The Best Tools To Measure Your Training Load
How do you track your training? How do you monitor your training load? It is the continual cycle of overloading the body with the stress of training, followed by adequate rest and repair, which over time leads to improved fitness and performance. It is a delicate balance between training and rest; a sweet spot between training loads that maximise performance, yet don’t get a runner injured. This is what all runners’ and coaches are searching for. Those that are best at it don’t just find this mark and stay there year after year injury free, they plan, monitor and adapt. You too can utilise simple tools to help find your individual training sweet spot.
Time and Kilometres
One of the simplest ways to track your running volume is to record distance or time running. For runners working on flat terrain with a very routine training week this can work really well. If your baseline is running for 50 km or 5 hours a week, adding 5-10% increase in distance or time (respectively) each week can be a safe way to progress your running. The key elements of this are that something is being monitored (time or distance) and that progressions are small steps. Add to this tool the added foresight to not progress to a higher volume week, if fatigue or pain develops and you a basic system that will work.
However this system only tracks external loads. Training load isn’t simply the amount of kilometres ran or time spent running. It is the total amount of physical work completed (external load) and the body’s physiological and perceived response to it (internal load). Therefore even identical training programmes will result in a different total training load, depending on the individual athletes characteristics (age, training experience, injury history, physical capacity, sleep quality, strength). We need to consider not only the objective load, but how the body responds to it and this will vary to the individual. What this tool lacks is tracking internal loads, meaning you are not getting a good gauge of how you are responding to your training. Heart rate can be an addition that adds more value to tracking kilometres, yet without the platforms mentioned below chances are you aren’t recording or interpreting what its telling you in a way useful to minimise injury risk or best guide your training.
Platforms – Strava and Training Peaks
Primary tracking of everyday running performance are GPS monitors, often in the form of an App on your phone or GPS watch. From these GPS tracking devices two major platforms exist to transform this data into information that is presentable, meaningful and actionable; Strava and TrainingPeaks. While most watches can tell you the volume of training (time or kilometres) the value of these sites comes from the ability to describe intensity (effort of training, total workload or work rate) (1).
For flat running, a kilometre takes approximately the same amount of work regardless of how long it takes. It is a function of weight and distance, often represented in caloric expenditure (total calories = 1 calorie per kilogram per kilometre). Workrate however is dependent on speed, it is the total work done divided by the time needed to complete it. Therefore for flat running work rate is simply represented by pace. Both TrainingPeaks and Strava have developed algorithms (Normalized Graded Pace and Strava’s Grade Adjusted Pace) which are used to normalise the cost of running uphill and downhill to flat, level running. This then provides the runner who is running the majority of their runs on roads or the track good estimates of ‘adjusted’ pace, and therefore workrate. To measure intensity or the internal load on the runner both platforms have developed algorithms termed Running Training Stress Score (rTSS, Training Peaks) and Suffer Score (Strava). These use slightly different methods to gives scores for the stress of any given run, which can be used to monitor acute and training loads. These internal measures of response to training are key in determining overall stress an athlete experiences. So if you have membership to these platforms and use a GPS running device understanding this data will help you monitor internal and external loads and progress training loads safely.
It is worthwhile noting that these systems do have some ‘flaws’ noteably for those who are running on different surfaces, large amounts of ascending and descending and if you aren’t running the same routes week to week. For runners who do the above or look at the data from Strava and Training peaks yet are unsure of what they are reading or how to interpret this data may be better suited to another platform. Pairing use of Strava or Training Peaks with a simple free option such as ACWR can overcome the above flaws and give the runner another option to gauge fitness and fatigue.
One of the best objective ways to track a runner’s training loads is using the Acute on Chronic Workload Ratio (ACWR). The ACWR is a great tool for tracking your training loads (internal and external) and avoiding the spikes in training loads that can decrease your performance and also heighten the risk of injury. The ACWR helps to minimise injury risk, and ensure that training loads remain in the ‘sweet spot’. This training ‘sweet spot’ is where you maximise performance and minimise possible negative consequences of training (injury, illness fatigue and overtraining) (1, 2). Research indicates a 0.8-1.3 ratio is best and that injury risk increases after reaching a 1.5 ratio. So if you’re trying to get serious with your training and wish to reduce injury risk this is a good place to start.
- Effective way to monitor both internal and external loads
- Easy to utilise
- Based of RPE so is not affected by change in surface or amount of ascending and descending.
How do you use it?
You simply multiple your rating of perceived exertion after each exercise session and multiple by session duration (these are your base units of workload) (RPE x time). I like to make mine more accurate by separating my warm up and cool down from say a speed session as these have different intensities. So I’d have my warm up and cool down at a RPE of 5 for 30 min and a speed session at a RPE of 9 for 20 min (5×30 + 9×20 = 330). Before you think this is too difficult I simply punch these numbers into google sheets on my phone and have all the equations set up. Then at the end of the week I can compare my acute training load to my previous weeks of training to get a ratio. Aim to progress week to week by 0.8-1.3. To help clarify a simple vlog will be uploaded shortly. If you would like a copy of a sample ACWR plan please email email@example.com
What RPE do I use? (1/10)
- 4 = comfortable all day pace
- 5 = easy conversational
- 6 = can still talk but a little bit more difficult
- 7 = deep and laboured breathing, 2 or 3 sentences
- 8 = replies in short sentence
- 9 = extremely difficult, can say a few words
- 10 = maximal
Monitoring internal and external loads are an important part of minimising injury risk and maximising performance. With a number of options available options from platforms such a Strava and Training Peaks or ACWR are valuable tools for the everyday runner.
Lewis Craig (APAM)
Masters of Physiotherapy
Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog
Training Essentials for Ultrarunning: how to train smarter, race harder, and maximise your ultrarunning performance – Jason Koop, Jim Rutberg. Boulder, Colorado: Velopress 2016.
Gabbet TJ. 2016. The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder, Br J Sports Med; 50:273-280
Banister EW, Calvert TW, Savage MV, et A systems model of training for athletic performance. Aust J Sports Med 1975;7:57-61
Gabbett TJ, Ullah S. Relationship between running loads and soft-tissue injury in elite team sport athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:953-60