I sometimes despair when an athlete I coach thinks that the more training they do the better they will get. You can certainly see the athlete’s logic: they think more time in the weights room or more speed work, or even more work to make their bodies more injury resilient (pre-condition) will make them into better athletes. But what’s perhaps being overlooked – and I stress, once a successful training load has been established, evaluated and adjusted – is that at minimum they could be just wasting their time, and more seriously, they could be running the risk of overtraining and even injury, and undoing the gains they’ve made.
Dan Pfaff in an interview on sportcoachradio.com says this in terms of athlete preparation:
“I believe very strongly in the principle of ‘minimum, effective dose’ (MED). I think a lot of athletes and coaches get sucked into what I call volume and density traps, they train certain times too frequently and they train way too much volume when they do train it. I don’t think people research and respect rest and recovery, regeneration type work. It’s kind of an afterthought rather than a driver of the system.”
I even think that many athletes think that it’s in the time when they are training that they physiologically get better (mentally is perhaps a different story) – it’s not of course, it’s during recovery and rest periods when the spark of training fuelled adaptation is ignited. I often have explain this…
Pfaff, who has influenced so many of the world’s elite coaches, takes on the rest and recovery theme further.
“I look at coaching as figuring out the right dosage for each workout, each week, each month.” When talking about his work with Greg Rutherford up to 2012, he explains that the athlete didn’t, at least in conventional terms train that much. “There are not a lot of coaches around that would entertain the fact of only training a guy three days a week. On the other days it wasn’t like he would sit on the couch eating bon-bons (!), he was involved in rigorous soft tissue therapy, various rehab and prehab protocols.”
I know of a number of coaches who test athletes’ hormonal profiles (I believe this can be done with portable kits).
The ratio of testosterone to cortisol is particularly important. Numerous studies indicate that sprint training elevates testosterone (1) but too much (and other training) can blunt its production (2). Testosterone is crucial to positive training adaptation and recovery, whilst cortisol is very much the negative side of the coin. If the levels of this “stress” hormone are high then the athlete will not ideally be positioned to optimally adapt to training. So it becomes the task of figuring out when and with what the athlete can be optimally loaded with across the training period.
As well as hormonal testing (and psychological stress tests or more simply just asking your athletes when they turn up to training “how they feel”) the content and balance of the training programme is key.
Top Dutch coach Henk Kraaijenhof echoes the sentiments of Pfaff and others when he states in answer to that age-old question in the sports conditioning world of training volume – how much is necessary? (3).
He says: “The approach should rather be: what and how little is necessary to accomplish our goals, instead of how much can we do?
The question should be: how little should I train in order to reach my goal?"
1. Growth Horm IGF Res. 2003 Oct;13(5):225-38.
2. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2004 Jun;92(1-2):26-32. Epub 2004 Feb 17.
3. helpingthebestgetbetter.com (Kraaijenhof’s blog)
(In another post I’ll go more into detail about training volume and analysis)