Training for Performance vs Training for Injury Prevention

strength and conditioning to prevent injury

Over the past decade, the idea of injury prevention has grown. This viewpoint has filtered into athletics training, and now people – parents, athletes, coaches, trainers, practitioners – are overly concerned about injury prevention without fully understanding what this notion accurately depicts.

Conceptually, athletic training has been reduced and consumed by injury prevention modeling. Even more concerning, the prevailing injury prevention ideology has built a narrative that suggests efforts to curtail injury should be seen as extraneous to regular training.

As a specific measure, coaches who directly focus on injury prevention methodologies are ultimately seen as protecting the best interests of athletes. This article looks back at where and why this term arose in popular media, and how and why it continues to infiltrate normalized vocabulary today.

A fundamental understanding of what necessitates training for performance is examined, as is the difference between performance training and injury prevention, and why training for performance should be an athlete’s ultimate goal.

The Recent History of Injury Prevention

The last ten years have seen an overemphasis on injury prevention concerning the research on common athletic injuries like ACL tears, hamstring strains, groin strains, and different rehabilitation strategies.

Research on these common injuries increased, as did the studies for preventative measures such as the incorporation of Nordic curls to reduce the likelihood of hamstring strains or Copenhagen’s to reduce the risk of groin strains.

During this time, the idea of being an “evidence-based” trainer increased in popularity because of an industry-driven affinity with “functional fitness.”

As justification for functional fitness trended, performance training became watered down. Coaches and practitioners took ideas from the literature verbatim rather than through the intended lenses used to substantiate the populations in those specific studies.

Instead, these coaches and practitioners should have extrapolated the evidence based on a concrete understanding of basic physiological and biomechanical principles. The emerging train of thought posited that all training should be “functional” in nature, propelling athletes to develop better “patterns” intended to reduce the risk of injury.

Unfortunately, promoting activity in this manner wasn’t considering the population at hand vs. the research.

Regardless, the industry began to advance the idea of “injury prevention” and incorporated the term into standardized vernacular, reaffirming its validity with every sales pitch. 

Injury prevention became an appealing term promoted to attract clients, parents, and athletes; if they trained with a specific practitioner, said practitioner would emphasize efforts to mitigate the risk of injury. If a coach or practitioner didn’t use the emergent terminology in sales pitches, advertising, or client assessments, did they even know what they were doing?

As a coach, were you promoting injury to your athletes because “injury prevention” wasn’t explicitly incorporated into your training program?

In short, no.

Injuries and injury mitigation are complex puzzles with far more pieces than simply adding in different exercises.

Redefining Strategies for the Future

The concept of training for performance warrants an industry re-address and to be dutifully re-defined.

First, one may ask: “What is the goal of performance?” In short, to be physically and mentally prepared for the forces, velocities, impacts (in contact sports), and physiological demands (conditioning) of a particular sport/event. All in an attempt to perform at one’s best at specific events or during specific times of the year.

Specifically, in preparation for and leading up to either a major event or the season, an athlete should experience a progressive training load to adapt to the stresses of training continually.

An athlete’s adaptation rate should occur expediently without system failure, provided there are enough rest periods, and the loading isn’t more intense than the athlete can manage. If continuous adaptation occurs with an appropriate recovery rate, the athlete will peak and be at their best for competition. 

So far, a gross overview of the training process has been observed, but a more thorough analysis reveals the individual aspects predominantly associated with performance training. Truncation of this analysis includes the following (in no specific order, nor as an exhaustive list):

  • Training load = training volume (sets, reps, distance) x training intensity (load, velocity, power, percentage of maximum)
  • Training density = frequency x training load
    • For example, how many high-intensity days do you have in a micro-cycle? 
  • Recovery = sleep, nutrition, hydration, therapeutic treatments
  • Mental performance = visualization, goal setting, positive self-talk, strategic planning, journaling, reflection, meditation, grounding, etc.
  • Personal life = relationship status, job, school, family life, bills, travel, etc.

A performance training plan must fundamentally incorporate a purposeful emphasis on training load, training density, recovery, mental performance, and work-life balance to enable athletes to reach the highest level of competition. In this light, reducing injury prevention to a handful of specific exercises makes absolutely no sense.

Simply put, there are too many other crucial variables that demand attention.

Therefore, if athletes are training for performance, their coaches should develop plans to incorporate more of these variables to reduce the risk of injury. As required, exercises like Nordics or Copenhagen’s can still be included as part of a training program.

Still, these exercises should not serve as a cornerstone to any program claiming to mitigate injury. Instead, these applications should be considered as part of a much larger picture. A professional will leverage the big picture to develop an athlete’s performance training plan when considering injury mitigation.

Moreover, when athletes train from an intelligently designed training plan, time spent under progressively higher training tension will increase overall capacity.

Thus, athletes with higher amplitude and exposure to training programs of this nature will see an increase in performance and experience less time away from training (potentially due to injury or by coaches averse to increasing load management), ultimately lowering the risk of injury. 

The Final Word

In conclusion, athletes want to align with professional coaches that understand the comprehensive requirements for performance training. If athletes only train not to be injured, they are not training to perform.

At the end of the day, the goal for any athlete is to perform at the highest level, and an athlete cannot perform if they’re injured. Essentially, training for performance includes injury risk reduction, while training for injury prevention does not increase performance. By not emphasizing performance, athletes will elevate their risk of injury because they are not ready for competition.

Athletes not prepared for competition will not achieve success, regardless of injury risk. Focus on training for performance, and if you do, you will reduce your risk of injury and be ready to compete at your best.