An understanding of workload can be the difference between having a team that’s in game shape and healthy and having a team that struggles to get fit due to frequent injuries. Ultimately, providing better outcomes for each player individually and for the success of the team. We'll be diving deep into this topic below, but first, why this topic is barely ever mentioned:
There’s this idea that the things that things only accessible to the wealthy eventually become the future for everyone. The most current example is what we see happening with Tesla; the first line of “good” electric vehicles was priced over $100k, then recent models were as low as $35k, and there are rumours of a $20k vehicle planned for the future. That's an 80+% drop in barrier to entry, but those expensive early stages were a necessary part of providing the eventual affordable options.
The same thing happens in sports. The teams at the highest level of pro sports will get all the newest innovations, and the good innovations eventually become so accessible that they make their way to the college, high school, and youth levels. Consider how strength and conditioning, being a relatively new field, wasn’t always standard in professional sports. Now the number of full-time strength coaches at the high school level is rising rapidly, and many youth are working privately with coaches if that resource isn’t provided by their team. The growth being a result of more education (physical development is important) and more accessible coaches (more coaches around).
I believe (or at least I hope) the measurement and management of workload is the next frontier to work its way beyond college and pro sports. It wasn’t long ago "load management” felt like a new and foreign term in the NBA, receiving tons of criticism, so there’s a lot of education required for us to adopt these practices. The upside, as I hope to prove below, is it doesn’t need to be an expensive addition. You don’t need fancy equipment, additional staff members, or hours of your own time invested into implementing a basic load management system.
Intro to Stress:
When it comes to workload in sports, there are a ton of misconceptions. I'm going to start with the definitions (to ensure we're all talking about the same thing) before getting into the higher level stuff.
For one, when “workload management” became more popular in the NBA it was quickly discredited as players being soft or lazy. As we will explore below, the point of measuring workload is to track injury risk in your athletes. Of course there is always some risk of playing sports that can never be erased (why injury prevention is a misleading term), but the faster workloads increase week-to-week the higher that risk becomes. It’s important to manage that risk where possible so you have a healthy and available team throughout the year. And of course there will come moments where you would accept more risk than others (example: if your star player had an unusually high workload in the first few rounds of playoffs you probably wouldn’t limit his minutes in the championship game, but instead you might manage practice loads accordingly).
Unless you’re playing multiple games across the week, load management probably doesn’t look like limiting player’s minutes like it does in the NBA, but rather intelligently planning practice loads to keep the team fit and fresh so you don't need to worry about game minutes.
The two most important things to understand is volume and intensity.
Volume, if you’ve come across the term before, doesn’t seem to get misunderstood too often. It’s simply the amount of work you’ve done. At the highest level, it’s typically measured by looking at total distance travelled via GPS measurements, but “time on feet” or duration is a perfectly acceptable measure that is available to everyone.
Intensity, on the other hand, requires more background. If volume is how many repetitions you did or how long something lasted, intensity can be thought of as how much output was exerted for each repetition. It's important not to confuse fatigue with intensity, as the most intense efforts should typically be done with the most rest. To illustrate:
Example 1: Player A maximally sprints 50m, rests 90 seconds, and repeats this 8 times (400m total distance). Player B runs 400m as fast as they can around a track. Volume is the same for both, but intensity is much higher for player A even though player B was performing their maximal effort. This is because our physiology limits us from performing large outputs for long durations, and even at their max effort, player B would be exerting much less force per step than player A.
Example 2: Player A shoots 20 spot up jump shots. Player B dunks a ball 20 times. Same volume (total # of jumps), but the output, and therefore the intensity, of player B would be drastically higher.
The reason for this is explained by our energy systems. The ATP-CP system is our fastest-acting system and gives us the fuel for our most intense actions, but drastically declines after only 10 seconds. After that our other longer-lasting systems (glycolytic/lactic acid & aerobic systems) ramp up their involvement to sustain longer actions, but at a cost to overall performance as shown below.
This is why it is so important to clearly identify the primary goal of a drill or a day of practice. Let's use 3 simple examples of high intensity-low volume, low intensity-high volume, and moderate intensity-moderate volume to illustrate why you would choose each.
High intensity-low volume: Here your goal is for players to achieve maximal outputs that mimic speeds/intensities reached in competition. Looking again at the graph above, it is impossible to achieve this if a "repetition" of the drill lasts 60 seconds without rest. And no amount of motivation or discipline is going to change that fact. In my opinion, this is the most important (and most under-utilized) type of practice for athletes. Everyone wants fast, explosive athletes that can execute skills at high speeds - this is what develops that.
Low intensity-high volume: Here your goal is for players to get a ton of repetition of important skills or tasks. Fatigue alters muscle firing patterns and damages the skill-acquisition process, so when learning a new skill or trying to further hone an old skill, fatigue is the enemy. So in order to get the most repetitions while maintaining the highest quality, intensity must be low. This is where most shooting, passing, or tactical work is done. Many coaches miss the mark here by adding unnecessary "fitness" components to skill work like push ups or sprints.
Moderate intensity-moderate volume: I'm not typically a fan of this area because it kind of makes everything too "vanilla" in the sense that you're not pushing the boundaries of anything skill-based, but it could be used for fitness/conditioning where needed. This is a great time to mention that the best fitness-builder is playing games and scrimmages. "Extra conditioning" should be used very sparingly and at very select times of the year.
I will be going deep into how to plan a week to maximize these areas and get the most from your team in a later follow-up blog post, but for now just understand that the best model is probably to plan high intensity days and high volume days that alternate. When intensity is high, keep the volume low. When the volume is high, keep the intensity low. Mix moderate-high volume and intensity with games and scrimmages.
Now that we understand volume and intensity, we can dive into stress and how the body responds to high volumes and high intensities. This will also deepen our understanding of why these should be separated.
