By Zach Dechant
The use of autoregulation in training is a hot topic these days. Anything that accounts for the individual athlete against the masses can often be a step in the right direction. Adaptations are completely individual, and a case can always be made for planning and programming geared to the individual. Creating programs based on readiness allows each athlete to progress at their own rate. But like anything, autoregulating an athlete’s training may not always be an optimal solution.
Not every situation is ideal for autoregulation, nor is every athlete. There are advantages and disadvantages to every programming factor under the sun. What works for one may not work for another. Many roads lead to Rome when it comes to the training process and autoregulation is one of those roads.
Consider the Athlete and Their Stressors
The body doesn’t differentiate stressors. The stress response is the same regardless of the stimulus. Training on a pre-programmed plan that allows for little deviation does not take the human factor into account. At the University of Missouri, Dr. Bryan Mann showed that athletes are just as prone to injury and sickness during periods of high academic stress as they are during periods of intense training.1 What separates us from the animals, as Robert Sapolsky writes, is the stressors we put on ourselves and their manifestations.2Autoregulating training programs lets us consider stressors and adjust to individual adaptation. Click To Tweet
Each athlete responds to stressors differently, including training, travel, competition, family, and life in general. Autoregulating training programs for an individual allows us to consider those stressors and adjust to the way an athlete is prepared to adapt at the current moment. Listening to and accommodating the body may be just as important as training itself.
Training when the body isn’t currently capable of adaptation can guide athletes down a road of incomplete recovery and eventual breakdown. Buddy Morris has said on more than one occasion that “the athlete’s body is always right.” Listening to the athlete and what their body is saying is an important answer when it comes to the question of programming.
Professional athletes may have the best case for a fully autoregulated program. Long, grueling in-seasons with few days off are a recipe to listen to the readiness of each athlete. If you’ve ever worked with pro athletes, they are very much the CEO of their brand. Allowing them the freedom to adjust training based on their individual readiness during an in-season period can be an important aspect to longevity. Many pro athletes are incredibly familiar with their body’s response to training programs. They know what they need to be ready to play in their given sport.
Late night competitions and red-eye travel can wreak havoc on an athlete’s body. At the core of this is the fact that a professional athlete’s only career is just that…being an athlete. Their sport is why they train. Everything outside of that is truly general in nature and stress management becomes key. Their skill doesn’t depend on or require that they bench press, deadlift, or squat more. Durability is the best ability and an athlete that is fatigued is exponentially more prone to breakdowns.
Travel can be incredibly stressful on the human body. During a typical MLB season, teams frequently play anywhere from 15 to 20+ games in a row without a day off. Travelling to another city can often be an overnight red-eye flight or even worse. Double-digit hour bus trips are weekly occurrences for minor league baseball and basketball athletes.Durability is the best ability; listening to what an athlete’s body is saying is the best answer. Click To Tweet
Imagine a 10-year veteran in the MLB or NBA on a five- or 10-game road swing being asked to do trap bar deadlifts based on training that was programmed three weeks before. Hitting 85% on the trap bar deadlift most likely isn’t the answer. Recovery, or even just simply rest, may be the most pressing need at any given time. Listening to what their body is saying is the real answer.
Not every pro athlete collects a million-dollar paycheck. Track athletes often face the challenge of trying to make a living off their winnings week to week. Many train, hold full-time jobs off the track, and may also have a family to support. The stressors only increase when the training and competitions all revolve around work and family schedules. Training that doesn’t account for these external demands sells the athlete short.
Amateur athletes, depending on their training level, can face just as many, if not more, stressors. Due to the increased demands these athletes undergo, the benefits autoregulation can provide are easy to recognize. Stressors are different at every level of competition. While a paid athlete’s focus may be family, sport, and their brand, amateur athletes have classes, exams, and grades to worry about, on top of playing their sport. And let’s not forget about weekends for college athletes.
