Monitoring training intensity in unfunded Athlete’s

(This article was written by Hugh J. Gilmore showing how applied Strength and Conditioning experience intertwines with the discipline of applied Sport Psychology)

From our experience of working with athletes they are often underfunded, and under supported. Especially if they are in the process of developing toward a representative level. This blog post is going to tackle the problem of lack of monitoring when it comes to an athlete’s training load. This lack of monitoring can lead to overtraining and potential burnout.

This unfortunately is not uncommon to see in people who are pushing to make improvements. Indeed with younger athletes who may be playing in two different sports , or playing at different levels (i.e. representative and club) this is a serious concern.

Burnout was identified as a problem by the Ulster GAA in 2007 especially f a younger player was playing for multiple teams. Having provided Psychology Support to GAA players, we have witnessed first hand individuals playing for university, club and inter-county county teams all at the same time. Each of the different teams place different training demands on the of preparation the players. It would not be unusual for one manager  to focus on preseason another manager focusing on building for championship performance and the third manager wondering how to get the best out of a player who is already overtrained. The result is the player can be subjected to 3 different programs, and therefore have poorly programmed training. The task of trying to ride 2 horses with one ass would be easier than trying to train for 3 separate managers.

Indeed though overtraining is not just limited to GAA players. Many long distance runners can experience problems occurring such as shin splints or even stress fractures from overtraining. In weightlifting if you have attempted a Smolov cycle you will understand that those who are pushing the envelope of performance will need to lower training volume and intensity after a period of hard training. The simple fact is that intensity of training must be fluctuated between recovery and training, this concept is known as periodsation.

With in weightlifting it is easy to monitor an athletes training volume or workload as it can be measured in kg lifted for example:

  • Squat 100 kg x 5 reps x 5 sets = 100 x 5 x 5 = 2500 kg training workload / volume.
  • Squat  250 kg x 1 rep x 10 sets = 2500 kg lifted training workload / volume.

It is then very simple for the coach to monitor all exercises and keep a quantitative (number) of the amount lifted in each session. However, such methods lack the knowledge of how intense the session was. In the example above the same volume of weight is lifted but the intensity would differ.

If training volume is transferred into other sports like running, someone might run 50 miles a week,  but 50 separate one mile sprints a week produces a different training effect than two 25 mile runs. Volume alone is an insufficient marker of training.

The concept of monitoring athlete workload becomes even more difficult when you look at team sports like rugby, basketball, GAA ,soccer, netball etc.
Ideally a team physiologist could measure certain markers such as lactate, HRR, HRV, C-reactive protein, creatine kinase, and others which I’m probably not even aware of, or use GPS to monitor player movement and intensity. These would effectively measure the level of workload or fatigue and therefore determine adjustments to be made to the training volume.
Returning to the opening line of this post most people don’t have access to such services. Indeed one of our athletes who is working full-time, whilst juggling part-time study along with his training load only had his previous experience as an international athlete and our sport psychology support as to work with in the lead up to a recent major competition. He came 7th in a world masters championship  by the way (subject of another blog post coming soon).

In the applied setting the best tools are the tools that we have access to.

The RPE Rate of perceived exertion (or Borg) scale as it’s known is extremely useful in underfunded and amateur settings. It provides a perceived rating of the overall session performed. We measure the intensity using the table below;

RPE SCALE jpg (1)

In application, it is pretty simple to see that the a RPE of 1 =10% and that an RPE of 10 out of 10 = 100% of perceived capacity for intensity.

The RPE scale allows us to examine the perceived capacity of a athlete.  In their own eyes an athlete may under-perform at training and perceive it to be a maximal session. This then raises the concerns of  other life factors that could be affecting performance (stress at work/ home or lack of sleep).

Essentially coaches have to take the athlete’s and their whole life into account when programming and this is one of the most overlooked factors outside of professional sport. In our experience the RPE allows for this along with qualitative follow up and discussion with the athletes.

Recently  I have been working towards my UKSCA accreditation (given that I have a strong interest in Strength and Conditioning as a weightlifting coach).  Part of my 3 month programming criteria for the UKSCA strength and conditioning qualification is shown below.

Each session completed by the Inter-County Player was ranked on the RPE scale of 1-10, below is the data in graph format.


The athletes lifts progressed from technically poor to sound with strength gains:  (clean :70 x 3 RM to 87.5 x 5 RM ) (squat :101 x 3 rm to 112.5 x 5 rm x 5 sets)

The initial stage shows intensity building  (RPE increases sharply) as proficiency in the skills of squatting and cleaning is developed . Obviously one would not push intensity in the movements if technical proficiency is not developed. The next stage is a short holiday break, then intensity slowly building in a linear progression programme, with a break over Xmas and then reduction in training volume from 5 sets x 5 reps on the lifts to 3 sets x 5 reps. The reduction in volume creating a reduction in intensity of Strength and Conditioning sessions because the player now has  frequent concurrent county training sessions (red line: pitch based skill sessions) along side the Strength and Conditioning sessions(blue line) thus the recovery demands of all sessions must be taken into account.

The benefits of using RPE allowed flexible programming, if the athlete reported that he had a number of high intensity sessions in a row the following sessions could be adapted or rest periods expanded to allow for more recovery. In circumstances where the athlete is a student or has varied working hours/life commitments sessions often need to be moved or adjusted, and keeping records of each sessions intensity allows for optimal programming in environment where flexibility is needed. This environment is sometimes refereed to as “the real world”.

The use of the RPE scale in programming for this athlete provided a full view of training intensity as reported by the athlete, which was able to be monitored and adapted for optimal progress.

For sports where intensity and volume measures are difficult to quantify and there is a lack of physiology support, the RPE scale is an effective method of monitoring. For example with CrossFit athletes a RPE rating may be exceptionally useful, as training modes such as a “Fran”* vs a 5k run are incomparable. The addition of RPE data in the training diary helps to provide a quantitative method for feedback of relative intensity.

*(21,15,9 reps of pullups and front squat+ push presses super-stetted as fast as possible)

The RPE method is not without its short-comings though and as always if you want to get a full understanding of how this and other  psychological tools can be used to enhance your performance or your teams get in touch.

If what you have read here helps you then help us by sharing it on social media. 🙂

And check out our other posts for more helpful information which is evidence based. #AppliedScience.

If your a weightlifter check out the free resource in this post on Pre-Performance routines  which will help build consistency in your competition performance.


  1. Alexiou, H., & Coutts, A. J. (2008). A comparison of methods used for quantifying internal training load in women soccer players. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 3(3).
  2. Borg, G. A. V. (1982). Psychophysical bases of perceived exertion. Med sci sports exerc, 14(5), 377-381.
  3. Borresen, J., & Lambert, M. I. (2008). Quantifying training load: a comparison of subjective and objective methods. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 3(1).
  4. Charro, M. A., Aoki, M. S., Coutts, A. J., Araujo, R. C., & Bacurau, R. F. (2010). Hormonal, metabolic and perceptual responses to different resistance training systems. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 50(2), 229-234.

(Thanks to Hannah for editing)