The Stress Scale for Long Term Speed Development

The Stress Scale for Long Term Speed Development 

Keys to Planning, Managing, and Improving Speed Over Time 

By Adam Menner 

Because nothing in life is perfect, daily stressors inevitably will inhibit our ability to train optimally. I knew I couldn’t manage the external stressors that my athletes experienced, but I decided I could create something that would account for their level of readiness on any given day.

The Stress Scale for Athletes dramatically changed the way I train athletes. The scale allows me to apply the appropriate training load for a session based on an athlete’s readiness that day despite any stresses they’re dealing with outside the gym. I’ve used it for the past eight months, and it has served us surprisingly well with significant results.

The information I present is a culmination of existing concepts, including the Prilepin’s Chart, the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale, and fatigue management concepts I’ve put together based on “in the trenches” empirical data. I’ve recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of different numbers in my ten notebooks that I carry with me daily. I hope this information helps you well in your training and coaching.


Recognizing the Stress Problem

We all experience stress. Stress manifests itself in many ways, both acutely and chronically. Furthermore, all stressors are not created equal—to an extent. However, both types of stress have a large effect on our training and the ability to recover from each training session.

A training session consisting of 4×10 volume squats puts significant stress on the body and will cause fatigue in most of us. Emotional pain is a stressor as well, for example a break up with a significant other. One physical, one physiological, both cause systemic stress on the body that will inhibit optimal subsequent training sessions.

When thinking about stress, it’s useful to start with the General Adaptation Syndrome. Very small amounts of stress won’t provoke a very robust adaptive response, while more stress increases adaptation. Too much stress—to the point where we can’t cope physically or psychologically— decreases the rate of adaptation.

Keep in mind that, while our bodies don’t differentiate types of stress to a great degree, the specific adaptations to various stressors (lifting weights, a car crash, and tight work deadlines, for example) will differ. Also, the body’s general response to any stressor is very similar regardless of the specific stressor we encounter.

This means that all the stressors in life pool together and dip into the same reservoir of “adaptive reserves” available for recovering from those stressors. This allows us to adapt so we’ll be better equipped to handle them next time. With strength training, this means bigger and stronger muscles, more resilient tendons and connective tissue, and bones that can handle heavier loading.

Our bodies need a certain amount of stress to function normally. If we remove all the stressors from our lives, our bodies begin to deteriorate. For example, if we were to win the lottery and spend a year lying on the couch watching reality TV, facing no stressors that challenge us physically or mentally, we’d be much weaker and in much worse health than we are now with some baseline level of physical and psychological stress.


My Challenge as a Coach

It’s nearly impossible to monitor an athlete’s stress levels since we have little control over the external things that happen to them outside the weight room. In most cases, we see our athletes no more than 8-10 hours a week. There are 168 hours in the week. That leaves athletes with at least 158 hours experiencing other external and internal stressors.

As coaches, our job is to ensure our athletes feel good, are ready to perform, and can sustain a healthy lifestyle that is conducive to sport success. Because we cannot control everything that happens outside the gym, we must create training programs that will most benefit our athletes no matter what’s going on in their lives.

My professional athletes are always ready to go because they’ve dedicated their entire lives to training. They take the necessary steps to put themselves in the best position to succeed. I don’t train many professional athletes at a time, however, because of their busy schedules.

Like most coaches, the bulk of my athletes consist of high school and collegiate athletes, ranging from 14-22 years old. This Is where things get tricky. We all know what amazing things happen during those years: partying, late nights, relationships, breakups, school work, and the daily stress of home life. These may seem small to us now, but we all remember how much they influenced us at that age and how we felt on a daily basis.

One week my athletes came in, and the weights were moving. They were hitting numbers 25-30lbs over what we prescribed for the day. The problem with this happened during the following weeks of training. They did not even come close to the numbers they were supposed to hit based on their performances the previous week. As always, I asked them how they felt, what they ate, how they slept, and how their weekends were. The answers always changed. “I didn’t sleep well” or “I had a rough weekend” or “I didn’t have time to eat.”

This was when I knew I couldn’t keep prescribing the same thing week after week with minor tweaks here and there. I needed a holistic training program overhaul.

