A Saturday Sprint Session, and the Dose/Response/Drop-off Relationship

“…Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece,
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin’ in the street.
Bruce Spingsteen.  Though I’m kinda partial to my buddy Charlie Robison’s version.

Saturday’s workout commenced during hour 18 of an IF (intermittent fast), and consisted of a good deal of fixie interval sprints followed by a barefooted sprint session on artificial turf.  That my posterior chain was still pretty well zorched as a result of Friday’s deadlift/RDL hybrid may lead you to ask why the hell, then, follow that up with a sprint-intensive workout? And on logical terms I have to agree that this seems a poor choice at best.  However, this is where the real world meets the dose – response ratio, and where proper application of drop-offs can save even an illogical right-brainer from overdoing things.

I’ve got a big week ahead full of packing and moving that I know will preclude me from getting to the gym for a while.  Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are maybe’s – after that it’s a no-go for at least a week to 10 days.  Not only that, but this looks to be my last opportunity to workout at the ECU sporting complex.  I hate to leave this fine “playground” behind, but onward I must go.  New opportunities and new “playgrounds” I’ll find (or make) to be sure.  No regrets, no looking back.  Anyway, so add a pinch of “sentimentality” to the “real world” aspect of absolutely needing to sprint today; 17 years worth of “playground fun” will be sorely missed, no doubt.  Fond, fond memories.

Well, ok then – so let’s first take a quick look at the dose – response curve as I see it and as I operate by; my training “north star”, if you will.  If you follow no other “map” in your physical culture journey, please follow this one.  Tweak it as need be to fit your n=1 requirements, and be true to it.

My apologies for the crappy photo.  The “good” camera has already been packed away, so this was taken with my phone.  Anyway, what you see depicted here on the x-axis is “time” and on the y-axis we have “fitness level”, or “ability”, if you prefer.  The shaded area in the (x, -y) quadrant is “total induced fatigue, or stress”, with the shaded area in the (x, y) quadrant being “super-compensation”.  This is no more than a visual way of depicting the phenomena of working out, recovering for a few days, and at the end of that few days, being able to to workout again, but this time at a higher degree of fitness.

Ahh, but if only it were that easy.

Try to wrap your mind around all the things that can contribute to your overall “fatigue” level and you’ll end up in the funny farm in no time.  Work stress, sleep deprivation, money worries – you get the idea.  And I’m not even considering yet how the effect of Monday’s MetCon workout coupled with Wednesday’s heavy deadlift day and Thursday’s “moving the tanning bed down 2 flights of stairs and through a maze of packed boxes” will effect Friday’s planned bout of push-pressing.  Unless you happen to be a professional athlete though, or are just plain lucky enough to better control your outside “fatigue inducers” and are not hampered by any other obligations that can interfere with your workout schedule, then this is the “real life” that you’re bound to grapple with.  So what to do?

Enter Auto-Regulation, and the Drop-off method of gauging induced fatigue.

Let’s take Saturday’s barefooted sprint workout as an example.  Remember that my posterior chain is a bit fatigued already; overall, though, I feel pretty damn good and ready to rock & roll (Paleo does a body good, real good).  Now I’ve got a determination to make: I know I’m fatigued a bit, and so relative to my “prime (i.e., fully recovered, non-fatigued)” sprint condition, I’m sitting somewhere below baseline, in the (x, -y) quadrant, so to speak.  I want a nice sprint workout, yet I don’t want to trash myself either.  I need a way to somewhat gauge how much stress I’m putting on  my system, so that I can pull the plug on the session before I end up digging myself into a recovery hole that I won’t be able to climb out of.   The answer?  Well, under this particular set of circumstances, I chose a “sprint for time” session: a 6 second sprint, followed by a measure of the distance covered in each sprint, and once unable to match my best distance for the day, I pull the plug.  Each sprint duration was held at a constant 6 seconds throughout, with a standing start.  The distance covered in each sprint hovered around the 50 yard mark, though this wasn’t important in and of itself – what was important was the distance covered relative to the day’s other sprints.  I marked my best distance with a cone, nudging it further and further out as each successive sprint covered a tad bit more ground.  Here’s what it looked liked in practice:

  1. set mark
  2. beat mark, reset cone
  3. beat mark, reset cone
  4. beat mark, reset cone
  5. beat mark, reset cone
  6. beat mark, reset cone
  7. beat mark, reset cone
  8. equaled mark
  9. beat mark, reset cone
  10. equaled mark
  11. equaled mark
  12. miss, end session

Now if I had wanted to induce more fatigue, all I would have to do is continue on until I missed my day’s PR by a certain percentage – anywhere up to about a 10% drop-off is what I shoot for when I use this method, depending upon the modality employed.  As this was a pure speed workout (long rest intervals between individual sprints) as opposed to a more MetCon-leaning session (short rest between sprints), I opted for a “1 miss and done” drop-off.  If I were doing something more along the lines of MetCon work, I might opt for a drop-off of say 5% (or roughly 2.5 yards off of the best run of the day), in which case I would continue, 6-sec. sprint after 6-sec. sprint, until I missed my best mark by 2.5 yards.

