Training is indeed an art form. Effective training for any athletic or fitness goal depends upon optimal programming and coaching. We design programs and routines, establish schedules, and then apply them to ourselves or the individuals we coach in pursuit of the greatest results. Once we feel we have an ideal program that fits a person’s unique physical characteristics, current conditioning status, and goals…we utilize that program or schedule in a flexible way. We adjust programming to achieve the greatest possible results while at the very same time minimizing the risk of injury and breakdown.
Flexible programming is the result of both forward and backward thinking. We project forward over a known timeline or season with workouts, blocks, and cycles that best fit the situation. Then — and this is of equal or greater importance and the subject of this article — we use backward thinking. We look back at each session and phase performed and assess the results it generated as well as the manner in which it affected the body to which we applied it. This allows us to favorably adjust training by moving workouts around and tuning them up or down as needed.
Whether you consider yourself a fitness enthusiast or a serious competitor, you are an athlete. And for every athlete, balancing training workload and recovery is the key to successful outcomes at any level. It is of critical importance for the intelligent athlete and coach to continually adjust training and recovery to preserve ideal health, make progressive adaptations in conditioning, and avoid staleness or injury. The Workload Impact Systemic Evaluation (WISE) allows you to monitor how your body is responding to training. It also provides you with a measure that you can use to track and plan the necessary progressions and regressions in your training program.
Training workload should always be kept within a range that is between the minimum effective dosage and the maximum absorbable dosage. Training is a stressor that we apply to our bodies and when we keep it in this critical range — we undergo adaptations or improvements in conditioning — and we avoid breakdown. This zone naturally varies from person to person and it can also be dynamic within an individual from week to week, and month to month. One athlete may tolerate or benefit from a much higher workload than another. Also, any exerciser’s workout absorption ability can be driven up or down by stress, sleep, nutrition, and other critical variables. Consequently, and in order to maximize results from training and minimize the risk of injured or overtrained states, we need to pay close attention to how our training is impacting our bodies.
Any workout or training session impacts, or hits, our bodies, at some level. There are many ways to quantify exercise workload, such as by multiplying the duration (time or length of a workout) times the intensity (effort, resistance, speed, total or average power output of a session, etc.). This will yield an objective, numeric representation of the exact workload of any workout. Similar workouts (such as bike rides at functional threshold power) can then be compared as apples to apples. It gets a little more difficult when different types of workouts are considered, such as attempting to compare how one is hit by a long, slow, cardio sesh versus heavy weight training or VO2max intervals. This is more like comparing apples to oranges.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. A low-intensity, long duration workout can potentially have the same workload score as a high intensity, brief session. For example, if we arbitrarily use a 1-5 scale to label intensity (not unlike the zone-based training systems that are popular), a 60-minute low intensity (effort rating of 1) session will have a workload of 60 (60 x 1 = 60). Using that same scale, a 12-minute high intensity (effort rating of 5) will result in the same workload (12 x 5 = 60).
Now things become even more interesting. Athletes can often be different, unique beasts. This is due to the diversity we have among humans with respect to genetics, body type, muscle fiber physiology, age, gender, personality factors…and many other considerations. Therefore, Athlete “A” may prefer and respond more favorably to an endurance session than Athlete “B” would in many circumstances. While Athlete “A” flourishes with the endurance session, that same workout is a beatdown of sorts for Athlete “B.” Thus, while we don’t want to undervalue the mathematical workload rating of any workout, what we really need to know is how that specific session affected, or impacted, the athlete.
Enter WISE. Using an incredibly simple self-assessment, any athlete can evaluate workload impact in just a few seconds. Here’s how it works:
- You assess how you feel immediately upon arising in the morning after a training session. In just the first few minutes after you get out of bed, your body will give you a very clear message of how you are feeling. Just scan your systems as you move to the restroom or kitchen, and then use the scale provided below to create a WISE rating of 1-5 for yesterday’s workout. At the end of the week, you simply add the daily ratings to achieve your weekly WISE score.
- How you feel first thing in the morning, relative to yesterday’s training, is an incredibly accurate and reliable measure of how that workout affected your body. Your body gives you feedback about your response to training…if you listen closely.
- The emphasis is actually on your subjective assessment, but this “systems-check” will correlate very strongly with resting heart rate, heart rate variability, core temperature, sleep tracking results, urine and blood analysis, and many other objective markers should you want to associate these “hard data” measures with your assessments.
