What is the best way to prevent over-training while training hard enough to produce results? Balancing sufficient workout loads with adequate recovery is essential in order to make progress and avoid injury. How hard should you push yourself? When do efforts become counter-productive? Are you over-training or under-training, and how can you tell?
If ever there is an industry full of stark contradictions, its the fitness industry. With so many opinions, along with natural variances in fitness capacity based on age, diet, genetics, environment, hormonal states, etc. –an examination of the current research is warranted. What does the research say about workout training intensity and recovery?
Boosting Work Capacity While Managing Fatigue
For an athlete desiring to boost performance, it is essential to improve work capacity over time (Halson, 2014). Increases in work capacity can be accomplished through a variety of training approaches. These approaches include (Halson, 2014):
- Increased training frequency
- Increased training intensity
- Increased training duration
If training was that simple, however, there would be seemingly no limits to human performance. Instead, increases in any of these training factors require management of accumulating fatigue. Failure to manage accumulating fatigue can lead overtraining/ overreaching.
Over-training is evidenced by decreases in performance capacity, impairments in immune function, and increased susceptibility to illness and injury (Halson, 2014). These effects can persist for weeks to months!!! Training frequency, intensity, and duration can be dialed up or down dependent on an athlete’s state of fatigue. As such, detecting fatigue accumulation is an essential skill in facilitating it’s management.
Monitoring Your Perceived Workout Exertion
Overreaching / over-training symptoms have been observed in as little as 4 weeks in functional fitness athletes performing high intensity training sessions five times per week (Neto, Tibana,de Sousa, Prestes, Voltarelli, & Kennedy, 2020). A small study found that athletes rating their own exertion levels on an adapted scale of one (minimal effort) to 10 (maximal effort) better predicted post-workout lactic acid levels compared to objective measures such as the amount of time spent in various heart-rate zones (Neto et al., 2020). In other words, how you feel during a workout can better predict how much muscle damage is occurring and how much recovery is needed.
How might a person use a 10-point scale to monitor their training? Set a goal ahead of time in terms of how much perceived effort you desire for your training. Going “all out” every training session at maximum effort throughout the workout is a great way to sabotage your efforts and become injured. In the study, a self-perceived effort of 6 out of 10, representing a strong effort without straining, was chosen as the goal (Neto et al., 2020). Scale ranges for perceived effort included the following:
- 0-2 out of 10: no effort/ weak effort/ just noticeable
- 3-4 out of 10: moderate to somewhat strong effort/ light exertion
- 5-6 out of 10: strong effort/ moderate to moderately heavy exertion
- 7-8 out of 10: very strong effort/ heavy exertion
- 9-10 out of 10: very, very strong effort/ near maximal exertion
NOTE: Working out in the moderate effort zone for sessions lasting generally no longer than one hour has been found to be the best long-term training strategy for maximizing benefits while avoiding over-training effects such as immune system impairment, hormonal disruption, injury, and exhaustion.
Adapt the workout, maintain the perceived effort goal
Participants during the study session were asked to workout while maintaining a perceived effort of 6 out of 10 for the workout session (Neto et al., 2020). The researchers instructed the athletes to go more slowly with the exercises or take longer breaks if their self-perceived efforts began to exceed a 6 out of 10. The advantage of using this system is that an athlete can adapt the workload up or down depending on how much accumulated fatigue they are experiencing.
Workout(s) feels easier than a 6 out of 10? Increase workload!!
The goal is to maintain strong efforts while avoiding strain, adjusting the workload according to the athlete’s current physiological state (Neto et al., 2020). If an athlete is sleeping well, eating well, and managing their stress, they may be able to:
- Increase training frequency (such as increasing training days from 3 to 4 or 5 days per week)
- Increase training intensity (such as increasing the weight lifted, shortening rest periods, or doing a more difficult exercise)
- Increase the training duration, though sessions should rarely exceed one hour at a time
Workout(s) feels harder than a 6 out of 10? Decrease workload!!
Conversely, if that athlete has suffered disruptions in their diet, sleep, stress loads, or simply has begun to accumulate excess fatigue from their training routine, maintaining THE SAME GOAL of a perceived effort of level 6 may require decreasing the workload. Adjustments may include:
- Decreased training frequency (going back to 3 or 4 days per week until recovery has occurred as manifested by increased workload tolerance)
- Decreased training intensity (allowing for longer break sessions, decreasing the weight lifted, or substituting a less demanding exercise in place of a difficult exercise)
- Decreased training duration (a workout may be shortened by doing less reps, less sets, or less exercises for example)
Summary: Benefits and challenges of using a self-perceived training scale
Unless you are an elite athlete, chances are you do not have ongoing access to in-the-moment lab testing used to measure athletes’ physiologic states. How often can you measure your own lactic acid levels, testosterone levels, cortisol levels, etc.? The great thing about the self-perceived training scale is that training can be adapted quite literally in the moment according to an athlete’s status.
Radical overhauls to training may be avoided. Simple tweaks to the program based on an athlete’s energy levels and mental state can be made up or down on a day to day basis while keeping perceived effort levels stable in the moderate- to strong-effort ranges. Conceivably, improvements can be sustained and set backs minimized, or avoided so long as other measures such as diet, sleep, and stress management are optimized.
As noted by researchers, there is a bit of a learning curve with the scale at first (Neto et al., 2020). It is easy to overrate or underrate your efforts. However, to an extent, you can usually tell if a workout is feeling excessively strenuous/ you are feeling more run down, versus noting a day when your energy levels are high and you are feeling strong and capable of performing at a higher level.
The researchers caution that the self-perceived scale alone may not be enough to prevent over-training (Neto et al., 2020). To assure you are staying in the moderate training zone, I cover additional research-backed tips here. Additional authors and trainers that tout monitoring your own internal cues to adapt your workouts day to day include Scott Abel and Jim Wendler. Try it out, let me know how it works for you! Live well! – Donovan
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Halson S. L. (2014). Monitoring training load to understand fatigue in athletes. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 44 Suppl 2(Suppl 2), S139–S147. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0253-z
Neto, J. H. F., Tibana, R. A., de Sousa, N. M. F., Prestes, J., Voltarelli, F. A., & Kennedy, M. D. (2020). Session Rating of Perceived Exertion Is a Superior Method to Monitor Internal Training Loads of Functional Fitness Training Sessions Performed at Different Intensities When Compared to Training Impulse. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 19. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00919
Nieman, D. C. & Wentz, L. M. (2019). The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 8(3), 201-217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009