Taking a step back to see the big picture might provide some invaluable insight as to why an athlete is the way he or she is. If we see someone struggling, it might be time to pare down the stimuli so we can get a less miserable looking elephant.

As stated above, there are significant figures in each athlete’s life helping prioritize different goals. These people must view stress holistically in order to avoid competing demands and extreme chronic stress. Coaches, parents and teachers cannot view their respective training tools in a vacuum separate from all other stressors. They must also empower athletes to learn how to choose what stressors are most beneficial. Both parties operating in good faith can certainly influence decision-making for the better.

Viewing training in a vacuum is something I think S&C coaches fall victim to frequently. We fixate on physiology yet fail to acknowledge there are numerous components factoring into the makeup of an athlete.

Coordinative factors relate to movements that support technical skill/sport development; conditional factors deal with general biological motor capabilities; socio/affective factors concern themselves with relationships and identifying one’s role on a team; emotive/volitional factors determine feelings or mood; the creative/expressive structure relates to a sense of fun or style of play that is very personal; and then of course the mental component works to tie all these structures together, forming the human sports person.


Why are these important? 

Well, a holistic outlook helps remind coaches that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint any one thing as the deciding factor for success. 

Different athletes will be more attuned to different factors and we cannot let our biases dictate our messaging or our training. This is not to say that we can’t establish a framework for our teams to work under, but it cannot be so rigid as to deprive an athlete from self-discovery and decision-making. 

When we design a program, it must be fluid and tweaked according to individual needs. The components that make up the human sports person give us more context as to the underlying mechanisms that make each athlete tick.


What is Our Main Role as Sport Performance Coaches?

In essence, all coaches and teachers have become stress managers – an enormous responsibility. If a culture embraces a holistic view of stress and is aware of all the facets that comprise a human athlete, conversations can be had between disciplines that focus on creating an environment that regulates stressors from all sources based on the needs of the athlete and the demands of the sport. This facilitates a positive perception of the environment for the athlete, which leads to a belief in the process being utilized. Everyone wins as stress becomes a weapon to fuel positive adaptation.

This process is of course evolving each passing day, indicating the rigid vestiges of traditional periodization are not optimal in this model of a team. Yet this should not downplay the importance of a well-constructed program. Rather, it’s to shed light on the constraints that S&C coaches will inevitably face.

S&C in modern team sports is often low on the totem pole of priorities so an airtight plan with intricate sets and reps is not typically feasible. Our belief system likely needs to shift in order to maximize our impact and help athletes. Essentially, we must be flexible in our programming, and for myself utilizing the Stress Scale for Speed Development. Below, are 4 critical components of the Stress Scale for Long-Term Speed Development. 


Stressors of Control 

Athletes will have days in practice or competition where loads will be high and days where they will be low. General stressors in the weight room should match sport specific stressors. This way the same intensities and volumes are addressed on the same day. Mixing different stressors on the same day is a failure to acknowledge the universal response of the body to stress. The body does not account for modalities such as practice or lifting – it only knows intensity/neural stress and volume/tissue stress. Low load days must be low both on and off the court or field. Through this, the body will be ready to express maximum output on high load days.


Microdosing Training Sessions 

 Given the level of competing stressors throughout the day – and that time is generally the most prominent constraint for S&C coaches – training is best when a “less is more” approach is utilized. Research shows that even a single set of squats for 6- 12 reps at 70-85% of a 1RM can boost strength levels. So rather than indiscriminately pile on stress in general training when the demands of sport are already high, employ the minimal effective dose to get the adaptation we are chasing. If possible, build qualities with more training density where time allows and then keep the foundation intact during busier periods through microdosing training loads.


Vertical Integration 

American sport culture will always prioritize competition and tactical/technical development over general training. This leaves limited time for strength coaches to work with athletes. Blocks of concentrated training aren’t feasible in many cases and some qualities such as sprinting have technical aspects that must be addressed more consistently throughout training. Thus, training multiple qualities at once makes sense given the environmental constraints for the modern athlete. This doesn’t mean train all qualities at once, but the pursuit of one, single quality at a time is a luxury many of us will not be afforded.


Undulating Periodization: 

Not only are we training multiple qualities at once, we are also going to undulate volume and intensity throughout the week. The Stress Scale for Speed Development will allow us to properly dose volume and intensity and ensure that any qualities developed through more concentrated blocks of training are maintained. All volumes and intensities can be achieved in a given week by consolidating stressors and microdosing.

