Effective training plans are founded on layers of intricate planning, preparation, and implementation. It is not enough to simply throw a template program at a group of athletes and walk away in hopes that after eight weeks, they will somehow magically improve. Coaches must take the time to assess what is happening along the way as well as to make the necessary changes as they see fit.
Anybody can be the artist of a program that smokes their athletes, but the best coaches serve as the guiding compass to steering the program in the right direction and provide the optimal stimulus. Monitoring techniques are unquestionably essential to the framework of any high-level sports performance program.
Why We Monitor
To understand why it is critical to monitor your athletes and their training, it is helpful to ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t watch? No monitoring means no understanding of how athletes are responding to training from an analytical standpoint, period.
Some coaches believe they can use their coaching eye and assume what is going on with their athletes, thus monitoring is seen as a waste of time. While I do believe it is important to use some intuition and get a deep understanding of your athletes, planning your programming around perceptual techniques is a recipe for disaster.
Monitoring allows us to evaluate stress responses to individual training sessions or a series of sessions (more on this later). Furthermore, it provides us with information that can help drive decision making and guide the training process. We can get an idea of how hard an athlete is working, what their recovery looks like, and even their potential risk for injury.1
Not only does monitoring guide training and provide information about our athletes, but it also validates the approaches and methods we use. By testing and monitoring performance, we can determine if our programming is working and netting positive performance gain.
Besides game day performance, this is one of the only other ways we can validate ourselves as performance specialists, sports coaches, athletic directors, and athletes alike so that we can maintain a job. It is a competitive environment out there, and if you can’t prove that you’re getting better, then many will just assume you’re getting worse.
What To Monitor
It can’t go without saying that when it comes to monitoring, more is not always better.
One should not collect data for the sole purpose of doing so with zero intention of utilizing that data. The monitoring must enhance the effectiveness of the training, make logical sense, and provide reliable information related to the specifics of the athlete’s training. It must be specific to the age, sex, sporting event, training age, performance level, and injury status of the athlete. It must also be easy to present to coaches and athletes.2
There is simply not enough time to collect data for the sake of doing so, as it can become very distracting and take away from valuable training time when inappropriately applied. Implementing the least amount of monitoring for the most maximal results is paramount.
Monitoring the training and performance of athletes can fundamentally be broken into two categories:
- Internal load
- External load
The internal load represents the athlete’s physiological and psychological responses to the physical stimulus, whereas the external load is simply the applied training stimulus.1 It is important to note that the training load reaches far beyond the sets and reps we prescribe in the weight room. It encompasses all of the athlete’s training session from sports practices to competitions, and conditioning sessions.
Within the training load paradigm, we have a dose-response relationship that can be classified under:
- Acute training effects – Acute training effects can be conceptualized as instantaneous or immediate effects such as a spike in heart rate during a sprint.
- Immediate training effects – Immediate training effects are those that occur from an individual training session, such as a change in the testosterone to cortisol ratio post-workout.
- Cumulative training effects – Lastly, cumulative training effects are the physiological or motor/technical responses one gets from a series of training sessions or a training plan.
It is important to understand what each piece is and what it entails because they all assist in creating an effective athlete monitoring program.
How To Monitor
Once you understand the different pieces that come into play regarding athlete monitoring, you can begin collecting data. As previously mentioned, it is important to gather information on both the internal training load and the external training load.
If we do this, we can determine what effect our external training load is having on the internal training load of our athletes.
External Training Load
There are dozens upon dozens of variables that we can choose to monitor when looking at external training load. For example, we can track the number of:
The key is in choosing the right variables to track specific to the athlete with which you are working.3
A soccer player may benefit from GPS monitoring that tracks the distance they cover, and a total number of accelerations during a game, whereas that would be rather useless for a competitive weightlifter. Having an idea of the global training stimulus is key, but when it comes to the weight-room, we can certainly get a little more specific.
One of the keys to building a successful resistance training program is via tracking the volume load that occurs. The most basic form of doing so is by taking:
The Sets x Reps x Load = Volume Load
Different equations exist that look more specifically at a percentage of repetition maximum. Still, the real key is to consistently use one equation and use it across all strength training sessions to track the total amount of work being done. Employing this method allows coaches to correlate the amount of work their athletes are doing with the overall goal of the training week or month.
It is easy to see why blindly prescribing reps and sets is a recipe for disaster, as a targeted amount of work is what will consistently drive adaption. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but it oscillates, which allows athletes to train, accumulate fatigue, recover, and repeat.
Internal Training Load
Similar to external training load, there is quite a vast array of variables one can measure to gather detail on the internal training load. Heart rate (HR) and heart rate reserve (HRV) are two extremely common methods as they are easy to gather, Adversely, blood lactate and hormonal responses can be a little more challenging to assemble.
Internal training load paints a beautiful picture of how an athlete is responding to training and their recoverability. We can generally assume that the higher one’s heart rate is during aerobic exercise, the harder they are working. Similarly, HRV has been popularized as a method to determine training readiness and recovery.
While I am a fan of tracking internal load measures when appropriate, a major problem arises when we try to use one method across multiple training modalities. Using heart rate as a measure of work and fatigue on a tempo run may be an excellent choice, but a heavy squat session with short intermittent bursts of work is quite different.
A method that has been popularized and used to combat this issue is Session Rate of Perceived Exertion or sRPE. sRPE allows athletes to rate a session on a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, which, then, allows us to go back and multiply that by the duration of the session and derive a score. If, for example, an athlete did:
- A 30-minute conditioning session at an RPE of 5, they would have a training load score of 150 arbitrary units (AU).
- If they then had a 60-minute weights session later that day and rated it as an RPE of 8, that would give them a training load score of 480 (AU).
- Adding those together would display that for the day, their training load score was 630 (AU).
This method is quite helpful because it synchronizes multiple methods of training and makes them somewhat compatible in terms of our understanding of the way they are affecting the athlete. We can look at things such as their acute to chronic workload ratio and determine how they are responding to the intended training stimulus.
While I do use this method with some of my athletes, I’ll be the first to admit that it has some flaws. It is somewhat subjective by nature, and some athletes do not have enough experience to rate the difficulty of their sessions accurately.
Different personality types will rate sessions differently depending on the mindset and motivation of a given athlete. While not perfect, it certainly offers an alternative method for tracking internal training load.
We know that training is a revolving door of numerous variables, some of which we can control and others we cannot. It is vital to have a firm understanding of not only how to implement a training plan, but also how to track and change it over time.
Implementing monitoring into your athlete programs will ensure that you are steering things in the right direction and making the appropriate changes when necessary. Remember to only track what’s needed and get rid of what is not. Use monitoring as a means to enhance your programming, not detract from it.
1. Haff, G.G. “Quantifying Workloads in Resistance Training: A Brief Review.” Professional Strength and Conditioning 10. Autumn (2010): 31–40. Web.
2. Robertson, S. “Red, Amber, or Green? Athlete Monitoring in Team Sport: The Need for Decision-Support Systems.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 12 (2017): 73–79. Web.
3. McGuigan, M. “Monitoring training and performance in athletes.” Human Kinetics. 2017.