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How Many Reps Are Enough?

– Derek M. Hansen – September 7, 2009 –

– Derek M. Hansen –

I am often witness to sporting coaches carrying out their training sessions and preparatory camps for various sports. The coaches have a practice plan and, invariably, an ambitious schedule for what they want to accomplish in a session, day or week. There are always injuries. It is inevitable. Some are accidental (i.e. getting kicked in the knee) while others are the accumulation of stress and fatigue. The question becomes, “Are many of these injuries preventable? Would the optimal allocation and scheduling of work result in a significant reduction in injuries?” These are questions that I find myself constantly struggling with as a coach, particularly when I am not the one in charge of assigning workloads. However, when athletes start going down with injuries, the prevailing attitude amongst sport coaches appears to be that the athletes are either not tough or they are in poor shape. Rarely are coaches suggesting that perhaps they may have assigned too much work.

The recent stories out of the University of Michigan football program highlight how ridiculous training volume can get – even in the off-season. A story from the Associated Press outlined the circumstances with the current program:

“Several Michigan football players claim the program regularly violates NCAA rules limiting how much time they can spend on training and practice sessions, according to a published report.

Players from the 2008 and 2009 teams told the Detroit Free Press for a story published on the newspaper’s Web site on Saturday that the amount of time they spend on football activities during the season and in the offseason greatly exceeds the limits. The players spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions from coaches.”

Other reports claimed that Michigan football athletes on a particular day spent three to four hours in the weight room, followed by another hour of running. This type of workout occurred three times per week with additional three-hour sessions of speed and agility work on other days. If these reports are even remotely accurate, the U of M strength and conditioning coach needs to attend some classes on basic exercise physiology, recovery and adaptation. Training excessively for the sake of sending a ‘message’ or giving the impression that you are doing more than other programs is simply irresponsible.

 

The Need to Test “Mental Toughness”

“I know we are pushing them hard, but we have to make sure they can push through the pain, testing both their physical and mental toughness.” This is the common rationale given for the combination of high volume workouts, endless repetitions and inadequate recovery between sets, sessions and days. Sports science does not enter into the equation. For sports that are skill intensive, it is deemed necessary to implement enough repetitions to hone and perfect specific skills. Having worked with world-class gymnasts, I could see that numerous repetitions and long hours in the gym were required to master a skill or routine. What many would deem ‘child abuse’ became the norm for athletes who wanted to move up the ladder in their sport. Although I understand that certain skills can only be developed to a high level through constant drilling and repetition, there must be a limit to what is optimal and sustainable. The point of diminishing returns, however, is often passed long before the workout concludes.

The late martial artist Bruce Lee once said that he would rather face an opponent who practiced 10,000 different kicks one time, than one who practiced one kick 10,000 times. The idea being that the latter competitor had developed one weapon to a very high and dangerous level, as opposed to diluting his arsenal. I am of the mind that I would rather face the “one-kick” opponent because that guy is going to have one really sore leg after all those reps! At the very least, he would have developed some significant compensational issues and asymmetry.

 

Optimal Load, Recovery and Adaptation

We have all experienced or witnessed the occurrence of an injury or illness in a performer, followed by a return to competition at a level of higher performance. One would think that weeks of lost training would result in a significant decrement in performance. However, the opposite often occurs. The only explanation for this phenomenon is that the athlete in question was over-loaded and not given adequate recovery. While they may not be clinically over-trained, their training program likely included numerous occasions where the athlete was over-reaching without adequate recovery and regeneration between such sessions.

In a training camp scenario, over-reaching occurs on a daily basis (if not twice a day) and it is considered the norm. Daily injuries are expected, and the occasional athlete vomiting on the sidelines adds to the spectacle. The combination of urgency, effort, anguish, drama and desperation all make sense to the layperson watching on the sidelines. “This is what training camp is all about!”

I am hoping that coaches and athletes figure out sooner than later that the current trend of accepting “casualties of war” is not the answer. Like the plight of the infantrymen of the First World War scrambling out of the trenches headlong into enemy machine gun fire, one person needs to stand up and say, “This is absolutely crazy! There must be a better way!” The development of tanks and fighter planes soon made trench warfare obsolete. What can be done to curb the current trend in overtraining in athlete preparation?

