By Carl Valle
While the concept of training only as much as necessary is a great mantra, a good idea can be twisted the wrong way. Results are the ultimate test, and we don’t always need to spend years experimenting to draw conclusions. This piece is a critical thinking exercise without the esoteric philosophy; it’s not about training volume. Lately, many training concepts look great during a PowerPoint presentation during the weekend but are ineffective on Monday when you apply them. What sounds good also needs to work well. If you’re truly interested in auditing modern training concepts, this blog covers the most popular discussions.
The Psychological Pitfalls of Minimalism
Keeping things “simple”? This is a dangerous concept that’s craved by many but causes problems when coaches try to implement it in the real world. Simplicity in design is misleading. We can quote Steve Jobs and reference Nobel Prize-winning scientists, but if what they did was truly simple, we would all be running Apple or onstage winning awards. The truth is that only a sliver of what happens is distilled to create a simple solution. A lot of complex work and time goes into making something appear simple. Simple, like minimal effective dose, is perhaps misleading in its appearance. Many great accomplishments have come from talented people working obsessively; very few achieve great things with casual effort and little time.Minimum effective dose comes from the unhealthy fear of overtraining, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The concept of minimum effective dose is very similar to “keeping it simple,” but it is different. I love simple when it benefits training. Minimum effective dose comes from the unhealthy fear of overtraining. It’s a concept that avoids a problem that doesn’t occur as often as people think. I’ll take the blame for the recovery hype from my old regeneration lab blog 15 years ago and my overreaction to overtraining problems of the past. It doesn’t matter.
Rather than worrying so much about sleep and recovery today, we need to be firm about compliance and evaluation of those who put in the effort to rest and eat properly. If we had a little more of an iron fist with the principles, we would see less bending of team rules and have more recovery concepts in place. Rest and nutrition help all athletes regardless of their training, but those who train hard and long will see more reward, which creates an advantage.Athletes who train hard and long will reap more reward, which creates an advantage, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Athletes now are scared to overtrain when they shouldn’t even be aware of the concept. When coaches tell too many ghost stories, the kids start seeing ghosts. Everyone worries about overtraining, but they cheer when they hear the words reliance and robust. We can’t have it both ways. I’m not recommending a path of excess to learn how much load an athlete can tolerate. I’m saying that undertraining is a problem with kids and modern society. Examples are adding movement variability and random exercises that resemble a musical using weight training equipment and drills that look like an aerobics class.
Athletes who have no work capacity at the end of a season have nothing to taper from. And they likely lack confidence when they know their counterparts put in more time and are ready to rebound from planned rest. You can’t taper off from microdosing; it doesn’t work that way. (I’ll get into microdosing later). Athlete confidence comes from their knowledge of how they respond to hard challenges and knowing whether they’re tired and what they can do.
What if other areas in our life were minimal, such as load wires for bridges and building foundations? Would you be as excited? I find it amazing how much buzz a minimalist program has regarding volume and training elements, yet we don’t find the same enthusiasm in other areas of our world. Volume and intensity complicate training, as minimum effective dose in training focuses on strength and speed rather than endurance training. There aren’t too many elite marathoners running 30 miles a week—most are in marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge’s 110- to 120-mile range. Admittedly, endurance is not a great example. The point is that we need to be realistic about achieving goals with the right amount of intensity and volume.Instead of using dose-response, we should move toward the concept of performance rehearsal and modeling to win more often, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Instead of using dose-response all the time, maybe we should move toward the concept of rehearsal and modeling for performance to win more often. I find it strange that in 2019 we still don’t see any planning or training theory that addresses volume better. We focus on the composition of the training blocks and the nuances of themes, phases, and transitions but not on concrete intensities and volumes. I don’t mean to view training in terms of only one or two variables; we need more research and discussion on how much and how hard rather than observations of how athletes may get injured using machine learning and other analysis techniques. I’m all for artificial intelligence, but humans design the software, and we need to create a more intelligent design first.
Is “Optimizing” Killing Athlete Development?
