Internal and External Monitoring During Energy System Training

It seems like energy system training is a hot topic these days and one of the debates currently undertaking the profession is centered around the idea of programming workouts based on internal or external training factors.

For those that are unfamiliar with those terms, for the most part, external training loads are things that the athlete does in training (running/cycling pace, loads/intensities, sets, reps, GPS Data, etc) while internal training loads are the athletes response to training (HR response, session Rating of Perceived Exertion, subjective reporting of how they feel, etc).

The Argument

The argument stems from people basically taking sides as to which is more important when it comes to programming training:

  • Internal Monitoring – Programming based off of HR response or HR zones as a means of prescribing intensity.
  • External Monitoring - Programming based off of pace/velocity/Watts as a means prescribing intensity.

I believe there is value in both arguments.

On the one hand, prescribing based on pace/velocity/Watts is helpful because it is specific to a percentage of the athlete’s max output during the race/test they are being asked to perform. To improve that output it makes sense to train at certain percentages and slowly build up the capacity to set a new PR. This is similar to lifting weights based on a percentage of your 1RM as a means of attempting to increase your capacity to handle greater loads.

On the other hand, prescribing based on HR response can be helpful because it allows you to understand how that athlete is tolerating training “under the hood”. There is always a cost of doing business when we train. Some athletes can pay back that cost and recover faster than others. One thing internal training monitoring, in this case HR response, does is help us understand what that potential cost is and dial down the workout (or dial it up) based on how the individual is responding.

Why Not Both?

Why does it have to be an either or discussion? Like most disagreements in our profession topics tend to get polarized very fast and people chose sides. I think the true answer probably lies somewhere in the middle – most of the time.

I try and think about energy system training from both sides of the equation as both can be informative. I find great value in programming running or cycling workouts based on velocity or Watts as it is very specific to what the athlete is supposed to accomplish for a given time frame or workload. However, I find a huge benefit in also evaluating the internal response the athlete has to that training session.

For example, prescribing interval runs at 85% allows me to dictate the intensity of the session from an output side of things. Evaluating HR response lets me know a few things:

  1. The individuals response to the workout – 85% may produce very different HR responses from different athletes.
  2. Any atypical response the athlete may have - If I start to understand what a normal response is for that athlete to certain workouts I can then begin to understand (a) how much to load the athlete to get a certain result and (b) when the athlete may be fatigued or producing an atypical HR response to an intensity that should not be as challenging to them.
  3. Potential Aerobic Improvements - Sort of piggybacking off of point 2, if the athlete begins to have a favorable physiological response to the prescribed intensity (IE, it is less difficult or the cost of performing that given workout is decreased while performance has increased) this may signal time for a change or perhaps a re-test of the athletes fitness level.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to monitor an athlete’s training session. While people tend to chose sides I believe their is a benefit to looking at both external and internal variables when prescribing energy system training. As technology begins to offer us the ability to capture just about anything and everything I still contend that a good, detailed training log is one of the most valuable things an athlete can keep (it is also relatively free save for the cost of a pen and notebook). Charting simple things like training intensity and physiological response overtime can provide the coach with a quick understanding of how the athlete is tolerating the stress of training and whether or not changes to the program need to be made.

Book Review: The Science of Running by Steve Magness

I have been traveling a ton lately and for me that means long plane rides and lots of time to read. One book I just finished reading is Steve Magness’ “The Science of Running: How to find your limit and train to maximize your performance”. Steve is a really knowledgeable coach, currently the Head Cross Country Coach at the University of Houston, who writes one of the blogs I frequent on a regular basis, Science of Running.  Seriously, if you haven’t checked out Steve’s blog you need to head over and do so. It has some fantastic content regarding running and physiology.

I’ll start by saying that the book is one of the best books I have read on the topic of distance running. Most distance running books tend to gloss over key details and get right into the cookie cutter approach of the training template that the author has put together. This book is very different. Steve spends a significant number of chapters going into the scientific details of his approach to training runners. The first thirteen chapters are heavily focused on scientific information and coaches of all sports (not just running) would benefit from reading through the first section of this book as the information is helpful for training athletes in various sports.

The second half of the book is dedicated to training and takes the reader through everything they need to know about setting up their own training program to address their needs as a runner. For those who are not coaches, but rather recreational runners looking to improve their performance, the second half of the book is extremely beneficial and user friendly (even if you gloss over all the scientific stuff in the first part of the book which is basically there to answer the question of “Why you are doing certain things in your program”).

Aside from his obvious love of reading research what I like most about how Steve approaches things is that he is a coach first. Steve talks about many of the limitations of applying strictly researched methods to the real world and discusses how he uses the research he reads to build to his model. The other thing that stands out to me about this book is that it is not a cookie cutter training program. Most running books are set up to provide the reader with a stock 3K, 5K, 10K, 1/2 Marathon, and Marathon program. Steve discusses why this is a poor approach and talks significantly about classifying runners based on fiber types, performance, and the race they are training for. Writing programs is not as simple as just filling in a template. While it may be the most time efficient approach (filling in a template is much faster than actually looking at test results, asking questions about the individual you are programming for, and structuring something that is specific to them) I agree with Steve 100% that there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when writing a training program and it is not a simple task as many make it out to be (this may be a blog post for another time). The second half of the book goes over everything you need to know to write your own training program – testing/evaluation, training methods, periodization/planning, strength training, and even the biomechanics of running.

I can’t recommend this book enough for coaches of all sports, not just distance running. The information in this book will get coaches thinking and perhaps asking more questions of themselves when it comes time to write training programs for their athletes. For $20 you can’t go wrong with The Science of Running.

