Little by Little:

An Introduction to Load Management



Milo of Croton was a 6th century BC wrestler.  Born in the Greek colony of Croton (now southern Italy), he is regarded as one of the best wrestlers who ever lived in Ancient Greece.  According to legend, he built his strength as a young man by carrying a bull calf on his shoulders every day.  Slowly, the bull grew in size, and slowly but surely, Milo grew stronger to be able to carry him.  In time, Milo was carrying a full sized ox with ease.

So, what can we learn from this (possibly exaggerated) tale?

While I am not recommending that my patients, or anyone, should attempt to lift any farm animals, this story illustrates a fundamental principle in exercise prescription & physiotherapy in general: start small and gradually do more over time.

Not only is this rule essential to improving fitness & health, it is also crucial in managing the risk of injury (this is where us physios come in).  While exercise is probably the most powerful medicine we can give, most of its benefits are actually derived from adapting to the stress it puts on the body, not the actual exercise itself.  This is why we must start small and build up slowly, to allow our body time to recover and adapt.  When we do too much too soon (like jumping straight into running 10km at once when we haven’t ran in years), our body can’t adapt to the sudden increase in “stress”, and we may get sore or injured.

More recently, this principle has been studied and expanded on in great detail.  Tim Gabbett, an Australian researcher, has published several studies on the topic of “load management”.  He has found in his publications that keeping your overall load/exercise done between 80-130% of what you have done in the past 4 weeks is the best way to minimise your risk of injury (more on this later). It was also found that increasing your load by 50% or more significantly increases risk of injury.

Take Home Points

So, how can you apply all of this to your own exercise habits? The key, as stated above, is to start small & increase gradually.

To use the above example to illustrate, let’s say you have averaged running 10km per week, every week, for the past month.  This week, or in the week coming, your best bet is to aim for 8-13km.  If you wish to push it and improve your fitness & capabilities, then aim for the higher end.  If you are pressed for time this week but still want to maintain your fitness, aim for the lower end.

A good rule of thumb is to increase your total distance by no more than 10% week to week.

If you have never ran before, start with as short a distance as you can.  You can even start very small, running for 1 minute day 1, 2 minutes day 2 etc, until you get to a realistic time and distance that you are comfortable with.  This may seem silly, but small increases over a long time amount to a big difference.

Of course, this rule doesn’t pan out indefinitely. We probably can’t work up to running a 2 hour marathon every day for the rest of our lives, but it provides a good framework.

However, if you do ever get a bit too excited and run that bit further, or do a little bit too much in the gym, and end up hurting, we at Physiocare are here to help.


Further Reading

  1. Hulin, B.T., Gabbett, T.J., Lawson, D.W., Caputi, P. and Sampson, J.A., 2016. The acute: chronic workload ratio predicts injury: high chronic workload may decrease injury risk in elite rugby league players. Br J Sports Med, 50(4), pp.231-236.

Murray, N.B., Gabbett, T.J., Townshend, A.D., Hulin, B.T. and McLellan, C.P., 2017. Individual and combined effects of acute and chronic running loads on injury risk in elite Australian footballers. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 27(9), pp.990-998.

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