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Is Autoregulation the next step in Athlete Training Optimization?

Scientists and coaches have long been searching for the perfect interval workout that pushes the athlete hard enough to elicit a specific adaptation while keeping them healthy enough to continue to train consistently. Such studies have resulted in the creation of guidelines for set and rep schemes for both strength and endurance training aimed at targeting specific adaptations. While this research has gleaned many generalizable rules, these rules have a tendency to fall apart when applied purely on an individual basis. Even something as simple as hypertrophy training (3-5 sets of 8-12 reps) does not always elicit the mass gain it promises. Speaking from experience, it’s extremely frustrating to complete prescribed workouts, with what seems like adequate stimulus, without gaining the benefits that are touted.

In order to understand why more thought needs to go into the creation of a proper training program, we must first understand how scientific studies are conducted. Studies are completed in a highly controlled nature. When scientists are conducting a study they try to control for as many confounding variables as possible (like diet, sleep, etc.), they also want to maximize a participant’s physiologic response which typically results in the recruitment of untrained, sedentary individuals. Since these individuals do not exercise regularly, any stimulus they encounter should improve any/all aspects of physiology that are being measured. Finally, scientists look at average group changes, this means that you can have participants who are hyper responders, average responders, and non-responders. Non-responders are thought to make up 20% of the active population. However, through increasing volume during an endurance training study the prevalence of non-responders was essentially abolished (Montero and Lundby 2017). As a coach the goal of training isn’t just to get an athlete’s body to respond, but to respond optimally to training on any given day, to maximize performance on race day.

In order to understand how training can be manipulated daily to achieve optimal adaptations we must first understand the signals that are occurring to drive those adaptations. Adaptations to exercise are all mediated by the same eight basic homeostatic perturbations. These perturbations include oxygen flux, redox balance, energy balance, calcium flux, reactive oxygen species production, mechanical stress, temperature, and mechanosensation. All of which are occurring in the muscle during any type of physical activity. However, different adaptations arise from the combination of time, type, and intensity of each signal. Therefore, measuring one or all of these disturbances should result in better monitoring of the physiology of the muscle itself leading to more optimized training. Until recently, coaches have been hamstrung by the devices that are used to monitor training load. While heart rate monitors and power meters provide valuable insights to how an athlete is responding to exercise over time, they lack the fidelity to tweak an athlete’s workout on the fly, unless something major happens (i.e. cannot sustain power output, or heart rate just doesn’t recover.). This is where monitoring oxygen dynamics in the working muscle can really help a coach or athlete see how their physiology is changing in real-time. The ability to adequately supply and utilize oxygen is very sensitive to the chemical milieu of the blood and thus responds more readily to the development of fatigue.

Predetermined set and rep schemes are great for setting up a training plan, but in order to bring coaching or training to the next level why not measure changes in oxygen dynamics during workouts and dictate sets, reps, and recovery based on what is happening the muscle itself? This is where the concept of autoregulation comes in.  Autoregulation is the concept that training should be dictated based on an individual’s physiology and it’s response to training on a daily basis.  Over the next few blog posts I want to explore the concept of autoregulation through the use of muscle oxygen monitoring by exploring it’s utility in both strength and endurance training. 

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