The stress many of their bodies undergo from an altered sleep routine and not living right can be every bit as significant as their weekly routine. Every athlete that steps onto a college campus for the first time is absolutely swamped stress-wise. Where they were once a big fish in a small pond, many are thrust into a seemingly endless ocean. The sport they used to dominate often becomes extremely difficult again. Accommodating training for amateur athletes can play an important role in keeping them injury-free and on the right path athletically. Injuries will derail progress, and training too much or too hard when the athlete is unprepared to adapt can spell disaster.
All of us as coaches will or have already hit the day when we don’t recover as fast as we once did There is a point where every athlete struggles to handle the volume or intensity they were used to. The use of a form of fluid periodization that adapts to current readiness can be key in keeping older athletes healthy, and delaying retirement as age progresses. Each day we get a different athlete. Listening to what their body is saying is vital in the training process.
During periods of competition, autoregulation may very well be the best means of accounting for periods of necessary recovery. The demands of fully competitive sport add another dimension to the roles of the weight room and all supplemental training. For in-season athletes spread across a large team, demands can be quite varied. One athlete may have played a full game, another athlete for only fractions of time, and yet another didn’t even touch the field.During competition, autoregulation may be the best way to account for periods of necessary recovery. Click To Tweet
It becomes difficult to judge fatigue over the entirety of the team and employ non-individualized training when demands are so varied. In-season isn’t just about the actual training, either. Recovery from competition can play just as important, if not more significant, of a role. Building a program based on readiness in-season allows for individualized development centered on each player’s role.
In all these instances, it becomes easy to overload the body with too much and leave little room for adaptation to training. When the body is under large amounts of stress, training at full intent can be counterproductive. Training through depleted reserves leaves the body unable to make adaptations that coaches may believe are taking place. Conversely, when the mood hits and all factors line up, athletes can blow a training session out of the water. Waiting for these opportunities and taking advantage of them when they occur can be huge for overall development.
If the body isn’t ready for what it is about to do, then why do it? When the organism won’t respond to the current training, why train? We want the body to adapt and compensate to higher levels. If adaptation isn’t going to take place, then we merely drive the body into a further stressed mode with less chance to catch up. Many of the stresses athletes and coaches face are uncontrollable.
The reality is an inherent amount of flexibility should exist in the programming to account for the uncontrollable factors of stress. No two athletes respond to stress the same way, so to be optimal, individualization of the training process based on readiness should exist within each athlete’s training. As coaches, we cannot control all the factors outside of their sport, therefore we must control what we can, which is the training process.Any programming should have some flexibility, to account for the uncontrollable factors of stress. Click To Tweet
I’ve seen firsthand that autoregulation can make athletes much more aware of their bodies and habits. Improved results in the weight room attest to the fact that when an athlete takes care of their body, results tend to increase. When an athlete feels well, they train well.
Monitoring readiness with technology can influence athletes to live a better lifestyle as well. When athletes see the results of improved sleep, many make a conscious effort to administer better bedtime habits. The same goes for an athlete who notices that drinking alcohol greatly disrupts their recovery scores.
Dr. Mann was one of the most recent coaches to popularize the use of a form of autoregulated training known as the APRE. While at Missouri, he showed that using the APRE performed well when compared with pre-programmed loads with Division I football athletes on the clean, squat, and bench press.
In a more extensive study, Eric Korem and Christopher Morris showed the effects of autoregulated training on collegiate football athletes at the University of Kentucky.3 Over the course of an eight-week summer training block, a controlled group of players followed a pre-programmed plan, while another group autoregulated the entire training plan based on the daily readiness of the athlete. The results spoke for themselves in that the autoregulated plan produced greater improvements in all performance measurements, all while using a decreased training load.
These were not the first times that autoregulation has shown to be an effective method of development. Back in 1999, Dr. Starodubtsev studied the effects of autoregulated training versus a control group over a year period in middle distance runners.4 Significant performance increases resulted for the experimental autoregulated training group in both the 800m and 3000m runs. These studies all magnify the possible importance of adjusting training programs based upon the daily readiness of athletes.