Finding your passion: What do you want your legacy to be?

This past weekend I had the pleasure of heading up to Vancouver, Canada to lecture at the NSCA Vancouver Seminar with a great group of presenters. On Sunday, my friend and colleague, Nick Winkelman, and I stayed an extra day to do a few lectures to a group of University students up there who are all aspiring strength coaches, physical therapists, personal trainers, etc. Both days were great and it is always good to be a part of an event where other greater presenters are talking about things they are passionate about.

In lecturing to the students on Day 2 one of the main things I wanted to convey to them, before getting into my topic, was the importance of going on the journey of finding what they are passionate about. Nick discussed similar things and we actually talked about this over dinner one night with another friend/colleague, Dr. Greg DuManoir, professor of Exercise Physiology and University of British Columbia – Kelowna. Nick and I started in the field around the same time and I lived in Phoenix while he was developing his approach to training at, what was then, called Athletes’ Performance now called Exos. He said over dinner that he thought it was interesting to see the paths that both of us took from trying to start out as strength coaches and figure what is important in the field and in our respective systems to ultimately finding the topic(s) we are most passionate about and then doing a deep dive into those topic. I couldn’t agree more. Nick’s comment was, “In this field, I believe it is important that people go through the process of obtaining knowledge and being generalists in all things general – exercise physiology, biomechanics, coaching, nutrition, etc – and then, as they grow, find out what they are most interested in and become specifically focused on that.”

I got many questions from students that weekend centered around, “What should I do when I graduate?” Most were unsure if they wanted to go to more school, go to physiotherapy school, try and be a strength coach, go to massage school, etc. My answer is always the same, “I don’t know what you want to do or what you love to do so I can’t answer that for you.”

The statement I always make is:

  1. Know what you know.
  2. Be great at what you know.
  3. Know what you don’t know.
  4. Know enough about what you don’t know that you can surround yourself with people that can help you fill in the blanks.

Find that thing you are passionate about and be great at it. Know about all the other stuff (be a generalist) and then get people in the room and form a team that can help each other out and fill in the blanks. As my friend Charlie Weingroff recently wrote, “A legitimate High Performance Staff. Everybody can be the Head at one point, but everybody is always everybody’s assistant.”

It isn’t about trying to master everything under the sun. It is about trying to be great at whatever you are passionate about. What do you want your legacy to be? How would you like people to remember you? Whatever it is, if you want to be a great strength coach, researcher, physical therapist, chiropractor, doctor, nutritionist, massage therapist, etc. It doesn’t matter! Find that thing that wakes you up in the morning and spend your life trying to get better at that. Chances are you will have a lot more fun that way.

Strength & Conditioning Round Table Interview – Nick Winkelman, Charlie Weingroff, & Patrick Ward

Just wanted to let everyone know I had the pleasure of being interviewed on the Sports Rehab Expert Strength and Conditioning Roundtable with my two friends/colleagues Nick Winkelman and Charlie Weingroff.

Because of the difficulty in trying to get all three of our schedules aligned Nick and Charlie were interviewed first and then I had to do mine on a separate day (answering the same questions). The main topic we covered was new trends in strength and conditioning and where we see the field going in the coming years.

CLICK HERE to listen to the interview.

Doing Simple Things Well

This morning I read a nice article, 5 Ways to Use Data to Recover From Injury, which did a great job taking the reader through some simple applications of data we may collect as coaches, strength coaches, or rehabilitation professionals.

In today’s sports world of data collection and player monitoring it seems like many coaches in North America are chasing technology and trying to monitor everything without having a good system for making sense of it all. Which leads me to the title of today’s article, “Doing Simple Things Well.”

Like training, it is typically more effective to do a few simple things really well than try and do a number of things poorly (or mediocre).  I always say, in training, try and pick just a few exercises that you want your athletes to get good at and hammer those. Really learn to do them well before you start adding more exercises and making things more complex. With data collection it is the same thing. Do a few things really well before adding more things to collect and potentially overwhelming yourself with more information and excel spreadsheets that you can’t seem to make sense of.

One of the easiest things to collect is questionnaire data. Questionnaire data has been found to be a valid marker of internal training load, it costs pretty much nothing, and it is easy to set up and create a process around.

The questionnaire that we use comes from the research of McClean & Coutts (Int J Sports Phys Perf 2010):


The athlete will take the questionnaire in the morning upon waking (typically after taking their Omegawave reading if they are doing that as well) and the information comes back to me in a spreadsheet that allows me to make adjustments, if needed, to training on that day. The sheet looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 10.28.11 AMThe color coding allows us to quickly evaluate how the athlete is doing and offer the athlete immediate feedback or ask more questions and dig a little deeper into what may be going on. This sheet extends to the right for several columns and includes many of the factors we frequently track. By centralizing the data in one sheet it allows us to evaluate the different parameters against each other and be more descriptive with the athlete or coach regarding what is going on.

Additionally, following training/practice we use a BORG-CR10 Scale to determine how difficult the athlete rated the session (session Rating of Perceived Exertion or sRPE, for short). We take this sRPE number and multiply it by the session duration, in minutes, to achieve a simple training load (in arbitrary units) for that session.

While it may not sound like much and certainly isn’t as exciting as GPS read outs and things like that (we get those as well) this simple approach can be very meaningful and impactful to the athlete, coach, and the training program. Best of all, it costs nothing to implement so there really shouldn’t be an excuse of, “Our team doesn’t have the money to monitor players”.

We need to do the simple things first and we need to do the simple things well.