The Truth About Training Frequency

Have you ever been given a prescription by a doctor to cure that nasty sinus infection around Christmas time every year? You go in with a slew of symptoms, and your doctor hands you a prescription that will help you mend, as long as you follow the directions: "Take one pill every 12 hours, for 14 days."

If you've experienced this before, and you've followed the directions to a "T", then you've probably realized that following doctor's orders is a good idea.

Improving on the field or court is very similar. You attend technical sessions, team practices, and sport performance/training sessions. Now in many sporting traditions there is a commonly promoted line of thought that doing more is better. This isn't necessarily the case, though, especially when trying to increase performance.

If we are trying to increase performance, more is not better. Better is better.

Especially looking at speed training or strength and conditioning sessions, we have to understand that we are placing a stress on the body and seeking to elicit adaptations. Speed and strength can be highly technical skills, but they are also highly adaptive. Especially when trying to maximize performance and create standout displays of athleticism, then we must have an understanding of how frequently we really need to train.

Now, many people talk about not wanting to over train athletes, but over training isn't a side effect of how hard workouts are. It's a side effect of under recovering from the training you do. In diving into the work done by exercise scientists and sport physiologists, we can gain a better understanding of how often we should train and what training should look like.

There is much research that exists on these topics, to the point that Dr. Tudor Bompa and Dr. Gregory Haff compiled the information into a 300 page textbook on how to implement and plan training around recovery, game schedules, and even age ranges (called Periodization Training For Sport). Here's a few things that they found in going through the research that we can learn on how often kids should train:

  1. Training age, or the number of years an athlete has engaged in a structured training program, influences how frequently an athlete should train. In the first 2-4 years of structured training for athletes between ages 12-18, athletes need to focus on creating intramuscular coordination and develop movement patterns. This essentially means that they need their brains create more stable and efficient connections to muscles to aid in increasing speed and strength. During this time, they don't need to lift maximal weights and should focus on mastering the basic movement skills through a wide variety of simple drills and teaching.

  2. Developing intramuscular coordination requires two main things: recovery periods with good sleep and quality food. When we train a new skill or participate in a training program, a physiological response happens (the body reacts) and you have to adapt to it. Your body has to process the stimulus that happened when they trained and make changes down to the cellular level. This process takes about 48 hours for strength training and between 60-72 hours for speed or plyometrics, assuming that the person training is getting adequate sleep (10-12 hours for 12-14 year olds, and 9-11hours for 14-18 year olds).

  3. All stress is perceived in the same way by the body, and results in the release of cortisol. High cortisol levels have a high correlation to rate of injury in youth and adults alike, so recovering from high stress times is a must in preventing injury.

So what does that mean for our athletes?

We utilize a method of training in our program called Micro-dosing, where we train speed skills and qualities in some frequency every session, along with some element of strength training. With that in mind, normally speed training would take closer to 60 hours to fully recover from, but with our athletes it probably takes closer to 48 hours. With our strength work, it would take roughly 24-36 hours, as recovering from strength training is also highly dependent on protein intake (something we find lacking in most middle and high school students).

Recovery methods, such as stretching between sessions can increase the ability to recover. Though this is not a replacement for adequate rest and food intake.

Anecdotally, the best results we see are athletes who train 2-3 times per week, with approximately 48 hours between sessions. For some, they think it's not enough because they see professional athletes train 5-6 days per week, and forget to realize that they are using a model of paid professionals for a pre-teen or teen's training. Over the past few years, we've noticed that the 2-3 training days/week often yields the best results as well, with those athletes showing similar if not better results on evaluation metrics than their peers who train 3+ per week.

In the end what it really boils down to, is how much better you want to get, and whether you want to overdose on the prescription for optimal success.

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