The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
While autoregulation can be a very effective method for adjusting training plans, there are just as many instances where using an autoregulated program or exercise may not be optimal. Trust, training age, and even the goals of the session, and/or training block all play a role. Many coaches would agree that autoregulating training loads is generally for more advanced athletes only. Not every situation is appropriate for the use of autoregulated means.
Lazy Athletes Will Use It Against You
It is best to use autoregulating training sessions with athletes that have achieved a certain level of trust. Athletes that aren’t training warriors will use your own advancements against you. Knowing they only have to do what their body feels like doing, they can treat their body however they want. This might include staying out late, partying, and drinking, knowing full well they won’t necessarily be asked to perform. Many athletes with this knowledge may push boundaries.
Coaches at the NCAA level are often required to train athletes in the early hours of the morning due to facility availability, practice, and class schedules. While this may not always be optimal, it can help curb late night activities that may otherwise go somewhat unnoticed with afternoon training sessions. In an autoregulated non-linear program, it may be possible to throw the system in lieu of keeping up with late night activities. While sleep bands and newer technology may help in this endeavor, the vast majority of programs don’t have this level of technology and may rely on simple questionnaires to adjust training.
We can’t always trust young athletes to make the right choices. If we could, we would have no need for the assistance of sports dieticians. Don’t kid yourself into thinking an athlete won’t use your autoregulated program against you at some point.
As coaches, we got into physical performance enhancement because we believed and understood the importance of training outside of a chosen sport. However, a large percentage of athletes don’t care about the necessary physical development outside of their given sport. Many are in athletics to play their sport and often care little about anything else to assist it. Yes, it’s our job to educate them so they understand how we can help, but the fact remains that many athletes don’t like the training that becoming a high-level athlete requires.
The APRE is a common, easily implemented form of autoregulation within a training session itself. Most coaches would agree that the APRE is a great tool at various times throughout yearly training. However, the APRE can fail with an unmotivated athlete. I wouldn’t generally believe it myself, but I’ve heard firsthand stories from former athletes who would do the minimum amount of reps so they didn’t have to increase weight in a given cycle. This can happen with athletes across the entire spectrum.
Several female coaches I’ve visited have seen these exact problems as coaches and as athletes. They reported that many female athletes equated going up on reps and weight on the APRE with getting bulkier, and these athletes didn’t want to gain muscle. We need education in these instances, but the fact remains that programming autoregulated workloads can fail at times.
The Shine Wears Off
Talking with other coaches, it’s not day 1 of an athlete having the ability to adjust their own training where problems being to occur—it’s day 20, day 30, etc. An athlete that wants to be lazy has an excuse, and one excuse can turn into many down the road. Letting an athlete have a hand in what they will and won’t do can turn into a nightmare with those who aren’t mature enough to handle the responsibility of dictating their own training.If an athlete isn’t mature enough to direct their own training, autoregulation can be a nightmare. Click To Tweet
Collegiate and professional alike will gravitate towards their own inclination. What started out as accommodating to their bodies can become giving into them and a mentality of laziness. Allowing athletes to determine their own workout deep into the doldrums of a season is when you get kids laying on foam rollers like it’s their pillow. Excitement abounds the first two weeks into a new program, but give them an inch and some will eventually take a mile.
Gains Require Stress
Often, you need to push athletes out of their comfort zone. You need to push them into and beyond their boundaries so they are aware what their body is capable of. If they aren’t pushed, are they truly able to fully develop? If we assessed readiness for every collegiate athlete that walked in the door in the first month on campus, we wouldn’t train once. They’re out of their comfort zone and stressed from a new school, new friends, newly regimented schedules, early mornings, heavy class loads, etc.
Autoregulation that focuses only on minimum effective dose can often create a weak, lazy mentality. If we allowed mood to dictate training, some athletes would never take the bar out of the rack. Intensity can be both the benefactor and pariah of autoregulation. Allowing athletes to direct some or all of their training can destroy training intensity.