We now see a huge rush to apply elite sports science concepts to youth development, and we don’t expose the modern athlete to truly challenging training. Optimal load is easy to see for one exercise or even a session; for a career, I’m suspicious. The idea of an optimal load is used in isolation for research and rarely accounts for other variables. That’s a big problem.The idea of optimal load is isolated for research & rarely accounts for other variables. That's a big problem, says @spikesonly. #optimalload Click To Tweet
Athletes need to adapt to the realities of what can be expected in a competition, such as double overtime in the playoffs and sprints without a soft-tissue therapist warming them up. It seems athletes are more fragile than ever. I think athletes are scared to get hurt because their trainers smell like fear when the bar bends or when the sprints get fast. An athlete may improve by doing a set of plyometrics, but if their teammates are trying to dunk, their resulting adrenaline levels likely help average kids to do amazing things.Athletes are too comfortable because there's so much overreaction to the fear of injury, says @spikesonly. #optimalload Click To Tweet
I don’t want to push an agenda where we go back to training that looks like never-ending conditioning, but I see so much overreaction to fears of injury that athletes are too comfortable. Some programs may succeed by barely challenging a kid or athlete just to keep them participating. Optimal is not better; optimal is an effective option most of the time. It’s not much better to always stay put in the middle just because minimum dose is polarized at one end of the spectrum.
Coaches must navigate through the continuum of loads and methods and use the right dose, not just the philosophical one. Sometimes athletes need a bit of randomness to stimulate a nervous system thirsty for novelty or change. While I don’t recommend skipping workouts, occasionally a day off after a monster workout is better than two “effective” sessions.
The Differences in True Limits and Arbitrary Thresholds
High school runner Matt Bolling presents an interesting case of doing the wrong thing and getting great results. He ran a sub-ten (albeit windy) this year in the 100m. His volume and intensity don’t seem very contemporary, but his results are spectacular; he’s pushing his body and running world-class times.
While other programs may boast fast times, he’s the best in the country in multiple events, and his program is not likely limiting him. One could say his talent makes the program look better than it is, or the coaching system is a factor waiting to happen. I don’t know, but he’s jumping far and running blazing times. It’s easy to say what he should be doing, but unless we have a fleet of 10.1 sprinters year after year, we must be cautious basing what we should do on an athlete we know very little about.
And while we can test the true limit of an adult Achilles tendon using cadavers, how do we know that person was maximized or even healthy? I’m not trying to push a human tendon that far, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. Here’s an example: I was watching one high-performance track program use depth jumps from heights I wasn’t very comfortable with. If I did the reactive strength index on these athletes, the results would be off the charts; their minds saw a humanly possible task—not what I, as a coach, considered improbable.Removing arbitrary loading patterns frees us to think about what's great for the athlete and not what looks good on paper, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
How many coaches prescribe seven or nine reps in weight training? Removing arbitrary loading patterns can free us to think about what’s great for the athlete as opposed to what looks good on paper. Neat volumes, small and large, also are common. For example, how many programs do 20 x 100 meters for swimming and tempo, but why not 21 or 3 x 20? Minimum effective doses make an athlete better, but does it make them they the best they can be? An athlete may fatigue and not get faster after a few sprints, but they may learn to be more consistent in their acceleration pattern, which would be valuable down the road. Who really knows?
Maximum Safe Dose and Breakthroughs
It’s ok to push an athlete and hammer down from time to time. Most sessions need to be sane and safe, but when an athlete advances, “shock” workouts can help them bust through training plateaus. Chronic optimal training becomes monotonous in a way. Athletes who stay in a very safe play zone, where everything is neat and tidy, often are unfamiliar with the extreme demands of elite competition.
I’m not advocating junk mileage or junk reps using volume for a cheap result; I’m suggesting we need to know the range of work an athlete can tolerate so we can toe the line more. Exposing athletes to a maximum safe dose gives a coach more options when using popular small doses.
Take Steph Curry, for example. Look at the work he’s done before and after games and practices since he was in college—far more than typical shooting. Now he’s on a path to the hall of fame. Not everyone, of course, responds this way. Some athletes need repetition or more exposure, so their optimal may be far more than average. Tiger Woods is another difficult-to-decipher example. He’s been plagued with injuries and serves as a poster child of the pros and cons for specialization. He recently won a PGA Masters again, overcoming an array of surgeries to do so. Roger Federer is the opposite case. He has played many years with a lot of tennis under his belt as a child. We can’t use averages or minimums with every athlete.
