Look, Listen, Log

You’ve developed a sound program. Your athletes are committed. You have the right equipment. But are your monitoring their daily progress effectively? Here’s how.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 13.7, October 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1307/log.htm

According to the dictionary, the word monitor means to watch, to keep track of, to check. As strength and conditioning coaches, we plan, we implement, we encourage, and we test. But how much do we monitor?

I have written extensively in these pages about all aspects of training and periodically on planning. In reviewing past articles as well as my day-to-day coaching, I have come to realize that one area needing more emphasis is monitoring. It seems an obvious step in the training process, but tends to be ignored.
Monitoring is analogous to using a compass—it shows whether training is on the correct path. And if training is not on the right course, monitoring provides clues as to how to alter the training program to make it more effective.

We should never lose sight of the fact that, as a cumulative process, training is more than the sum of each workout. The effects accumulate not arithmetically, but geometrically. A positive result, over time, is what any good training plan is seeking to achieve.

Monitoring training allows us to maintain control of the training process and ensure the proper adaptive response. Planning and implementing a training program are only two prongs of a three-pronged attack. Monitoring the training is the third. Only through monitoring can you tell whether the planning and implementation are producing the desired results.

Monitoring also keeps each component of training in context. Losing context is one of the biggest pitfalls in training. Understanding the context means understanding the relationship of various physical parameters. It also means you understand the role an individual training session plays within the microcycle, and how the microcycles fit within the larger divisions of the training plan.

Much of the monitoring done today focuses on overtraining. But monitoring training can and should go much further. It can certainly spot overtraining, but proper monitoring also assesses stress, adaptation, fatigue, and individual responses to training. With the right information, we can constantly fine-tune our workout plans to be more effective.

Also understand, however, that monitoring does not always provide immediate feedback. It takes time for patterns to emerge. But it is these patterns that paint the true picture you want to see. Looking at the big picture will help you redirect the workouts toward the ultimate goals.

To Think About
Before upgrading your monitoring process, there are several areas to think about. The most important is knowing how a monitoring process will help you and your athletes. Exactly what do you plan to do with the information you compile?

Monitoring must be more than just gathering information—it must entail gathering information you can use. Jan Olbrecht, in his book, The Science of Winning, gives the following analogy: “Testing a swimmer on a bicycle or treadmill in order to obtain the right information for water training is like taking the temperature with a barometer; both have to do with the weather but measure something quite different.” The message is clear—we must monitor what we are hoping to achieve.

Therefore, the first step is to think about the goals of your particular program. If you are working with softball infielders, and the main goals are to increase agility, lateral movement, and core strength, then you don’t need to monitor any increase or decrease in endurance. But you will want to look closely at increases in strength and movement skills. You also want to see if they are hitting with more power and snagging ground balls that were previously out of reach.

Knowing your training goals will make it easier to focus on what is truly important and what should be monitored daily. This is key, because for most coaches, the next area to ponder is, “What can I do with the resources I have?”

There are many sophisticated yet invasive methods of monitoring an athlete’s progress such as blood and urine analysis, which provide very detailed information. But, for most of us, these are completely impractical. Therefore, knowing the time you have and tools you realistically can obtain is critical.

At the simplest level, monitoring can entail simply recording workout results. With increased time and staff, monitoring can include extensive training logs and daily analysis. Don’t try to do more than you or the athletes have time for. As with all aspects of training, being practical will put you on the right path.

The extent of the monitoring process will also be somewhat dependent on the athletes you are working with. The best monitoring programs make the athlete a partner in the process by using the athlete’s feedback as a guiding light and working closely with the athlete to analyze the program. However, this approach does require some maturity on the part of the athletes, since you’ll need honest and intelligent feedback from them. I try to get good feedback by stressing that training is not something we do to the athlete, but something we do with the athlete.

Looking at Methods
The main goal of any monitoring program is to know if adaptation is occurring in your athletes at the fastest rate possible without any hint of overtraining. How do you actually track this on a daily basis?

Many coaches simply test their athletes at regular intervals to check progress. One such test is a jump protocol consisting of a Squat Jump, Counter Movement Jump, Repetitive Jump, and Stiffness Jump, which will monitor the status of an athlete’s strength, elastic strength, and repetitive power. This is a simple monitoring process that has proven very effective.

One thing to keep in mind when using these tests as a baseline is that there is a learning curve. Separate from any physical progress from training, performance on these tests will improve through experience alone, which must be taken into account when evaluating the numbers.

A more sophisticated method of monitoring adaptation is to assess progress depending on the particular goal of the cycle. During training periods where particular qualities are emphasized, other qualities should be depressed. For example, during a heavy maximal strength block of training, the athlete’s strength should be increasing, but explosive power and maximal speed will tend to be inhibited. This can be monitored through the jump protocol. If the athlete’s elastic strength goes down by five percent, it is no cause for alarm.

While objective testing is important, I also use more subjective methods of monitoring by obtaining daily feedback from athletes at the conclusion of the workout. Two athletes can do the same workout, with the same reps and weights, and have polar opposite adaptive responses. One may have to tap deep into the adaptive reserve to achieve the result while the other requires much less effort. By finding out how tough the athlete perceived the workout to be, I can better understand what adjustments need to be made. For the athlete who had to dig deep to complete the workout, I’ll need to cut back his work or eventually he’s going to cave in. With the athlete who breezed through the workout, I will increase the intensity of future workouts.

To assess the athlete’s response to a workout, I use a perceived exertion scale (see “Training Demand” below). This allows the athlete to use a quantitative measure to articulate his or her perception of the training demand.

Using the same rating scale, I also project what I think the training demand of a particular workout should be and compare that to the actual training demand as reported by the athlete. If there is a wide divergence between the athlete’s perceived demand and my expectations, I need to reassess the training program.