I want to make it clear that when there is time to develop specific qualities that require more attention, every effort must be made to achieve that goal. However, ask athletes in almost any setting and those periods are few and far between. High school athletes typically play multiple sports or play a sport that encompasses the whole year with multiple seasons, travel play, etc. The average teenage athlete has a more structured schedule than many adults with classes, practice, games, homework, college preparation, social engagements, etc. 

All this alone leads to many 12-hour days and mountains of stress from an avalanche of sources. Hard to find times of the year to vigorously pursue individual qualities much less train extensively in any capacity. College athletes typically have the best opportunity as they generally play their sport for a semester and have the summer and another semester to train. However, course loads and extensive practice can take that away. Not mention social gatherings that typically involve less 

Our tissues must be prepared for the volume prescribed in each session or we risk potential injury or subsequent decrease in performance.

Intensity or neurological stress can be quantified as rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or a percentage of max output such as a 1RM or max velocity. Our central nervous system (CNS) is depleted by higher intensities of training. Thus, our daily readiness will undulate based on the level of NS we expose ourselves to in previous training sessions.

In essence, tissue preparedness and neural readiness are deeply intertwined under the umbrella of health and performance. Tissues need to be trained to adapt and the nervous system will be taxed when we impose such demands on the body especially at higher intensities. Maintaining robust tissues and a highly functioning nervous system all while imposing stress and regulating the perception of that stress can be difficult. Yet if properly managed, the work will yield a better human who can accomplish impressive physical feats.

I feel it important to note that high intensity outputs and velocities are often ignored for more volume-based modalities as neurological fatigue is not as recognizable to the naked eye. Most of us can visibly tell there is an effect from excessive volume (someone gassing out). However, what they forget is that over reliance on such methods can leave someone with all the capacity in the world yet diminished top end athleticism due to operating below their capabilities.

A prime example of this can be found in running. Many of us love to distance run, but at no point in that endeavor do we maintain velocities close to what is demanded in sport. We can certainly experience extreme fatigue from running a mile, but the intensity or overall power output falls short of what is expected to race for a loose ball or shake a defender.

Having a motor is great, but if horsepower is always trained submaximally then you won’t win many battles in sport. Thus, high intensity neural training plays a huge role in developing a great athlete.

Also be mindful that some athletes will be more equipped to deal with metabolic tissue stressors while others will more readily handle high intensity neurological outputs. When designing a training week, we must be sure that each athlete is ready to play or train at a high level on the right days. Some will be optimally prepared for those days with more volume while others will perform better with intensity-based training.


Here is the Breakdown of Each Component of a Sprint 


Speed Endurance (Lactic)| High Volume/Low Intensity

For Aerobic Capacity: Extensive tempo runs, bodyweight circuit training

We are aiming to improve O2 delivery, tissue preparedness for sprinting and limit occlusion of blood flow in muscles. Considering that O2 works hand in hand with PCr (our ability to produce power), these strategies could set us up nicely for the high intensity day to follow. Also note, that all aerobic endeavors for non-endurance athletes should be broken into chunks. Continuous steady state training could result in athletes operating in a hypoxic environment making the stressors much higher than anticipated. We do not want to prevent fresh blood from going to the muscles for extended periods of time on a high volume/low intensity day.

For Hypertrophy: Strength training with submaximal loads to failure, strength circuits

If we are targeting hypertrophy, then it is imperative to completely desaturate O2 from the muscle (this can help improve O2 utilization). Lifting submaximal loads to failure for just a single set will stimulate such growth without being so intense it disrupts subsequent training sessions. Loaded submaximal circuits can also be used for hypertrophy and work capacity (either aerobic or lactic).


Absolute Speed (MV – A lactic) | High Volume/High Intensity

These are the moneymaker sessions. Outputs and volume will be high. This is where the most adaptation will occur and all other training must be set up to facilitate success on these days. Target adaptations can be almost anything, but primarily focus on max strength and acceleration/speed. 