We tend to reduce fatigue and the stressors associated with sports to just muscular fatigue. The truth is muscular fatigue is purely a by-product of high volumes. Assuming these activities aren’t completely foreign (you’ve done them before), even the most intense activities like 1 rep of a heavy squat or a max effort sprint will typically cause very minimal muscular fatigue and soreness. In fact, these maximal outputs done at very low volumes can have a stimulating effect that actually increases performance immediately afterwards and the following day.
We do experience a type of fatigue from these intense activities, but it’s mostly experienced at the level of the nervous system in the CNS. To perform these high output activities requires massive nerve signal outputs from the brain and the CNS eventually fatigues, but again, only when we repeat high intensity activities (introducing an aspect of volume).
So, long duration or high volume activities are more muscularly fatiguing, and short, high intensity activities are more CNS fatiguing. Both are very real types of fatigue, causing performance to drop, but are handled differently by the body.
To zoom in a little bit further, we can divide actions into muscular or elastic as well. Anything that requires slow force production like a heavy strength exercise will be more muscularly driven, and the stress will be shifted more to the muscular system. Anything with a rapid force development like a sprint, cut, or jump (what most sports consist of) will be more elastic in nature, and the stress will be shifted to the tendons.
The truth is, all systems are involved all the time, but certain activities bias stress one way or another. An example of this is found in a common problem with athletes: Too much explosive actions on the field or court break down tendons faster than they can recover, leading to tendonitis.
When it comes to measuring workload there are a wide range in methods to do so that come with a wide range of complexities and costs. Fortunately for you, you can do a lot with zero or minimal investment.
For the intended audience of sport coaches working outside of the big budgets of pro sport, we will only spend our time discussing “time on feet” and “RPE.”
Time on feet is, as it sounds, the amount of time spent in practice (or doing whatever other activity we are keeping track of). Sounds too simple, right? It’s actually a perfectly acceptable measure of volume that demands almost none of your time or effort to track.
Time on feet can work on its own if you wanted to keep things that simple, but I believe a ton of value comes from adding one more measurement in RPE, or rate of perceived exertion. With time on feet being our volume measurement, RPE acts as our intensity measurement. It is collected by simply asking your athletes “how hard did the session feel from 1 to 10?” Take the team average rating and track that in your load management system (more on that below) or on your own spreadsheet alongside time on feet.
My suggestion is to collect both data points so you have separate measures for volume and intensity, then multiply them together to get a global “workload value” for the day.
Now the question becomes, what do you do with this data? The primary answer is twofold:
1. Track acute:chronic workload ratio.
2. Use it as feedback in your attempt to implement daily undulation in your practices.
We will focus on the first point for the remainder of this blog here, and dive deeper into the second point in the next blog post.
Acute:chronic workload ratio (ACWR) can be thought of as how much stress your athletes are currently experiencing divided by their current capacity/fitness. This is calculated by simply taking the total workload from the previous 7 days (remember this is measured as “time on feet X average RPE”) and dividing it by the total workload from the previous 28 days.
When we look at the outcome of this calculation, we must keep in mind that the value “1.00” is going to represent current workload exactly matching chronic workload. Any deviation above or below 1.00 will represent the current percentage increase or decrease in workload. For example, 1.26 means acute is 26% higher than chronic, and 0.80 means acute is 20% lower than chronic.
When we spend time near 1.00 (+/- 0.05-0.10) we are in a maintenance zone where we are neither increasing or decreasing in fitness.
A low ACWR <0.90 would provide the benefit in the short term of a fresh and recovered team, perfect for just before playoffs or other key points in the season. Maintained for a long time though, and you will start to see fitness declining. Obviously, this isn’t good for the performance of the team, but also introduces an increased risk of injury due to this lack of exposure.
A high ACWR >1.30 would provide the benefit of developing fitness in your athletes but comes with a much higher risk of injury due to the sharp rise in workload. I think the typical team ramps up much too quickly in the pre-season, and the result is a team full of nagging injuries that keep players out of practice (which then reduces their workload & fitness, which then makes their return to practice a second massive rise in workload, putting them at even greater risk of another injury).
A high ACWR of 1.10-1.30 is the sweet spot for developing fitness in the pre-season and early season. This zone isn’t so high that you’re placing a large risk of injury on your athletes, but high enough that your team’s fitness will rise week after week in preparation of the season.
The key here is to create a roadmap from where you are to where you want to be. Can you estimate what the chronic workload for your players would be coming into pre-season? Ask them how much they’ve played or practiced with another team or independently, collect some duration and RPE numbers, and plug in chronic workloads. Then, create a mockup of what you want to eventually get to in terms of workload, and create a plan of roughly 15-25% increases in workload each week.
If you find you won’t be able to reach desired levels in time for your season, your best bet may be to extend the timeline a little further. It’s probably better to start your season at slightly suboptimal fitness (but with a fully healthy team) and reach that fitness a few weeks in, than rushing things and starting the season without the full availability of your team.
If you’re good with numbers and spreadsheets and want to invest the time into creating these systems, I think it’s a great idea. But if you would rather not have to deal with that type of work, I’ve gone ahead and done all the heavy lifting for you.
My Load Management System provides you the platform to enter and track data, while getting all the insights as if I was with you interpreting the numbers for you. Check out my walkthrough video of the platform if you want to take a look inside, and make the purchase if you want to introduce intelligent load management for your team. All the links are found below.
If you found value in this blog post I would love if you would share this link with friends or publicly on your social media. If this sparked any questions or comments you can DM me on Instagram and I'll get back to them as quickly as possible. At the end of the day, I think a wider understanding of these concepts results in healthier youth athletes, which is a win for everyone involved. I'm excited to hear your feedback.