The status quo is where a large majority of the population wants to stay. An athlete in an autoregulated program may choose to stay in a comfort zone more than not, and it’s hard for a coach to argue when you leave it in the athlete’s hands to control their program for the day. When it’s based on the athlete, it can become difficult for the coach to say, “This is how you feel today.”
Let’s not forget that adaptation requires stress. Stressing the body isn’t always easy but neither is being great. Gains take overload, especially in intermediate and advanced athletes. If we are going to dictate change then we have to stimulate it. Some guys will not openly push themselves. We often need a high stimulus to create new levels of adaptation.
Novice and Untrained Athletes Might Not Need It
With novice or untrained athletes, autoregulation can be unnecessary. Novice athletes respond to virtually any training in a positive manner. Novices will get stronger every session for months on end. Many believe that the novice doesn’t recover as quickly as more advanced athletes, but I would make the case that the opposite is true. Novices are unable to generate high intensity like their advanced counterparts, and so recover much quicker.
Don’t waste a new trainee’s first several years listening to how their body feels. The gains they make during those first few years will be unmatched compared to the rest of their career. Force-feed them until they stall and the need for higher training means becomes necessary.
It’s Not Always Gospel
I utilized HRV as a tool on myself while training exclusively in the Olympic lifts for a long period of time. During that time, I utilized several philosophies from Eastern Bloc countries. At various points, I trained using the Bulgarian system of solely competition lifts with many max efforts per week. I also tried the Soviet system based around submaximal percentages with the use of many assistance exercises.
Early in my HRV days, I let my score determine how I felt without truthfully assessing my own readiness. A red day told me I was sluggish and wouldn’t benefit from training. It meant that day I would be taking it easy with some sort of cardiac restorative session. After many months of observation with HRV, I experimented with staying with what I had programmed for the day instead of basing my training around my HRV. I found that on red days, I could often easily train with intensity.
Throughout those training years, there were multiple times my best performances came on days when my HRV was depressed. In fact, on multiple occasions, PRs came on days my HRV score was in the red. I hit all-time PRs on competitive lifts when I previously wouldn’t have even trained that day. I realized I had to take some of these methods of dictating readiness with a grain of salt. Driveline Baseball, in Seattle, has found similar correlations with pitchers’ readiness scores and throwing programs. HRV scores and new personal bests didn’t always have a high correlation in their findings.
Performances Don’t Wait Until You Feel Good
Athletes are required to perform. They don’t get to pick and choose when they play. When competition day arrives, be ready or be left behind. Starting pitchers are a great example. They don’t have the option to not throw on a given day because their readiness score reads low or because they don’t feel their best. Regardless of how they feel, athletes must still compete on game day. If we overeducate an athlete so that when they aren’t at 100% or aren’t feeling great they must adjust their training session or not train altogether, what happens when competition day rolls around with that same perception?
One of the issues that we strength professionals have to be aware of is how athletes react to monitoring. Using technology to track readiness could weigh heavily on their mind in the days leading up to competition. How does it play in an athlete’s mind when they report a low score or receives feedback of a low score leading up to game day? Does this automatically give them pause on how they will perform later that day? I’ve known athletes on every team I’ve coached that would be mentally wrecked by seeing this. Athletes may trick themselves into thinking they feel much worse than they really do when they see a low score.When they see a low readiness score, athletes may begin to believe they feel worse than they do. Click To Tweet
They may already have a negative attitude before they step foot into the arena. Doubt and worry over the expectation of a bad day may creep into their mind. Anybody who has played sports at a high level knows you don’t always feel your best on game day. Does this now give athletes an excuse as to why they might not play well? Regardless of how they feel, they still have to compete.
