Training and Load Management – The Balancing Act

Written by Cam Watkins

This is a great time of year. The weather is turning. Spring is in the air! Your sporting season may have finished, and you are ready to start a new form of training and get the body ready for the beach this summer. This is a risky time in terms of potentially causing an injury. For a summary on some fundamental ideas on sensible training that will keep you at it, and avoid any injuries that will get in the way, read on. 

Capacity vs Load.

“Listen to when the body whispers at you. Before it starts throwing bricks at you!” 

To improve in fitness, strength or power, one must train. Of course, training should be specific in order to meet a particular goal. Now, in order to meet whatever goal that may be, the individual will need to get the balancing act of load management right to firstly make sure that they are improving, but also to prevent any injury from occurring that would inhibit their progress along the path.

Something to establish early is the knowledge that the human body is a very sophisticated, adaptable machine. That is, it will adapt to the loads placed upon it. Let’s use the example of someone lifting weights consistently. If they were following a sensible program, with adequate loading and adequate rest, the individual would adapt and get stronger. However, if the same individual was to sit on their backsides for 6 weeks, or 6 months, then the body would adapt to that and get considerably weaker. That is, the capacity of the body to lift weight would be reduced. This is obvious. What needs to be understood is that if they were to attempt to lift the same weight they did prior to having a break, an injury may very well occur as they are no longer adapted to lifting the heavier weight, and they may sustain a traumatic or overload injury.

Get the Balance Right

A very important key in the planning of any exercise regime and the prevention of injury is to make sure that the demands of the task (i.e. the load) does not considerably outweigh the capacity of the body or structure to perform the task, whether that be walking, running, or lifting. Using the above example, the weight lifted may have to be reduced for a period of time, while the body adapts, and the capacity to lift gradually increases. As the capacity (i.e. strength) improves, then the weight can sensibly be increased in a process referred to as progressive overload.

The majority of injuries are due to a training error and lack of balance between the capacity of a structure and the load placed upon it. Go too hard, too early, and you will get sore!

With a sensible progression, you’ll be lifting more or running further than ever. The key is be realistic, be sensible and be patient. Traditionally, a very simplistic and sensible model is a 10 percent increase in training load, every week. This will avoid having a spike in load. That is, an acute increase in workload relative to the average workload at that time. Disproportionate high training loads, or ‘spikes’, are considered a training load error, and should be avoided as they can cause overuse injuries. For instance, with summer fast approaching, you may take up the opportunity for a free 7-day trial at your local gym. To make the most of this, you hit it hard, every day that week! That would be a huge spike in workload for anyone and would put you at a very high risk of injury.

To explore this concept in greater detail, look at the work of Tim Gabbett, who has many articles on ‘training smarter’ and avoiding training load error.

Listen to Your Body

It’s important to develop an awareness of how the body is tolerating the load placed upon it. A sensible approach: try a particular load and see how the body tolerates it. Sore (in the muscles that you may expect) for one day is okay. Sore for two days is good. Sore for three or four days, maybe you went too hard, too early? On the contrary though, if you’re not sore at all in the following days after lifting, perhaps you could have pushed it more.

When you first start a given exercise, you may be particularly sore for a few days. Once that soreness settles, you can repeat the same exercise. Does your body react the same, or is it less sore and settles quicker? If so, the body is adapting and the capacity to perform that task is improving. You’re on track.

Good Pain vs Bad Pain

An interesting idea, but generally, if you learn to understand your body, you learn to understand the difference between good pain and bad pain.

If you work your muscles, you’ll know it at the time, and potentially for the following days. This is referred to as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and is a very normal response to training and part of the adaptation process. Sharp, achey pain in a muscle or joint, that doesn’t feel tolerable, may be the result of overload or injury. If something doesn’t feel right, the body is trying to tell you something. It’s very important not to push through this sort of pain, and it may be time to pop in for an assessment with a Physiotherapist. Perhaps, something needs to be modified in terms of the type of training, the technique of the particular exercise, or factors such as footwear or training surface (if walking or running). Be sensitive to how the body is travelling. Listen when it whispers at you. Before it starts throwing bricks at you!!

Don’t Forget Rest

Make sure to allow for sufficient rest between sessions. It may simply be a case of day on/day off. At least one day’s rest would be recommended to allow the body adequate opportunity to repair and adapt. Without sufficient rest, the body will be at risk of overload and injury. Again, if you listen to your body, you’ll know when it’s time to get back into training.

Cross training is a smart idea if you’re wanting to continue loading the body, and not wanting to overload particular structures, i.e. Monday you may run, Tuesday you may want to swim or cycle, before coming back to running on Wednesday or Thursday.

Stretch. A simple rule is: if you load it, you should stretch it. Throughout the week it’s important to factor in time to stretch and gently move the entire body. Utilise foam rollers and trigger point balls to help reduce tension in the muscles that need.

In summary, the body is designed to move, work and train. A sensible training load is good for the muscles, tendons, bones and joints, and will help lead to a better quality of life. The key is to get the load right, keep the balance, quality over quantity, and listen to your body. If you are inexperienced with training or wanting to get more serious, it would be highly recommended that you have a good team around you with guidance from a good Physiotherapist, Trainer/Coach or Sports Doctor to make sure that the training is appropriate for you, and of high quality to maximise training adaptation and achieve your goals.