Programming For The Unexpected: Risk Vs. Reward

Written by Shawn Gerber

No pain. No gain. We’ve all heard it before, and maybe you’ve even taken it to heart. But these are only partial truths that should really be accompanied with “no recovery, no gains.” Training for performance is a balancing act between appropriately challenging your body to elicit physical improvement and recovering enough to see the gains from all your hard work.

Recovery is the yin to the yang of good old-fashioned hard work. Without appropriate amounts of both, you will not progress as an athlete. Understanding the nuances of this balance is key to your long-term success.

There Is No Perfect Plan

When designing a training plan, there are two concepts to keep in mind:

  • Stress is stress. Your body has a hard time differentiating between the stress of training hard, juggling work responsibilities, or tending to sick kids. All of these stressors have a significant effect on your performance.
  • Stress is cumulative. Without proper recovery, stress adds up. This is why it is important to gradually progress through training and allow for periods of recovery. It sets the stage for adapting to greater levels of overall stress and improving fitness.

These two concepts lead to one important conclusion: your “perfectly designed” training plan will likely be wrong for you at some point. There will be periods in your life when the stresses of life, demanding workouts, a lack of good sleep, and poor recovery leave you in a less-than-optimal state to train. When these times inevitably come, it’s important to know how to adapt and stay on point.

The key to making the right adjustments begins by acknowledging that some workouts are inherently more risky (or rewarding) than others. This is especially true when you are deeper into a block of progressive training and cumulative stress is high. Understanding the purpose of your workouts, the potential rewards, and the risks that accompany them is empowering.

Risk vs. Reward

The beauty of a well-designed plan is that every workout is created with a specific outcome in mind and is set up to play as nicely as possible with your other workouts. If you have doubts about a specific workout on your schedule, check back in with the purpose of the program. What is the workout designed to do, and what does it require of you as an athlete to make it happen at 100 percent?

Digging into to the desired outcome(s) of your training helps you understand the potential reward of any given workout. For example, the purpose of a tough track workout in the final training block before a race is to improve physical running mechanics, help your neurological system adapt to the higher cadences required for running quickly, and help your body’s metabolic components adapt to utilizing fuel more efficiently at higher speeds. 

Achieving these “rewards” is linked to your ability to perform the workout well and remain injury-free in the process, which brings us to the risks. When thinking of risks, you need to consider three primary variables: mode, volume, and intensity.

  • Mode: The type of exercise. Some exercises are more biomechanically demanding than others, such as running compared to cycling.
  • Volume: The overall training load for each workout – how much, how far, or how long. Think cumulative weight lifted or total miles run.
  • Intensity: Intensity is the most complicated variable to measure. In its simplest form, intensity answers the question of “how hard?” All-out sprints are more intense than running at a moderate pace.

The relationship between volume and intensity should always be considered. Think of them as a formula for training stress:

Training Stress = Volume x (Average) Intensity

In this regard, a shorter, high-intensity session could produce the same kind of stress as a moderate-length workout at a medium intensity.

A Real-World Example

Let’s examine how these variables interact in a hypothetical track workout.

Mode: Running. Let’s add a wrinkle and assume you are a triathlete and will also be doing cycling and swimming workouts. Running is the highest impact and the more biomechanically demanding movement you have to manage. You want it to be as high quality as possible and need to have that in the back of your mind when planning your training.

Volume: Track workouts tend to be shorter in overall mileage to counter-balance the intensity. Let’s also assume that you are at the end of a tough three-week block and are running the most miles per week so your overall training volume is high. In short, you’re tired.

Intensity: Your workouts are not all-out sprints, but they are still very strong efforts. The faster you run, the greater the forces are at play on your joints. Risk of injury is higher, especially when you are fatigued from overall training volume. High forces plus fatigue can spell physical breakdown.

The risks are palpable. You’re fit but fatigued. You’re pushing the envelope to get the most out of your body on race day. Is it worth it, or should you make adjustments to the workout or your schedule? It can be a hard decision, but thankfully there are some tools you can use to help guide your decision.

  • Body check upon waking. While it’s not the most objective measurement, how you feel upon waking usually correlates with training fatigue. Do you feel sharp and ready to own the workout or more like thick sludge? If you feel sluggish you may want to consider decreasing the intensity.
  • Injury status. Are you injured or do you have any nagging issues? If you answer yes and have explosive, high-impact movements on your schedule that day, you may want to consider other options.
  • Tracking resting HR or HRV. This is a good metric to measure consistently, as small changes either way can indicate steps towards over-reaching. Heart rate variability is useful for examining your neurological response to exercise demands to help you adjust effort accordingly.
  • Check mechanics. Are you able to perform your movements properly? Can you reach your end positions easily? Will you encourage the development of poor movement patterns by doing a specific workout with poor movement quality? Poor mobility plus high volume workouts can be bad news.
  • Are you plateauing or declining? How are you performing lately? A lack of progress can mean you are close to needing more recovery. A decline in performance means you likely need recovery in the very near future.
  • Look down the training plan. What is coming down the pipeline? When is recovery scheduled? What workouts are most valuable in the near future? It may be worth shifting things around so you get the most out of your key workouts.
  • Do the warm up. When in doubt, go through the warm up and then evaluate. Sometimes the battle is mental and you just need to start moving before you feel good. If you still feel like crud after the warm up, especially on high-intensity days, you may want to shorten the workout or reschedule.

Smart Training Requires Balance

You have your training plan, and then you have real life. Use the concepts and tools outlined above to help you navigate the situations when the two collide. If you have questions about training with heart rate variability, measuring intensity, and the often debated idea of “overtraining,” drop me a line in the comments.

Train smart and perform well my friends.

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