monitor the capability and progression of an athlete in an objective way.
Having a power meter also helps to accurately estimate training stress through the Training Peaks© derived TSS Metric. While this metric is not the be all and end all of performance monitoring it is a worthwhile metric to track, limiting big swings and surges in training load can decrease injury risk3 and illness.
GPS data can be valuable in terms of tracking distance and speed. These metrics can provide a valuable insight into weekly load and what specific sessions targeted, GPS data with elevation is also valuable. While GPS data can have its flaws largely to do with accuracy it is still a worthy metric to track for most endurance athletes.
Monitoring Options for Internal Load
RPE comes to mind here almost immediately, a simple rating of a session out of a 1-10 scale (easy to max effort) can give great insight into a session as can rating your weekly RPE on a similar scale. When contrasted with measures of external load such as power and a big discrepancy is present, we know there is something amiss. A common example of this is a moderate effort in terms of power being rated a 9-10 out of 10 on the RPE scale, here we know there is fatigue present which needs to be accounted for.
Heart Rate Monitoring is a majorly important factor for monitoring internal load. When we discuss heart rate monitoring, we are looking at session averages, max heart rates, heart rate variability, resting heart rate and heart rate recovery. All of which we use in varying capacities with athletes. An example here is if we are tracking heart rate variability and do not see it recover post a block of training, we can use it to decide in terms of the next week i.e. recovery. In honesty, heart rate monitoring is a complex subject a could, in fact, form the basis of its own blog post!
Daily tracking of subjective metrics by the athlete is also highly beneficial, we use such metrics as fatigue (high to low), muscle soreness (high to low), motivation to train (high to low) and a handful of other key metrics. This allows us to adapt training schedules daily if necessary and is highly beneficial if you are self-coaching or are not in frequent contact with your coach (as it provides context as to why a session could have gone wrong).
Sleep tracking is another valuable internal load monitoring tool and no you don’t need a fancy device. Ask yourself, are you waking up rested? Are you getting enough sleep volume? What is your sleep quality like? Sleep is king for recovery and if it is compromised regularly it can cause dramatic effects on performance and could also be an indicator that something is wrong with the training load/ stress you are encountering.
Blood profiling is also majorly beneficial here. Routine bloodwork is crucial for athletic success – checking for changes in haematological markers, cortisol, testosterone, creatine kinase among a host of other markers (best talked through with your doctor) can give us a key insight into where you are at.
For female athletes the routine monitoring and tracking of the menstrual cycle can offer a key insight into training load. Loss of menstrual function or amenorrhea can occur primarily due to low energy availability which is often caused by high training load and insufficient nutrition. Left untreated this can cause disastrous effects on bone health and reproduction.
Summing it up
Hopefully by now you will have realized that it is not any one thing we monitor that influences our decision making around training load and day to day responses. It is, in fact, the complex interplay between most if not all factors monitored. While the above are factors we measure personally here at Premier Endurance there could be a host more that work for you as an athlete and/ or coach athlete pairing. It is about finding how best to monitor so that the process is sustainable and easy to action upon.
- Wallace LK, Slattery KM, Coutts AJ. The ecological validity and application of the session-RPE method for quantifying training loads in swimming. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23:33–38.
- Halson, S. L. (2014). Monitoring training load to understand fatigue in athletes. Sports medicine, 44(2), 139-147.
- Hulin, B. T., Gabbett, T. J., Caputi, P., Lawson, D. W., & Sampson, J. A. (2016). Low chronic workload and the acute: chronic workload ratio are more predictive of injury than between-match recovery time: a two-season prospective cohort study in elite rugby league players. Br J Sports Med, 50(16), 1008-1012.