 

Is There a Better Way?

The obvious and easy answer to this question is ‘yes’. The more difficult task is convincing both athletes and coaches that doing less may actually yield more. Provided below are some key principles and guidelines to consider when planning and implementing training sessions with athletes.

– It is always better to under-train than to over-train. Training to the point of exhaustion can result in more negative effects than positive ones. This is particularly apparent when such workouts occur in succession – day after day. The end result will be a trend that not only drives the athletes system downward, but also creates a fertile ground for soft-tissue injury and illness. However, training to a point well in advance of exhaustion creates a positive adaptation without the danger of excessive stress on the nervous and immune systems. Good training occurs with the appropriate application of volume per session over time. Many coaches are trying to get the most out of their athletes every session. Not all sessions need to feel as though they are creating a significant physiological adaptation. Some sessions may emphasis skill, strategy or relaxation – which are all positive qualities. Developing the patience and confidence to know that the athletes are getting enough work takes time and experience. Do not be afraid to plan for less work.

– For many training sessions, stop the session before athletes look tired or their biomechanics become sloppy. For speed and power athletes, anticipating fatigue and taking the necessary steps to stop the training session and avoid potential injury is critical. There is always the tendency for coaches and athletes to try to “get one more good rep” in the session. This attitude is a recipe for disaster and we’ve all seen athletes incur injury on this last rep. Cash your chips in and live to fight another day. Don’t hope for good outcomes. Plan for good outcomes.

– Incorporate regular massage therapy sessions to help identify problem areas. Manual therapy and massage often leads to discoveries of tightness, high muscle tone and other soft-tissue problems that would normally not be brought to the attention of the coach or athlete. In cases where I have worked on athletes who were not getting regular massage, they were astounded at not only how sore and tight their muscles felt during the procedure, but also how much better they felt after the session. I’ve heard athletes comment after a thorough leg massage that they now feel 20-30 pounds lighter when walking and running. One athlete told me, “I can lift my knees now!” Experience has shown that well applied massage can be an invaluable tool for soft tissue evaluation and recovery. Those that oppose its use simply do not want to put in the work required.

– If athletes are in poor conditioning entering a training camp scenario, punishing them into shape is not an option. Punishment can occur in many other forms including collecting jock-straps after practice or cleaning lockers. Remedial training outside of practice can occur in low volumes to slowly bring them along up to a level where they can participate in camp at an appropriate level. If any form of short-term high intensity training is incorporated to send a message to these athletes, you can bet that at least 50 percent of these athletes will go down with an injury. Depending on how much you need these athletes, you may decide that they are expendable and go ahead with your punishment on the field. However, a demonstration of good training habits and methodology will go a long way to not only educating these athletes, but also keeping them healthy and productive.

– If a number of soft-tissue injuries arise amongst your team of athletes, a pattern may be developing and the workload must be reviewed and revised as soon as possible. Sure you may have recruited a whole bunch of whiners who cannot stand putting in some hard work and dealing with some aches and pains. However, if the athletes have legitimate injury issues related to workload, you had better make some changes in a hurry before half of your team is sidelined with more serious problems. Small strains and chronic pains can lead to more serious muscle tears or connective tissue ruptures as muscular control is affected and coordination is compromised. Following up a tough workout with more regenerative work that is less stressful (i.e. work in the swimming pool or on a softer surface) can go a long way to reducing risk and enhancing recovery.

 

Concluding Remarks

None of us know exactly how much work is enough for optimal adaptation. If anyone tells you that they know – they are lying. However, we all intuitively know when athletes are prescribed too much work. You can see it in their movement patterns, their body language and their higher incidence of injury. They key is to err on the side of effective loads, as opposed to excessive loads. The unfortunate part of this whole issue is that some athletes and teams will overcome the excessive workloads and still succeed. Their coaches will then believe that their formula of volume-laden work is the recipe for success, and the vicious circle will continue. This could very well become the case with the Michigan Football experiment. Due to their ability to recruit talented athletes, they may be able to overcome the excessive training and still put together a winning season.

Although scientific advances, such as the use of heart rate variability, can help to better determine levels of fatigue in athletes, common sense must prevail and we must anticipate fatigue, not ignore it. Our athletes will thank us for such an approach.