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When athletes are injured, they often blame themselves for doing too much. It's true: Overuse injuries are real. However, a 2016 review of various sports studies found that it was actually athletes who were in poor physical condition — not those who trained consistently and hard — more likely to suffer from non-contact soft tissue injuries.
That's because training builds physical qualities (such as strength and conditioning) to prevent injury -- if done right. "The key is to get to that point, to get to that intensity," said study author Dr. Tim J. Garbett, exercise scientist and coaching consultant for elite athletes. This means maintaining an appropriate "training load," which is: how much stress your training volume, intensity, and frequency (among other factors) puts on your body.
"The load allows you to handle more load," Garbett said. “Most athletes know this intuitively: If they can keep training, it will actually build their strength but not their vulnerability. Mistakes can still happen, though.
According to Garbett's findings, the athletes most at risk of injury are those who do much more than they're used to, which can lead to excessive and rapid spikes in their training load. For example, a weekend warrior cyclist tries to complete a centenary ride without proper preparation, a new runner enters a marathon training program, or an experienced athlete returns to regular training after a vacation.
So how to avoid unnecessary spikes? Calculate and track your training load.
How to Calculate Your Training Volume
To track your training load, Gabbett recommends comparing your acute load -- what you did this week -- with your chronic load -- the level of training you put in and maintain regularly.
The easiest way to do this is to calculate a metric, such as miles run, minutes of exercise, or repetitions times weight lifted. For example, if you want to measure your training load by running miles and you've run 3 miles 3 times this week, your training load will be 9 units. The number you get is not as important as how it changes from week to week.
For a more accurate calculation of your training load, you can also consider intensity. After each exercise, the perceived effort was rated on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 was rest, 3 was moderate, 5 was difficult, and 10 was full effort. Multiply this number by the number of minutes it took to do the exercise to get the load unit. This approach also allows you to include various activities in your calculations.
For example, a 30 minute forced run would be 30 x 5 or 150 units. An hour of moderate yoga can count as 60 x 3 or 180 units. 45 minutes of very hard lifting might be 45 x 8 = 360 units. You'll get the best results with this method if you're honest and consistent in your calculations.
How to Detect and Correct Dangerous Spikes
To monitor peak training load, add up this week's load units, then divide the total by the average load from the previous three to six weeks. (If your training has changed significantly during this time, use it longer.)
Garbett found that a ratio of 0.8 (slightly down) to 1.3 (slightly up) appears to be the "sweet spot" -- the level at which you become healthy but have little risk of injury. An acute:chronic ratio greater than 1.5 puts you at high risk for injury.
To protect yourself from injury, monitor your volume increase when planning and performing your workout. However, it is difficult to judge the difficulty of the exercise in advance, so it is necessary to calculate the full load on the weekend. Don't panic if you find your ratio is greater than 1.5. "In some cases, in certain sports, you can't avoid going over 1.5," Garbert said. Be aware that you are pushing it, monitor your body carefully, and maybe back off a little in the week before rebuilding.