Fatigue is a Lagging Indicator
by Coen de Heer, Supreme Strength Coach | February 16, 2022
Most of us have been here before. We're nearing the end of a successful block, feeling good and confident about the previous successful weeks thinking we can push it one more. You step into the gym, start warming up, and something feels off. Warmups are moving slow, weight that was easy last week is somewhat difficult today. ‘’It must be in my head’’ you think. After all, you don't feel fatigued, so you're probably just not trying hard enough right? The entire training week proceeds to be off and the feeling of being beat up is creeping up on you throughout the week. Time to deload!
Let's be real, that last week of training was a waste of time. You were already fatigued and performance was starting to downtrend, but systematically you felt ok. Basing our block length on the feeling of fatigue might therefore be problematic. Because if we repeat this process continually we lose multiple weeks of quality training over the course of a year just because we weren't feeling fatigued, yet other metrics indicated otherwise.
This is not to say that the subjective experience of fatigue is a useless metric, a systematic review showed that subjective feelings of well-being were a better marker of fatigue than objective markers (Saw et al., 2016). So this does carry some validity towards the feeling of fatigue and its expression in training loads and performance. The point is rather that the experience of fatigue shouldn't be your primary or only metric used to determine deload necessity.
Now this puts us at a crossroads. On one hand we shouldn't wait to feel fatigued to deload, yet on the other hand we shouldn't preemptively deload because training might still be productive. Unfortunately, we don't have a crystal ball to look into the future, so we have to make due with our best educated guesses. This means we will sometimes be wrong and deload too early and we sometimes are late, and other times we will be right on the money.
So how then, can we best determine block length and deload timing? Through building a solid athlete-coach relationship we can get to know your markers and indicators. Time to peak, volume dose response, and other recurring performance and recovery trends can all play a role in developing the most productive training plan for an individual.
Planned deloads do have their place and time. For instance when preparing for a competition, we need to be peaked on time to be able to perform to our best ability. A more rigid approach when we are closer to competition can therefore be warranted. However, during the off-season and in development blocks we want to have a certain degree of flexibility. When we have designed a productive training block that the athlete responds well to, we don't want to cut it off early because as long as the athlete is progressing and adapting well we want to keep going in that direction. In simpler words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Now when we do plan out our deloads, this will work best when supported by our findings on the previously mentioned metrics. Where some lifters can go 8 weeks without needing a deload others will be spent after only 3 weeks of training. The thing is, you will likely not find out for yourself or your lifters if you only ever follow a rigid approach. More importantly, by accumulating data over multiple training blocks we can also optimize the competition prep. Because by learning to time our stimulus just right we will ultimately set up the lifter to perform best when it matters most.
- Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P. B. (2016). Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British journal of sports medicine, 50(5), 281-291.