For Max Strength: Strength training with maximal loads

Max effort lifting will increase strength and motor unit recruitment. It is also important to remember that lifting can also occlude blood flow due to high levels of tension. Lifting is important, but too much of it can take away from the delivery of oxygen to tissue and an athlete’s fluidity. Every sport requires different levels of strength and external loading must be dosed wisely according to each athlete’s physical abilities and respective sport demands.

For Acceleration/Speed: Sprinting at various distances, jumps and throw

Sprinting will increase alactic power/capacity and if ample rest is taken between sets it can aid in overdelivery of O2 to the tissue as well. There is also the technical learning curve for sprinting. We must sprint to build up resiliency to it, but we must also determine what style of sprinting is best for us and what tweaks will make each of us more efficient and faster. Jumps and throws are modalities that can train high outputs and elements of sprinting.


Speed Reserve (A Lactic – Lactic)| Low Volume/High Intensity

These sessions are always short in duration and microdose either force or velocity. Output will be high, but volume limited. Target adaptations can include acceleration/speed, Longer distance speed at medium to higher intensities (70-85%)  and dynamic strength. These sessions typically involve high velocity movements that stimulate the CNS and can further improve power development. This can improve readiness for subsequent training days.

For Speed: Sprinting at various distances

Sprinting will increase alactic power/capacity and if ample rest is taken between sets it can aid in overdelivery of O2 to the tissue as well. Typically, an acceleration focus OR longer distances at slightly lower intensities to prepare the tissues for higher velocity based days at longer distances. 

For Dynamic Strength: Lifting submaximal weights at high velocities, jumps and throws

Dynamic effort is simply moving submaximal loads at high velocities. This can recruit motor units in addition to improving inter and intramuscular coordination. Jumps and throws can also help bridge the gap between lifts and sprints.


Aerobic (Oxidative) Speed)|Low Volume/Low Intensity

Active recovery or light exercise is the name of the game here. For active recovery and light exercise: Walking, meditating, resets

Any low-level option that will promote blood flow and not tax the system will work, be it a dynamic warm up, shooting hoops and walking. Yoga, meditation and breathing will also activate the parasympathetic nervous system.


I cannot overstate this: do not look at training stressors in a vacuum. Humans are coping with stressors from a variety of sources, training being just one such source. This holistic view of stress will help us more adequately dose exercise. One individual’s training may not be sufficient enough to register as a  stimulus for someone else based on tissue preparedness, neurological readiness, training age or the impact of other life stressors. 

Know when to work for an adaptation and when to back off. This can only come from knowing your athletes and in turn the athletes knowing their bodies. Plan, Freestyle, & Record.

The game itself is what draws athletes and sport coaches. It will reign supreme. Luckily for a strength coach, stress exists in their realm just as it does ours. The Stress Scale for Speed can therefore be used to quantify stressors in practice or competition. 

GAME APPLICATION for The Stress Scale for Speed 

The game itself is what draws athletes and sport coaches. It will reign supreme. Luckily for a strength coach, stress exists in their realm just as it does ours. The Stress Scale for Speed can therefore be used to quantify stressors in practice or competition. 

A longer practice with a low RPE would fit into the Aerobic Work. 

A game or lengthy, high-intensity practice would be Max Velocity & Speed Reserve 

Speed Endurance would be a moderate to short practice, but intense burst of practice while maintaining relatively similar outputs throughout. 

Complete Aerobic Work would be a complete off day of practice or game. 

As coaches, it’s extremely important that we can match daily training demands with daily sport demands so that mixed signals are not being sent to the body and stress is streamlined. 

The Stress Scale for Speed Development is so simple that coaches from different backgrounds can easily get on the same page in regard to loads, providing a better day to day for their athletes. Some athletes respond really well to tissue stimulus and volume. Others will thrive with neurological stimulus and intensity. 

As athletes develop a training age, they become more aware of what they can handle in training and how it will affect them in subsequent sessions. We can help them through this process with open sets, velocity-based training, percentages, or modification of the exercise prescription. All have their pros and cons. What matters is that the athlete learns that max effort loading is not a linear process especially when faced with the daily demands of sport. There will be days where the same loads cannot be achieved. Rather than force something that isn’t there and overload the system, they can regulate output with these protocols. Remember we still want a stimulus, but heavier or more isn’t the answer.

Adam Menner

Adam Menner

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