- Each day, give yesterday’s training a WISE rating of 1-5, and at the end of each week, add up the total. For example, if you trained 4 days last week, and you rated one day at 2, two days at 3, and one at 4, your total WISE score for the week would be 12.
- The WISE score becomes valuable for you and/or your coach in three distinct ways. One, you can assess recovery status from a workout and adjust programming for later in the week so you don’t go hard until your body is fresh again. Two, over the course of several weeks or months, you can establish a range (the min/max dosage span we covered earlier) of workload that works best for your body. And three, you can quickly notice when training exceeds your known limits and you need to back off a bit before calamity (illness or injury) strikes.
- The simplicity of this approach speaks for itself. You don’t need an app or a device. A post-it note or whiteboard can serve as your temporary data storage area. Then create a simple calculating spreadsheet that only requires a few seconds of entry per week, and which can provide you with graphs or tables that are an ongoing visualization of your training patterns. Or hire a coach to help you with this process.
Now let’s take a specific look at how the WISE rating scale works. Each level from 1-5 will have a set of descriptive statements that you can use to record your score. I don’t recommend fractionating the score, as in rating one session at 2.4 and another at 4.7. Just pick the one round number that fits best, and keep it simple. Remember, each of the numbers below represents a “look-back” into how the previous day’s training (no matter how many sessions you did in that particular day) affected your body.
- You feel great. Absolutely fantastic. You recall doing some training yesterday but it has had entirely no deleterious effects on your body. If anything, you feel better than usual and what you did in yesterday’s workout seems to have upregulated your supple, athletic body and given you an effervescently optimistic attitude. You have a spring in your step, and could do any type of workout in your arsenal today without any lingering issues from yesterday.
- You feel good. Fine. All systems are “Go.” Yesterday’s workout was relatively non-impactful and you could also hit any chosen session today. However, your energy isn’t quite “off the charts” like it would have been with a 1 rating.You know you did “something of substance” yesterday and that subtle sensation is present in your body if you focus on it.
- You feel decent. Moderate. Your energy is average and the body seems OK, but there is this mild “workout hangover” cloud affecting you. You have a sense that this will clear up fairly rapidly. You know you can do light to moderate training today, but your gut tells you that anything major might be best saved for another day.
- You feel tired. Unmotivated. You can tell you did a significant workout yesterday but you seem to be loosening up gradually. Your energy is somewhat low and you feel sluggish. You know you can train but are really only feeling capable of what you would consider a lighter, easier session.
- You feel exhausted. Crummy. You are stiff and sore. Light pressure from your fingers on your muscles is mildly painful. It is difficult to walk normally and sitting on the toilet looks like it is going to require a complex movement problem-solving strategy. If you used your upper body yesterday, reaching into a cupboard or washing your hair will be uncomfortable if not downright painful. Your energy is quite lethargic, your attitude is relatively poor, and you feel like your appetite is somewhat diminished. You may notice that your glands seem a bit swollen and you realize your immune system is slightly suppressed. You have no inclination toward training today and you are not even sure you can or should do something easy.
While those descriptions are a bit humorous, they are undoubtedly all too familiar. You probably recognize that if you have only 1’s in your ratings, you’ll certainly be getting some health benefits but you probably won’t be undergoing too many “fitness maker” sessions. Conversely, 4’s should only show up infrequently and they should be carefully bracketed with a couple of days of 1’s and 2’s on either side, no matter what your planned training schedule says. The body is the master, not the schedule — this is why flexible programs rule. 5’s are to be avoided as they are a sign of overdoing it and can actually be counterproductive to both health and fitness.
It’s important that we all appreciate the need to go hard sometimes in order to make change. But the message I want to state clearly is this: after going hard, go easy and let your body recover and absorb that stimulus until it is ready to go hard again. Avoid going hard if you are tired and sore. It won’t be very effective and it is risky business. Yes, it’s true that psyching and revving yourself up can enable you to train hard when tired, but you are actually compromising recovery, fitness adaptation, and long-term health. This type of pushing hard when tired puts the body in an overly sympathetic state by jacking up hormones like epinephrine and cortisol, and puts a great stress on your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-gonadal axis. It will eventually catch up with you and cause you to come crashing down with burnout and exhaustion. If your body needs rest, give it what it needs. Don’t try to force it.