If the only thing we can control is our attitude, what happens to our attitude when low monitoring scores are present? How much do readiness and mood correlate? Does a low HRV score or sleep score automatically put us in a worse mood and have a placebo effect on the rest of our activities? Do we actually “believe ourselves” into feeling worse than we really do because we saw a low number? How many times have we, as athletes or coaches, not felt our best at the start of a warmup but ended up having a phenomenal training session?
We don’t always have to drop a session because we don’t feel at our best. This happens to all athletes at one time or another. Our mood may be poor at the start of a training session, but once moving, our body starts to respond very positively. Training your body to respond when it doesn’t necessarily feel like it can be an important factor as well. There will be times when a body must perform, whether an athlete feels like it or not.
In baseball, pitchers are well known for throwing phenomenal games on days they felt terrible in the bullpen before taking the mound. Low expectations often produce all-time bests. Talk with anybody in the sport and you’ll find this is a regularity. The opposite often holds true too: When pitchers report feeling their best, they often get shellacked.
Overreaching Can Be Useful
There are certainly times for overreaching within athletic development. There are times when an athlete needs to build resistance to fatigue. During off-season periods prior to competitions, it can be beneficial to implement intense training sessions with minimal use of recovery means. Implementing training loads with incomplete recovery demands greater mobilization of the adaptive resources and enables the expansion of the range of functional capacities.
Spring break is one of those times in the collegiate setting that can allow for overtraining. Cal Dietz has regularly talked about overreaching his off-season athletes, knowing the extended time off will allow for a form of super-compensation when they step back on campus.
The Eastern Bloc coaches believed highly in concentrated loading periods of overreaching. These highly stressful training periods were followed by lower volume and/or intensity blocks for realization. Yuri Verkhoshansky was one of the of forefathers of extended, overreaching periods that led to incredible new highs in speed-strength many weeks later. Raising advanced athletes’ levels of development requires massive amounts of adaptation energy. While autoregulation can aid in this process, the opposite is also true, and necessary at times.
Grinder Athletes: The Flip Side of Lazy
All coaches have the grinder athlete who will absolutely never take the easy road. Autoregulating their training sessions can become next to impossible. They often take pride in pushing themselves in the weight room regardless of how they feel. Our goal for them must be educating them on why autoregulation is not the easy road, but the smart road. Chances are most of us in the strength and conditioning profession were the same way as athletes, and that’s possibly how we came to be coaches. We trained harder than those around us.We must teach the “grinder” athlete that autoregulation is the smart road, not an easy or lazy road. Click To Tweet
These athletes will never listen to their body for fear of taking the easy road. They come in with a “more is better” mentality and push themselves to the max at every opportunity. These kids need education to associate autoregulating their training program with training smart and not with being lazy. The recovery process and lighter training sessions are just as important a means as the more intense, nervous system dominant days. At the same time, we must not cripple their ability to train intensely by swinging the pendulum too far the other way.
Decide for Yourself Based on the Needs of the Program
The question on whether to use autoregulation often comes down to several factors. You need to consider trust, as well as the training age of your athletes. Another consideration is the use and availability of technology, as it can help take some of the guesswork out of autoregulating training. There are a multitude of inexpensive methods to help coaches in this endeavor.The use of autoregulation comes down to many factors, including trust, training age, and technology. Click To Tweet
Whether autoregulation is part of a training session or is the program itself, adjusting workloads to the individual athlete can be an important element in overall athletic development. Coaches must weigh the advantages and disadvantages that come with autoregulation and make an educated decision on its use.
- Mann, Bryan. “A Programming Comparison: the APRE vs. Linear Periodization in Short Term Periods.” Dissertation. University of Missouri-Columbia, 2011.
- Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers:St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
- Morris, Christopher W. “The Effect of Fluid Periodization on Athletic Performance Outcomes in American Football Players” (2015). Theses and Dissertations–Kinesiology and Health Promotion. 24.
- V. Starodubtsev. “Individualization of athletic training for middle-and long-distance runners based on criteria of special preparation.” Dissertation. Pediatric Science. Omsk, 1999.