Is this an exact science?  No, it’s only to be used as an indicator – but it’s a hell of a lot better than a shot-in-the-dark SWAG at how much fatigue should be induced, or how much is actually received, in a given workout.

Armed with this information, then, I can begin, over time, to correlate a dose – recovery factor for myself.  Everyone has different recovery abilities, though, so my “recovery factor” will differ from someone else’s.  In general terms, I can usually count on a recovery factor of about 1.2 days / % of induced fatigue on a like movement and modality.  In other words, if I were to have completed the above MetCon sprint session example (6 sec. sprints for distance, 5% drop-off), I’d wait at least 6 days (1.2 days x 5%), before tackling this same type workout again.  Sometime between 6 – 8 days, then ought to put me in the (x, y) quadrant, super-compensated sweet-spot – time to hit the same movement and modality again.

Again, this is not a precise science, as in real life there are just too many fatigue-inducing variables to have to juggle.  And to complicate matters, I’m forever altering my workout methods, movements and modalities.  Just as an example, what if I were to throw in an extremely tough, heavy dip and pull-up day right in the middle of my 6-day “recovery”?  Or get hit with a stressful marathon work tsunami?  Either will certainly induce a systemic fatigue that undoubtedly will affect my recovery from the preceding sprint session, so maybe I’ll bump my next planned sprint session out an extra day, just to be safe.  And when I do step barefooted back out onto the turf, I’ll again employ the auto-regulation/drop-off method to keep close tabs on my induced fatigue.

Doug McGuff employs a similar recovery methodology in his Body By Science protocol.  And since Doug is able to more accurately define the amount of induced fatigue dosed in a period of time (due to the nature of his overall workout protocol), he is therefore better able to more accurately predict a trainee’s “recovery factor” – as would I have been able to had I removed the heavy dip and pull-up workout from my example above.

This is yet another angle on the give-and-take, yin-yang nature of physical culture.  Another tool for the toolbox, another aspect to consider, discuss and refine.

In health,

11 responses to “A Saturday Sprint Session, and the Dose/Response/Drop-off Relationship

  1. Keith,

    I’d just like to thank you for your blog – it’s fantastic and has really helped me connect the dots in a lot of ways relating to my own training. The recovery aspect is something that I’ve really been neglecting. After having recently read Body By Science after seeing it mentioned here and now reading this post the pieces are really starting to fit… just had a big “aha” moment.

    I’ve nothing really to add to the discussion just wanted to express my gratitude for both your blog posts and all the discussion that happens in the comments… it’s a great resource.


    • Good deal, Dave. I’m happy that I can provide some form of assistance in your own, personal journey into physical culture wilderness.

  2. Uh Oh, the whiteboard is out! I love it! Thank you for taking time to explain this. I esp appreciate the diagrams and photos (I’m visual vs. linear). I learn so much from your blog. If I don’t understand what you’re talking about I find out. You’re blog has been referred to all over the place lately – conditioning research to name one. Nice. I’m so pleased! Congrats

    • Thanks, Beck! And I’m glad my whiteboard scribbles come in handy for you 🙂

      As far as the references: Good press from good people is invaluable. I hope the word continues to spread – and not just my word, but the Paleo community “word” as a whole. The more n=1 Paleo paths chronicled the better, in my opinion. There’s a rich diversity beneath the Paleo umbrella, and we can all learn something from one another.

  3. Great post Keith! Recovery is always the red-headed step-child of training. There is always so much emphasis on consistency and progression. We all want to see quick results! However, I preach to understand and enjoy the process.
    Training is another physiological stressor. I learned the art of what I call ‘psychosomatic readiness’. In esssence, plan on training regularly, but let your body tell you what it is ready for/needs that workout in terms of volume and intensity. Kinda zen-like periodization. A true mind-body awareness of it’s capacity, definately not for the beginner. My workout may be pushing new PR’s or simply a 20-minutes of easy mobility exercises and foam rolling.
    I think Robert Zapolsky’s book ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” is a great book covering stress physiology and recommend it to your readers.
    Good luck with the move!

    • This has been my on-going quest – to somehow merge that Zen-like ” body-presence” with more quantifiable measures of fatigue. I have found that the constant comparison of how I feel, with where I estimate myself to be on the dose-recovery scale, to be a good bio-feedback-like way to navigate the dose-response terrain. If that makes any sense 🙂 In some ways, it’s another step up in refinement from comparing how one feels to more crude indicators of stress/over-stress (morning pulse and/or temperature measurements, sleep quality, etc.).

  4. wants to know if the white board is in Keith’s office and whether he leaves the graphs up just to make his coworkers think he’s all scientific like.

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