The WISE method allows you to rate and appreciate how your unique body responds to various workouts. Also, you’ll be able to identify the types of sessions that seem to be toughest for your body to absorb. Then, you can adjust how you do those workouts, and how you bracket them with easy days, to make them more successful. It’s all about avoiding chronic, not necessarily temporary, fatigue states. Occasionally overreaching, or slightly overstressing the body, is how you increase fitness and performance capacity. You just have to find the right mix of hard and easy training that gives your body its best results.
Those day-to-day WISE ratings and the weekly scores can and should be powerful steering mechanisms in your training. Using this information will be extremely effective in making adjustments to training.
First of all, no matter how great your program or training plan is, if you wake up on the day of a scheduled workout that you would consider challenging or impactful, and your rating is 1 or 2…you are good to go. If you give your status a 3, you can probably go ahead with the workout but you may need to modify or downregulate its length or intensity slightly. If you see a 4, you should abort the more challenging session and do an easier, briefer, or less intense workout. And if you see a 5, training may not be your best choice and your energy should be invested into recovery practices such as saunas, light strolls, naps and other proven practices. Instead of psyching yourself up to suffer through a workout your body is not ready for, work with your inner beast and allow it to rest up and rise up again ferociously when it is truly capable.
Second, and equally important, is that longer-term, horizon-based view that allows us to track and analyze training patterns, trends, and results. Examining consistent responses to workouts, and workloads over time, can be extremely valuable in helping us to customize training in our own sweet spot that yields the greatest outcomes.
Sometimes it may seem hard to change a training plan or deviate from a schedule, but this is the art of coaching (whether your are coached by yourself or someone else). All training plans should be flexible and they should continuously be adjusted to fit the athlete. This is precisely how we keep adaptations and gains coming, and avoid exhaustion, illness, and injury.
Before we wrap this up, I’ll share a few personal experiences that may be helpful in visualizing how to use WISE. I train for track and field in a seasonal manner every year. For sprinting performance, the workouts that give me the most “bang for my workout buck” are explosive lifting and plyometrics in the weight room; and short, fast intervals on the track. These intense sessions drive adaptation in my body and are both challenging and fun to complete. The problem is, when performed even to slight excess they have a tendency to be kryptonite to my body. Sometimes I’m into the session and jamming along, and I don’t realize I slightly overdid it…until WISE time the next morning. I have to be extremely careful to adjust those workouts so that I wake up with a 3 or 4 rating as opposed to a 5, which happens on rare occasions due to my overzealous nature. Even just a few 5’s showing up in a given training cycle will ultimately make my performance go flat. So I’ve learned to “leave a few reps in the tank” in those workouts and the results have been excellent.
After what I consider a fitness-maker workout, I’ll predictably give a next-day rating of 3 or 4. That’s acceptable to me because I’ll be reassured that I gave my body enough stimulus to make a conditioning improvement. I don’t see those 5’s often, but if I do, I’ll probably chastise myself a bit for being overly enthusiastic and then I’ll just focus in on recovery methods. Next, I’ll do some easy workouts until I am back at a WISE rating of 2, or preferably 1. It is then and only then that I’ll do another challenging, impactful, fitness maker session. It doesn’t matter what the schedule says, it matters exclusively what the body says. Since I’ve learned this instinctive art form, both my own results and those of the athletes I coach have increased tremendously. They don’t give out medals for training through fatigue and injury. The medals go to the fastest, strongest, and fittest…those who ultimately become the winners. Those are the athletes who are great at showing up with the A-game when it counts and that’s because they are wise about their training.
The other thing I’ve done is look at my weekly WISE scores over several months, and try to apply some wisdom (pun totally intended). During a given season, cycle, or block of training, I can usually identify the weekly WISE score that gets me my best outcomes. When looking for the highest return on my training investment, I make sure to manipulate my weekly workload (by tweaking or adjusting workouts) to keep the WISE scores progressing upward no more than 10% per week (your mileage may vary), to occasionally be held static on a planned plateau (1 week out of every 3 or 4), and also to intentionally regress to a reduced (50% “deload”) status for 1 week out of every 6 or so. This might look like a weekly WISE sum of 12-13-14-12-13-6 over a 6-week period. That’s just one model and there are infinite ways to manipulate training. This keeps me fresh and fit and progressing most of the time. I also use these same principles with every exerciser and athlete that I coach. The results are truly amazing.
I hope you’ll give WISE a try. Trust your instincts. Listen to your body. You don’t have to wait for your watch or phone to tell you how you are feeling. You already know your body better than any device. You are WISE.