How Does Training Work?

How Does Training Work? by Jason Reindl, ChPC

Show up to practice, listen to coach, do what is scheduled for the day and then come back tomorrow. For many that is how training for track and field works. But this is a simplistic approach that doesn’t do the process justice. Improvements to performance are the result of many factors and while we could really dive into them we are going to try to keep it relatively simple.

Stress (training) + Rest = Potential for Adaptation…. which may Increase Performance

Stress = Training. The coach and athlete want to find the appropriate amount to do. However, what is appropriate? A young or new athlete won’t be able to do as much as an older or experienced athlete. The inverse is also true for a 28-35-year-old (they can do less) than the 16-25-year-old.  But at the same time an individual 14-18 years old given growth and development might be able to do more and more and more without any major risks (their body is just working that well that they can overcome anything). A metaphor that I have heard used by Dan Pfaff is that training, like anything in life, should be viewed like medicine. Take too much of it at one time and bad things happen. Take too little of it and nothing really happens. The same can be true of training but from a sport specific perspective the amount of training one needs to do is determined more by art and common sense then hard science like in medicine.

This results in a question on how much (quantity) of training which is a combination of what type of training, distances, intensities, and the rest intervals which are the result of the athlete’s unique individual nuances. These nuances are most commonly impacted by an athletes event, training history, life history, and how much an athlete has going on in their life at present. We all have 24 hours in a day or 1440 minutes. If our days are completely full of rest, recovery, massages, perfect nutrition, and the most perfect sleep available then our ability to take in training stress without injury is going to be very high. This is not reality though and we know most school age participants have school, homework, family commitments, jobs, responsibilities, and even other sports combined with less than ideal nutrition and not enough sleep. This all results in a reduced amount of training stress that can be placed on the individual. Now, you might say I am doing all of that and more and have never had an injury and to that I say….luck is something you don’t want to plan for. I remember between 14 and 18 I was indestructible. My middle name was “more” at workouts. I wanted to do more because I knew doing more would give me a leg up on my competition. I felt amazing and it didn’t matter what I ate, how much I slept, or the quality of my warm ups, cool downs, and recovery measures I did (the body is an amazing at times). The problem was that towards my 19th birthday everything started to break down. More injuries, more issues, and the realization that I wasn’t superman. Throw in some poor running mechanics and bad habits and it all resulted in missed training, lowered results, and a career that was ultimately cut short.

So, what does this mean for the individual athlete? What can they do to make sure they are doing things correctly for today and tomorrow – next 5-10 years of their athletic career? Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Be honest with your coach. Talk about your prioritise and all the things going on in your life. If you have 3 things going on at once then prioritise them. Don’t try to stack today’s track practice onto tomorrows because you couldn’t make it. That is just a recipe for disaster. It’s ok to do less. I would rather an athletes always do 90% of workouts rather than 110%….but this isn’t a preference to laziness and cutting corners.
  2. Talk to your coach(es) about balancing school, club track, and other sports. I always asked my high school athletes to do warm ups and ½ of the school workouts with their classmates or ask your school coach if you can help coach. Be a leader not a club kid with an ego. You don’t get gold medals at school practices so be supportive and help out. You don’t need to win those reps but you can help others get better.
  3. Sleep – sleep – sleep. While high school athletes usually have no problem sleeping, it is important to realize that a defined bed time and wake up time 10pm to 7am (9 hours) is worth its weight in gold. Recovery hormones that are released during the night are cyclical and pulling all-nighters and staying up late can put this process into chaos. So, help yourself by developing a sleep schedule and proper sleep habits to get the most out of it.
  4. Nutrition – think of it like jet fuel. You don’t fill up a jet up with the same gas as what’s on the corner of the street so remember your fueling habits dictate repair, growth, and recovery.
  5. Warm ups, cool downs, and recovery (rolling, therapy, stretching, yoga, massage, chiro, physio) – All play a role. Skimp on one thing and you are just hurting yourself. Diligence and stubbornness are very important. Do the small things consistently right and you are setting yourself up for the best chance of success.

Stress (training) + Rest = Potential for Adaptation…. which may Increase Performance


Performance = appropriate workouts at correct time = the ability of the body to recover and do what it needs to do. Doing more, more, and more is only the answer for tired, injured athletes.

So how can I summarize this all. If you want to increase your performance then you have to train. You have to train with the appropriate amount of volume in mind and additional elements considered. In order for these elements to come together and be appropriately sequenced you need to have the building blocks for adaptation in place (sleep, recovery, nutrition, etc). If these building blocks aren’t there then your training is either going to get you hurt or its not going to do anything and if you are hurt then you can’t compete or just not going to compete at a higher level and performances are not going to be improved…which is a waste. Ultimately, if you want to get better you need to understand that training is only one piece of the puzzle and doing more is not the answer to getting better. This is where your coach comes into play. Having open, honest, and trusting communication allows you to back off when it is needed (no one is always superman) but also when more can be done (some days you are ready to rock and you need to take advantage of that).  

Training does not equal performance improvement. Factor in the other elements. Learn, study, become a student of the sport but at the same time eat healthy, sleep as much as possible at regular time periods, and listen to coach and you are well on your way to getting better!