Top gun actor giving a thumbs up from his fighter jet.

What Happens When we Ride into the Training Load “Danger Zone?”


You might meet Tom Cruise, you might meet Kenny Loggins. What we do know is, you WILL increase your risk of injury.

Managing the training load of athletes on a 1 to 1 basis can be a simple process, keep a diary, track training intensity and duration, utilise a GPS unit if it’s available. What happens when I have a squad of 30 players though?

It would be simple if injuries weren’t a whole thing that happened, if players all came back from offseason in shape and fit, everyone put in 100% intensity at training, or everyone turned up to each session. There are so many twists and turns once you add in multiple people that riding the curve to avoid pushing too deep into the danger zone becomes incredibly difficult.


You don’t need to be Maverick from Top Gun!

Nail the basics, listen to your athletes, adapt sessions as needed, and know when to push your players harder.

We will teach you those basics, so you can get the most from your athletes.

We are going to break down some of Tim Gabbett’s finest work, bring you all of the practical details, so you can implement it from day 1 with your team.

Tim has worked with elite sporting teams around the globe, ranging from NBA, NFL, MLB, EPL, NRL, AFL, and international sporting teams.

“regardless of the interplay of risk factors or inciting biomechanical event, every athletic injury  is sustained while athletes are exposed to training and competition workloads. Match workloads are due to the competitive demands of the sport, while practice workloads are applied to athletes with the goal of inducing positive physiological changes and  maximising performance.”

– Windt and Gabbett 2017

What does my athlete need to prepare for?

Before you even begin to contemplate what your training sessions should involve, how intense they need to be, and how long they will run for. You first need to answer the question of what am I asking them to do on game day.

Answering this question will give you a destination and you simply have to fill in the steps between where your athletes are now, and get them there safely.

To completely answer this question you will have to consider a range of factors such as will you play a fast or slow tempo, how many substitutions are available in your sport, are there rest periods available during the game, and will players shift positions during the game. There are many other factors that interplay here, but clearly defining the way your team will play will dictate the load required of your athletes.

How do I determine what my athletes need to be prepared for?

The simplest way to perform this is to video a match and watch it back. This will allow you to track the number of high intensity sprintswhether they are shorter or longer distance sprintsdoes your team require more of an aerobic base rather than repeated sprint efforts.

It can allow you to compare different positional requirements, for example a midfielder will likely have different requirements to a striker or winger. You could reason that they both need to be prepared for different loads in the game and should be training slightly differently to each other.

Once you have determined what your athletes NEED to perform to be able to play the way you want them to play, it is a much simpler process to design training sessions.

What is the primary goal of load management?

The perception among general society is that load management soley = injury prevention. 

Consider the Australian Cricket Team, they were heavily criticised for their bowler rotation concept. The perception was that our bowlers were bowling LESS. The reality? They were bowling more, much more. Mitchell Johnson was brought home from a one day series in India to bowl MORE overs in preparation for a test series. 

What this allowed the Johnson and the performance team to do, was prepare him for the load he was about to perform. If he had played in the one day series he wouldn’t have bowled as many overs resulting in him riding straight into the danger zone once the test series started.

I would contest the perception of load management, a reduction in injuries is simply a side benefit, the AIM of load management is to improve performance on the pitch.

How do I manage a player coming back from injury?

The eternal dilemma for coaches and athletes alike, this process is never easy, there is always an element of risk when returning from injury. It is imperative that you consider as the two most important factors with regards to load – how long has the athlete been away for, and what have they been doing in the meantime?

Take these two scenarios:

Left winger who injured their hamstring, 3 weeks to return to team training, didn’t see a physiotherapist, has done no strengthening exercises and has been working extra hours at their office job.


Left winger who injured their hamstring, 3 weeks to return to team training, saw a physiotherapist, had a stringent exercise program, has been doing running drills since day 3 post injury with gradually increasing intensity and has been consistent with their rehabilitation and appointments.

Both of these athletes spent the same amount of time on the sidelines, but they are prepared for completely different levels of training. The first athlete is waving a big red flag that says “I’m an injury risk!!!”. The second has improved their strength, likely has good range of motion, and importantly has maintained running load, for sports involving running that is a huge benefit for returning to training.

As physiotherapists we are often painted with the brush that we simply are there to rule players out of training and wrap them in cotton wool so they don’t get injured. What we should be doing is finding everything our athlete CAN do, and keep them doing it. If an athlete has an adductor strain and can still run in a straight line, guess what, we will keep them running in a straight line. Once they can do change of direction, we should get them doing change of direction drills ASAP.

“match analysis using global positioning systems has shown that peak match speed is about 87% of maximal sprinting speed obtained  in a sprint test, and differs by playing position (about 94% for strikers and 85% for central midfielders)”

– Nassis and Gabbett 2017

Train Smart, Not Harder

What all of this is beginning to boil down to, is training specificity. It’s a word that is thrown around a lot but not many people truly understand it, let alone know how to apply it.

 “The essence of training specificity is that training responses elicited by a given exercise mode are directly related to the physiological elements involved with coping with the specific exercise stress.”

– Paul Gamble 2006

What Paul is saying in his article from 2006, is that I can only get better at a task by doing that task. If I want to get better at sprinting, I need to sprint more, if I want to get better at long distance running and endurance activities, you guessed it right, I need to do more long distance and endurance activities.

Now, everyone knows this up to this point, that is basic knowledge and common sense. But when was the last time you analysed your style of play, looked at different positions and the demands placed upon them. It is this level of detail and specificity of your training that will allow your team to both exceed on the pitch, and reduce your injury rates.

A number of years ago, I went to a seminar Tim Gabbett ran, he spoke of working with an NFL team who was having a lot of hamstring injuries in a position involving repeated sprint efforts. What he found was that these athletes were doing long distance running at training to avoid getting hamstring injuries.

I’ll give you a minute to see if you can spot the problem.







If you picked that they were getting hamstring injuries in games because they weren’t doing sprint training, you were correct. The team was avoiding placing athletes under load in fear of injury, but when they played a game they weren’t prepared for that specific type of load.

So what did Tim do?

He made them do repeated sprint training.

What was the result?

An improvement in wins, and a reduction in hamstring injury rates in that position.

What Tim did was nothing magical or special. He simply looked at what are the demands of that position and trained them to be able to perform on game day.

This is the best way that training specificity can help you, but for it to work you have to determine what you need out of your athletes first.

Don’t be the NFL team that is asking their wide receivers to perform repeated sprints on game day, but training them all week with long distance running.

What is significant about the graph above is when the injuries are occurring. There is a HUGE spike in December lasting all the way through to February.

The significance of this, is hugely relevant for all sporting teams. Consider the Australian sporting calendar, a lot of our high participation sports occur throughout the winter months. Our pre-season for these sports often occur between December and late February. 

What this means, is our athletes are coming in UNPREPARED for pre-season training, resulting in injuries and reduced performance. If you start off on the back foot in becomes near impossible to catch up. You need players fit BEFORE the season even starts. To get them fit, they need to come in with a certain level of fitness or THEY WILL BREAK DOWN.

Next we will be discussing just that, what do our athletes need to be doing BEFORE pre-season to ensure they can come in ready to develop the fitness they need for the season ahead.

 Controlling for training load in a given week, completing 10 additional preseason sessions was associated with a 17% reduction in the odds of injury.

Increased preseason participation was associated with a lower percentage of games missed due to injury, with 10 preseason sessions predicting a 5% reduction in the percentage of games missed.  

– Windt, Gabbett, Ferris and Kahn 2016

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