Injury & Rehab

Managing training loads: Lessons from professional sport to reduce your client’s injury risk

By using a simple formula you can track and manage your client’s training volumes and intensities to safely increase strength and significantly reduce injury risk, writes PT and fitness educator Dan Jolley.


THE QUICK READ

  • One of the most effective things trainers can do to help clients avoid injuring themselves is to monitor client’s training volumes and intensities
  • Using RPE to calculate training load is a subjective way of measuring training volume and intensity that factors in changes in a client’s physical and mental state
  • By tracking your client’s training week, you can use the data to build weekly loads over time, increasing their tolerance and safety
  • Training load should be built up gradually, with increases being kept to no more than around 30% week to week

It’s in everyone’s best interests to prevent injuries. Clients get to keep training. Trainers get more consistent sessions with the client. The client gets better results (we hope!), and the trainer gets referrals and enquiries from a job well done.

Injuries are impossible to predict. It’s also impossible to know when an injury has been prevented (after all, it never happened). There are many things we can do, however, to significantly reduce a client’s injury risk.

One of the most effective, and arguably simplest, things we can do is to monitor our client’s training volumes and intensities.

There has been a clear trend in recent times towards higher intensities of exercise for everyday exercisers, and that’s no bad thing. When people train on their own, research shows they usually select exercise intensities that are too low to elicit the training response they want. With fitness professionals pushing them safely to train harder, their exercise outcomes can be improved.

There are, however, two exceptions to the ‘harder is better’ approach that we need to understand. First, we get different training adaptations from different intensities. We need to select the right intensity to get the job done. Second, we need to choose the right volume. As a rule, higher intensity means shorter, less frequent sessions. High volumes of hard training increase our injury risk, while short, easy sessions mean we don’t get a training effect. This shouldn’t be news to anyone.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. This is all relative. Our clients differ in terms of the training they can tolerate: what is a lot for one person is not for another.


Measuring volume and intensity

To accommodate these differences, we need a way to measure volume and intensity that is flexible and subjective. For time we can simply use minutes of training, but intensity is harder. Do we use running speed? Weight lifted? Heart rate?

We want something we can use across all training, and something that is internal. Measuring how someone feels about a weight is more important than the actual weight (more on that later), so let’s stick with the method we learnt while studying to become trainers, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) using a 1-10 scale. It’s simple enough to use with novices, and despite all the resources available in professional sport, in my experience it’s considered best practice.

We can multiply the RPE a client reports for a session by the length of time the session took. We then call this total ‘training units’. For example, a 60-minute session with an RPE of 5 would give a load of 300 training units, and a 45-minute session with an RPE of 7 gives us 315 training units.

So, a harder, shorter session may provide a similar load to a longer, easier one. The sessions can accommodate different types of exercise: weights, cardio, group fitness, sessions with a trainer, whatever you can think of.

Using the subjective measure of RPE is an advantage in this case because our clients’ ability to exercise will vary between sessions. They may be pumped or tired, focused or distracted. A weight may feel harder to lift on Thursday than it did in their Monday training session. In such instances, subjective measures can be more useful than objective ones.


How can we use training load to reduce injury risk?

A lot of the research into training load has taken place in the arena of professional sport – so how useful is it for other populations? In 2017, when working with a semi-professional football team, we tracked the training load for every player, for every session, for the whole season. What we found after looking at the data was consistent with the research that’s emerged in the last 10 years or so from the field of professional sport.

Players who trained less, got hurt more. If we don’t train enough, we aren’t fit or strong enough to handle the rigours of a game, or a hard session, and we risk injury. This is the same for our clients.

If we train too much, we risk getting injured too. We might not even make it to the game, or the fun run, or whatever event we are training for, because we get hurt along the way. There is, however, a middle ground. We can show this relationship between training load and injury risk as a U-shaped curve.

Now, not only does ability to tolerate training loads differ from person to person, it also changes over time ‘within’ each individual. As we continue training, our strength and fitness improves and we can tolerate more.

Try tracking your clients’ training week – both training with you, and on their own. It’s quick and easy to get RPEs and times for all their training. You can use the data you collect to build weekly loads over time, so they can tolerate more and be safer.


Weekly training load

We tend to use weekly totals because it’s convenient, but you can use a different timeframe if it suits your purposes, of those of your client, better. Then we decide how much load we want in a week.

Someone doing some light jogging for 30 minutes three times a week at an RPE of 5 will accumulate a weekly load of 450 units. Professional sportspeople, on the other hand, can accumulate weekly loads of over 5,000 units in training and games.

Those who want, or need, to do heavy training obviously need to work their way up towards heavy weights, otherwise injury is inevitable. So, what’s the best way to do this?


How do we build up training load?

Slowly and steadily! When you haven’t trained for a while, the highest risk is early in your training routine. I even see trainers make this mistake in their own training. For whatever reason, they’ve let their own training drop off. Attempting to quickly get back into shape, they go too hard too fast, injure themselves a couple of weeks into their renewed regime and then have to reduce their training again.

It’s bad enough to injure yourself in this way, but you need to be very careful not to do the same thing with clients. Always aim for steady increases, rather than a big jump.

You may need to educate your clients about this, particularly new ones who have been hit with inspiration and are champing at the bit for their own fast and furious body transformation. If they expect lots of hard training straight away, manage those expectations from day one. Explain to them the importance of building a tolerance first – a foundation on which to build – and that failing to do so will result in them getting injured, stopping training and finding themselves back at square one.

Recommendations vary, but I try to keep jumps in training load to less than about 30%. If someone does 1,000 units one week, I look for no more than 1,300 the next week, then 1,700 the one after that.

Of course, goals vary. The footballers previously discussed would average about 2,500 units a week, including their games. For a casual exerciser, however, 1,500 weekly training units might be more appropriate.

Once your client has reached the target load you have prescribed them, try to keep them there. Mix up the training type, volume and intensity to keep things fresh, but maintain the load. If they are preparing for an activity that involves high intensities, their training will need to reflect this. For example, footballers and cricketers injure their hamstrings less often when they do small doses of high-intensity sprints regularly at training, compared to when they don’t, even with the same training load.


In summary

Managing training load is hugely important for reducing injury risk. Don’t do too much too soon. If it sounds simple and obvious, it is – but very few trainers monitor their clients’ training loads in a structured way.

For the casual once-a-week client, this might be as simple as slowly building up the weights lifted. For a client preparing for a half marathon, obstacle course or a sporting season, however, you’ll need to spend a little more time programming. Try it and let me know how you go.


Dan Jolley

Dan teaches Certificate III & IV in Fitness, and has previously worked in professional sport. He has an MSc in exercise physiology, and a PhD in educational psychology.