Monitoring Load in Young Athletes
Playing and competing as much as possible is key for developing skills and fitness levels in young athletes. However it is equally important to know when not to play or train, and give your body a rest.
Talented young athletes in a variety of sports now have the opportunity to compete for clubs, countries, counties, districts and schools. This requires them to not only compete on match days, but to also train throughout the week, and in some cases to take part in strength and conditioning sessions.
With such a potential high load going through the body especially during growth phases it is pivotal to manage the amount of physical exertion put through the body. This can help prolong playing careers, improve performance and prevent injury and ‘burnout’.
Risks of Overload
When the body is fatigued it is pivotal it is given time to fully recover, it this doesn’t happen then the chances of injury significantly increase. Muscles become weaker and range of movement is reduced, increasing the chance of tears occurring. The muscle weakness will also have an effect of how the muscles stabilise around their associated joints, leading to them becoming more susceptible to injury.
Overuse injuries are also far more likely to occur when muscles are fatigued, in younger athletes this can lead to injuries such as Osgood schlatters, severs disease and stress fractures.
The athlete may not just suffer physical effects but also mental effects. If in a particularly tough or strenuous game or session, it is also important to consider the psychological effects.
How to Monitor Load
Load can be monitored in a variety of ways. However for the majority of athletes it needs to be simple and cost effective. The best option here is to use an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale.
The system requires athletes to subjectively rate the intensity of the session using a rate of perceived exertion. This should happen 30 minutes after completing the exercise bout. This needs to then be recorded along with the total duration (minutes) of the training session. You then multiply the RPE score by the minutes of exercise to create a single measure of total load.
For example if an athlete indicated an exercise bout lasting 60 minutes was hard (RPE = 6) the total load would be calculated by 6 x 60, resulting in a total load of 360.
Your RPE should reflect how heavy or strenuous the exercise feels to you, including physical stress, effort and fatigue.
With young athletes competing in multiple exercise bouts per day at varying intensities, RPE gives us a simple objective measure for comparing total load over a period of time. This lets both athletes and coaches know when rest and recovery is needed, particularly following long exercise durations with high RPE scores.
The RPE score allows coaches to see how effective there session has been whether it be a high intensity session or recovery based they have an objective score to see if the goals of the session have been met by the individual. This can help maximise performance and ensure players are peaking at the right time.
This gives athletes and coaches the ability to be flexible with training sessions and rule out inadequate recovery phases which can have a negative effect on performance and increase injury risk.
How to Manage Load
When your total load score is high after a session, use this a cue to do as much as you can to help the recovery process. Foam rolling, stretching, active recovery (recovery bike), hydrotherapy and sports massage are just a few examples of how to help aid the recovery process.
It’s important to remember each individual is different, some may be able to continue high scores of total load for longer periods than others. Use your own score to help plan your weeks and sessions, work with your coaches to help manage your load and ensure you stay injury free and performing at your optimum level.
Freddie Eley BSc (Hons)
Head Sports Therapist / Clinic Manager
Southampton Sports Therapy and Injury Clinic