Wellness and the Safety Line

The wellness of athletes is a coaching priority. If an athlete’s training regime causes an injury or breakdown in physical or mental health, then performance falls and the purpose of training is not achieved.

However, it is also a coaching priority to develop the performance capability of the athlete. This inevitably means that the training regime cannot stay constantly in a safe zone but must instead systematically progress to a higher training stimulus. It’s a basic training principle called progressive overload.

The trouble is that neither the athlete nor the coach really knows where to draw the safety line to preserve athlete wellness. As a result of personal experience as an athlete and a coach, I have come to view that safety line as a “knife-edge”. On one side, training may be safe but it does not provide sufficient stimulus to cause performance improvement. On the other side, the training stimulus is too punishing and the wellness of the athlete begins to deteriorate.

I have tended to describe the optimal place between under and overtraining as a knife-edge for perhaps two reasons. Firstly, it is a very narrow territory. On a session-by-session basis, the training load need only be increased by a small amount and potentially the safety line is crossed. The idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back” comes to mind. Secondly, the optimal training load is a knife-edge because it is sharp and hurts! It is not reality that the optimal training place is any sort of comfortable place. Improvement does not fall off the back of a truck, and the athlete must work very hard to earn it.

All a coach can do with each and every athlete is to tweak the training load and observe the effect. This involves watching for signs of injury like a hawk, asking questions about energy levels, pain, and general well-being, and assessing whether the training appears to have a positive effect on performance. It’s a bit like the medieval instrument of torture, the Thumbscrew. If the thumbscrew is turned slowly, the athlete may learn to cope better with the pain.

But on reflection, I have lately begun to question whether I am drawing the safety line in the right place. Maybe that’s because I am increasingly confident that the athletes I coach are coping well with the given training load, and injuries are few and far between. My tendency has been, in recent years, to pre-program athletes with relatively safe levels of training and then, in situ, adjust parameters upwards on a day-to-day basis. The justification for this approach is that it is better to see how the athlete performs rather than to blindly set difficult or damaging performance targets.

Typically, however, I find myself agreeing to or even encouraging athletes to exceed programmed training parameters on a daily basis. Among the more experienced athletes that I coach, there is perhaps a tacit understanding that programmed targets are just “first base”, not the ultimate target. Athletes can expect to add extra sets or go beyond intensity targets, sometimes significantly.

So is there anything wrong? I don’t really know! Perhaps I should be a little less risk-averse and toughen program targets, throw down the gauntlet” so to speak.

Well, in some ways I did just this with the most recent program. I arbitrarily increased the number of sets per exercise to 12 sets but stated that additional 3 sets were NOT mandatory. Although there were a few concerns over the extra time needed to complete the workout, athletes did what athletes tend to do, that is try to follow the program. Although it is just a piece of paper, the coach’s training program tends to be sacrosanct. Even though the extra three sets per exercise was optional, many athletes expressed feelings of compulsion to complete all sets. In one case, the athlete admitted to feeling “a bit deflated and dissatisfied” if all sets were not completed. For several athletes, the additional workload was just another target to be surpassed. Yet in another case, when the training volume was purposefully reduced, the athlete asked if it was alright to put the missing sets back.

This all leads me to think more about that safety line! Well, let’s see how it goes if the programmed intensity target is raised (athletes be warned!). However, I shall still be monitoring for wellness.