Breakthroughs can happen by forcing your body to adapt to stress. I don’t recommend this, but as Steve Magness said about “going to the well,” you need to push your physiology to overcome the guarding of homeostasis. For world-class performance, you eventually need a world-class workout. We can’t stay in the world of fantasy sessions that are grinding battles, but we can find ways to go faster and more explosive by raising the intensity. I fear that coaches think breakthrough workouts mean only turning on the switch and jumping progressive overload.We need to keep progressing the demands on our athletes even when the loads look scary, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
My point is that we need to keep progressing the demands when the loads look scary. What was fearful in the past has become the new normal. Fifty years ago, a golfer squatting 150 kilos would have been frightening. Now it’s common among long-driving athletes. In a decade, we’ll see all players lifting like speed and power athletes. Baseball is another example. How players look and train today is hardly the same as in the 1970s.
Has Microdosing Jumped the Shark or Is It Just Getting Started?
Recently, I’ve been counting the vast number of social media references to microdosing training loads and, ironically, there’s an overdose. I think it’s easier to count who is not using the training concept than those who are. To clarify, microdosing is term coined years ago by Derek Hansen that’s been popularized by many current coaches. Perhaps this section represents the cream of this article because it covers many important elements beyond a cool term that’s similar to a minimum effective dose.
While microdosing is not a new concept, we need to be on the same page when defining it because many coaches have not. When we can’t define a training concept specifically, how can we understand what we’re doing with it? This illustrates a major problem with sports training: the lack of homework done before adding an exercise or training concept to a program. I hate the term toying around—an intense training concept is not a game. So what is microdosing exactly? Hard to say because several coaches over the age of 50 have chimed in, sharing their ideas.
It’s not the same as a low volume of high-intensity work spread throughout the training week. Sure, that approach is common and is part of many experts’ version. But when you try to distill a training concept down to its soul, you end up with an incomplete concept. And this is why the history of training is indispensable. Not having the whole story is dangerous when using a new, or an unfamiliar old, concept. While information on sports training is available in some form to everyone online, we don’t get the same results.
Here are some fair questions to ask if you believe you’re using the microdosing concept to its fullest:
- How do you define microdosing in training and teaching?
- When did you start using the term microdosing and training concept?
- What were your workouts before you included the concept, and do you expect to change?
- How have you changed the process over time? Do you monitor it?
- Who do you emulate and talk to who uses the microdosing concept?
If these questions are not answered fully and comprehensively, I’m not comfortable that the concept is used properly. Martyring is not necessary, but doing something right should be a starting point. The core of the problem is giving credit to the past or to others who are doing it better. There’s nothing wrong with learning on your own—it’s eventually the best way to get better at an endeavor or profession. But if we don’t give credit, we’re unable to outline and track an idea.
Instead of trying to salvage a concept, it may make sense to start over. And that’s what Derek Hansen decided to do. He coined the phrase early, using it in 2003. Other coaches may have used low-volume and high-intensity work, but we should think about the distribution and changes over a season and career.
Bob Alejo’s experience in baseball is an example of how to manage necessary intensity and choose the right volume, usually lower when competition density is high. The difference is that what he does, and what he did the past, is not microdosing. Again, it’s using appropriate volumes and intensities. Most in-season training demands provide enough to keep an athlete effective, provided they did enough preparation when they started competing.
In my experience, this is the problem: if you don’t train correctly throughout the year, you can never catch up and get ahead. I covered some solutions using Derek’s concepts as well as those of other innovators in my periodization article, and it’s a good idea to reference these ideas before experimenting. I learned the hard way that even if you have direct contact with experienced coaches, these training concepts are not easy.
Train the Way that Works Best For You
I keep telling athletes and coaches searching for the perfect or best program not to worry. I made the mistake of scrambling to find the best programs for years, hopping from training method to training method. I certainly believe that you can learn from others and improve from mentorship, but I see many problems recurring from earlier generations because learning transformed into discipleship.
Note that all of the recommendations and strategies I share seem to conflict, and that’s the point. You can’t simply take a lesson from one situation and apply it perfectly to another situation. You can certainly learn from a cautionary tale and replicate much of a past solution, but it’s better to learn from wisdom when possible. There are times when learning the hard way does teach a lesson, but only at the athlete’s cost.