Functional Training Zones

A Three-Level Approach to Sports Science

By: Nick Winkelman

When it comes to sports science, there are two major goals. On one hand, we’re screening to make sure there’s no imminent risk of injury. We’re also looking to improve performance, both skill-specific performance and performance as it relates to strength, speed, and power.

Those are the goals. How do we get there? The best way to shape that is through the three levels of assessment in sports science: athletic profiling, readiness, and load monitoring.

Athletic profiling
At EXOS we use an analysis tool called the performance quotient to help create an athletic profile based on a diversity of physical and mental qualities. The process of athletic profiling should be completed two to four times a year based on the structure of the season and training process. Some might call this pre-testing or baselining.

With athletic profiling, we’re capturing data around Mindset, Nutrition, Movement, and Recovery. With Mindset, we’re gathering behavioral data that gives us an understanding of how resilient the individual will be. How will they deal with challenge and conflict? How will they cope and bounce back? When they’re in a stressful situation or get injured, what’s their preferred manner to handle it?

We’re also taking a look at their motivational orientation. What’s their big-picture purpose or personal motivator? Are they motivated more on the reward/punishment side of the continuum, inspired by external reasons? Or is their motivation more intrinsic, aligned with core values?

Nutritionally, we’ll take a look objectively at habits. How often is the athlete drinking water? How many meals per day are consumed? What’s the nutrition pattern before, during, and after workouts? The key here is to examine the habits.

For most people, Movement is the most robust category when talking about athletic profiling. We’re profiling linear speed (distance based on sport) along with multidirectional speed under two lenses: non-reactive and reactive based agility drills that assess left side versus right side cutting capacities. We’re also looking at power, measuring vertical power (with a vertical jump) and horizontal power (broad jump), and we’re looking at left versus right (through hops), assessing bilateral and unilateral power characteristics.

In the weight room, we assess maximum strength qualities, looking at the ability to express force under low and high load conditions. From there we measure capacity from an energy systems development (ESD) perspective based on their sport. Finally we’ll measure movement efficiency through a Functional Movement Screen or similar test.

Recovery is more of a subjective assessment though no less important. Here we ask what the individual is doing to optimize recovery. We ask questions pertaining to sleep and get a sense of stress and tiredness, along with their habits related to soft tissue and stretching work, and other alternative therapies like hydrotherapy.

Together, all of the assessments provide a comprehensive “athletic signature” that contains physical and behavioral characteristics. Moving toward an assessment model that collects both types of data is important, as someone can be off the charts with respect to Movement but in the tank from a Mindset perspective, making them less resilient. Even if an athlete has a huge upside physically, they still need the optimal behaviors to sustain that performance over the season.

Our goal is to identify the gaps and fill them through the training process. Though athletic profiling is done infrequently, it provides a profile that we can build upon year after year.

Here we assess levels of recovery. How are they responding to the training process?
This should be done every day and most coaches use one of three approaches: a questionnaire sent digitally to a smartphone; pen and paper in the training facility; or a proprietary product to track data.

This data can include hours of sleep, sense of tiredness, soreness, and resting heart rate and/or heart rate variability. It’s possible to also include data on hydration by having athletes weigh in and out, and assess perceived exertion relative to session training intensity. By assessing readiness before and after training, we’re able to calibrate the true intensity of the workout with the perception of the athlete. When they’re not aligned, you’re likely dealing with someone in an under-recovered state.

The key for coaches is that the data should be used to autoregulate the process. If athletes come in with low sleep and feeling really sore and you have a killer max strength session on the schedule, you might decide instead to give a recovery day or a lesser workload session. You’re thus using sports science to modify programming in real time.

Load monitoring
This provides the greatest detail relative to how the athlete is performing within the context of training, practice, and competition. One way to think about bringing load monitoring to life is through the clear story that GPS and heart rate data tell around on-field performance. If your soccer athlete didn’t do much on the pitch but his heart rate is through the roof, he’s likely in an under-recovered or underprepared state. But if that player covered a lot of distance with good speed and a low relative heart rate, he’s likely in a strong state of recovery or fitness.

Load monitoring allows us to align the athlete’s level of exertion and performance with the intended volume and intensity of the training session. Through the data it becomes very clear if the athlete is performing at, above, or below the expected level based on the prescribed training loads.

Through this three-pronged approach, you can use sports science effectively. With athletic profiling, you receive robust data or information concerning the physical and mental makeup of the athlete. You can assess readiness on a daily basis and calibrate programming based on team and individual responses. You then use load monitoring to get a real-time understanding of how the athletes respond to training. You might realize, for instance, that the whole team is gassed and that allows you to adjust accordingly.

The availability of such data and the ability to make corresponding adjustments would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But sports science now provides us with tools to help athletes achieve higher levels of performance.

Nick Winkelman is director of training systems and education at EXOS.

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(September 2015)