Lately, I have also started obtaining similar feedback from my athletes before the start of each workout. This pre-workout assessment, which I call their “energy rating,” is designed to gauge how the athlete feels going into the workout. It uses a ten-point scale: 1=I feel great, 10= I feel absolutely awful. This allows me to both assess the athlete’s readiness for the workout ahead and know if recovery from yesterday’s workout is complete. If the athlete has lingering soreness, I may lighten the planned workout, and I will review yesterday’s workout to see why it may have been too intense. Over time, I can compare the pre-workout energy rating to the previous day’s demand rating to see how closely the two are related.

More objective tests can also be used for assessing your athletes’ readiness for their workout. For example, if you are working with a high jumper, you could use a simple counter-movement jump daily after warm-up to assess the athlete’s readiness to perform. The athlete places hands on hip, does a half squat, and explodes back up. If the athlete’s height is more than 10 percent off his or her best performance, you can change the workout accordingly.

Finally, you might also consider monitoring athletes’ life stresses. Factors such as sleep, diet, and personal life can all have a dramatic effect on training and should be assessed. Both the subjective and objective pre-workout test help in this area, but any good coach also takes the time to get to know his or her athletes. Know their classes, their living situation, how they handle a tough workout, and the important relationships in their lives.

If you have a full performance team staff, each person can be responsible for monitoring their areas of expertise, be it diet, psychological well-being, or workout loads. However, there needs to be a captain of the ship—someone who coordinates all the feedback and can analyze how it correlates to the athlete’s training responses.

Training Log
For some coaches, the biggest challenge in monitoring training is keeping track of all the information described above. To ease the process, I suggest using standardized training logs. I have found them helpful with many different types of athletes and in various settings.

Ideally, two daily training logs should be kept, one by the coaches and one by the athletes. The coaches’ log should be as detailed as time demands allow and focus on what the athlete did or did not accomplish that day. I start by listing what was planned for the day and what was actually completed. I also list a breakdown of the time duration of each training component.

Then I rate the athletes’ response to the work: Was it too hard for them? Or was it too easy? Did they falter at a particular part of the workout? Did they achieve the predicted outcome, but have to tap deep into the reserves to achieve that?

Finally, I try to isolate variables to identify possible patterns. For example, if they are unable to finish the arm-strengthening portion of the workout planned, I mark this down. If it happens once during a cycle, no problem. If it happens several times in one cycle, I take a closer look at their workouts and the training log.

The athletes’ training logs have some overlap with the coaches’ log, but focus more on what the coach cannot see or know. Before athletes start their workouts, I have them record date and time, weather, and their “energy rating.” I also ask them to list the hours of sleep they had the night before and any other “life stress” items that might affect their training, such as feeling stressed over a paper due tomorrow or feeling psyched up for next Saturday’s game.

At the end of the workout, I ask them to record the duration of the session and the actual work performed (reps, times, intervals, intensity). Then, they list their fatigue index (how tired they feel after completing the workout), and their perceived training demand rating.

When time and resources allow, I add more information to the training logs. For example, if you have a nutritionist on staff, diet information can be included. If the athlete has time, you can ask him or her to answer a series of questions every day, such as: What was the hardest part of the workout today? What was the easiest part? What were you thinking about during the workout?

During the Workout
While recording information before and after the workout is important, don’t forget to monitor training during the workout, too. If an athlete is struggling with a certain part of his or her planned work, I try to quickly assess the problem, on the spot, then more carefully review it after the training day is complete.

For example, if one of my sprinters is working on alactate short speed endurance, I will time each of her sprints. Let’s say she’s doing 50-meter sprints at 90 percent of best, with 90 second recovery and 5 minutes between sets. I know what times should be for each sprint, and I monitor them. If the first set is fine, the second set starts to drop off, and her times on the third set are way off, I will stop the workout and ask her some questions. My first question is, “How do you feel?” If she says “great, I may just go on to something else instead of destroying her confidence.

If she says she’s not feeling strong, I will ask how the warmup went. I will then ask if any muscles feel tight. If she says her hamstrings are tight I will go back to the previous days’ workouts to try to figure out why. Once I do figure out the “why” I will explain this to the athlete.

Over the years the most effective training programs I have seen or implemented are those that have some sort of built-in monitoring system. It does not have to be anything elaborate or scientific; it just needs to be used consistently.

In essence monitoring training allows you to reconcile what was planned and what was achieved. And that, ultimately, increases training effectiveness.

SIDEBAR: Training Demand
To help athletes articulate how much they feel a workout demanded from them, I use a “perceived exertion” rating. Perceived exertion is certainly not a new concept. It originated with Gunnar Borg, a Swedish exercise scientist, and was designed for use in monitoring training stress in cardiac rehab.

It has proven to also be quite reliable for rating exertion in the healthy athlete, and over the years it has been adapted to the world of sports performance. The implementation of it is simple: Athletes rate how hard they feel they are working by assigning a number to the sensation of their effort. The original scale developed by Borg was a 20-point scale. A 10-point scale has proven to be as effective in the athlete population, and is easier to use.

The following is a modification of the Borg scale (Training Demand Rating Scale) that I use:

1=easy, no effort required
2=extremely light
3=very light
4=moderately light
6=a little hard
8=very hard
9=extremely hard
10=maximal effort

Once athletes are familiar with the scale, I have found it useful to allow them to develop their own verbal descriptors for each point on the scale. This seems to personalize the process and makes the information that much more meaningful to the athletes.

The training demand rating scale can be used to rate training demand on individual components of the workout or for the workout as a whole. It really depends how detailed you want to get. Regardless of how you apply it, the scale provides very good reliable feedback as to the stress of training.