Internal and External Training Load: 15 Years On
Franco M. Impellizzeri, Samuele M. Marcora, and Aaron J. Coutts
Exercise is a stressor that induces various psychophysiological responses, which mediate cellular adaptations in many organ
systems. To maximize this adaptive response, coaches and scientists need to control the stress applied to the athlete at the
individual level. To achieve this, precise control and manipulation of the training load are required. In 2003, the authors
introduced a theoretical framework to deﬁne and conceptualize the measurable constructs of the training process. They described
training load as having 2 measurable components: internal and external load. The aim of this commentary is to extend, clarify,
and reﬁne both the theoretical framework and the deﬁnitions of internal and external training load to avoid misinterpretation of
Keywords:workload, exercise training, stimulus, stressor, psychobiological response
The concepts of internal and external training load were ﬁrst
presented at the Eighth Annual Congress of the European College
of Sport Science in Salzburg, Austria (2003)
at an invited session
and symposium organized by Tom Reilly. The content of this
presentation was included in 2 follow-up papers, which ﬁrst
described the taxonomy of the training stimulus.
concepts were initially proposed in the context of team sports, the
terms internal and external training load are now used more
generally in both the research and practice.
In the original
article, the concepts of internal and external load were introduced,
but we did not address them in depth. Therefore, the intention of
this commentary is to extend, clarify, and reﬁne both the theoretical
framework and the deﬁnitions of internal and external training load
to also avoid misapplication or misinterpretation of these concepts
as they were originally proposed.
The Training Process
Athletic or sport training has been deﬁned as the process of sys-
tematically performing exercises to improve physical abilities and
to acquire speciﬁc sport skills.
When delivered appropriately,
exercises induce a functional adaptive response. It is these func-
tional adaptations that underpin changes in various training out-
comes such as physical performance, injury resistance, or health.
The exercise bout induces a psychophysiological response, and it is
this response (rather than the exercise task itself) that provides the
stimulus for adaptation.
Potentially, any strategy inducing the same
response would have a similar effect (eg, pharmacological interven-
The athlete’s response to the stimulus and the stimulus itself
is speciﬁc to the nature, intensity, and duration of the exercise task.
A single exercise bout can generate a stimulus that elicits a tran-
sient acute adaptive response while the systematic repetition of this
stimulus and the associated response are necessary to elicit chronic
adaptations. This training stimulus should also to be applied at
sufﬁcient time periods and be of appropriate magnitude to prevent
decay of these adaptations prior to competition. According to the
principle of reversibility, if the stimulus discontinues, previous
adaptations revert and performance declines.
To obtain speciﬁc
performance adaptations, training needs to target the systems that
determine performance (Figure 1).
Training Load: Internal and External Load
The training load in the context of athletic training has been
described as the input variable that is manipulated to elicit the
desired training response.
Training load can be described as being
either external and/or internal,
depending if we are referring to
measurable aspects occurring internally or externally to the athlete.
The organization, quality, and quantity of exercise (training plan)
determine the external load, which is deﬁned as the physical work
prescribed in the training plan.
Accordingly, measures of ex-
ternal load are speciﬁc to the nature of training undertaken. For
example, the external load in resistance training is usually consid-
ered the load (external resistance) lifted; however, it may also be
expressed as work completed or the velocity generated during
Similarly, in team sports, external load can be described
by measures of total distance covered (or in speciﬁc speed bands),
accelerations, or metabolic power (as examples).
name (ie, it infers metabolism, which is internal to the athlete),
the latter is mathematically derived from the speed–time proﬁle and
therefore remains an external load indicator. Irrespective of how it
is quantiﬁed, coaches prescribe training according to external
load to elicit the desired psychophysiological response. It is this
response that corresponds to the internal training load. Accord-
ingly, measures of internal load can be indicators reﬂecting the
actual psychophysiological response that the body initiates to cope
with the requirements elicited by the external load. Therefore, the
concept of internal load incorporates all the psychophysiological
responses occurring during the execution of the exercise (single or
sequence) prescribed by the coach. According to our deﬁnitions,
the concepts of external and internal load do not have a single or
gold standard measure, but rather these may be quantiﬁed by a
myriad of variables, which describe the external load or the internal
response during the exercise. In addition, the validity of a measure
Impellizzeri and Coutts are with the Facultyof Health, Human Performance Research
Centre, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Marcora is with
the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Kent, Chatham, United
Kingdom, and the Dept of Biomedical and NeuroMotor Sciences (DiBiNeM),
University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Impellizzeri (franco.impellizzeri@uts.
edu.au) is corresponding author.
International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, (Ahead of Print)
© 2018 Human Kinetics, Inc. INVITED COMMENTARY
of a load indicator depends upon the context. For example, heart
rate is a valid measure of internal load for endurance training but
not for resistance training. Moreover, even within the same context,
a single load measure may not have the same level of validity
(eg, heart rate is a less valid indicator of internal load in short
duration, intermittent high-intensity efforts compared with long
distance or interval training).
Internal Over External Load
As the internal training load determines the training outcome, we
recommend that this can be used as primary measure when moni-
toring athletes. This is because the internal load experienced from
aspeciﬁc external load may vary depending on speciﬁc contextual
factors either between or within athletes. For example, speciﬁc
modiﬁable and nonmodiﬁable factors such as training status, nutri-
tion, health, psychological status, and genetics may result in indi-
vidual athletes experiencing a different internal load (and individual
differences in adaptive processes
) when provided same external
load (Figure 1).
As some of these characteristics are not ﬁxed,
the internal load experienced by a speciﬁc athlete for a given
external load may also change when these factors are modiﬁed
(ie, changes in their training status, health, etc). In addition, the stress
response (ie, internal load) can be inﬂuenced by other stressors
(eg, hot conditions during training) affecting the psychophysiologi-
cal response to exercise.
Therefore, from a practical point of view, it is difﬁcult to
precisely estimate the individual’s actual internal load prior to
exercise. This is especially the case during exercise bouts that are
characterized by spontaneous activities and/or those that are inﬂu-
enced by self-pacing and sparing behaviors (eg, small-sided games,
match play, or sparring in combat sports). Due to these factors, we
recommend that internal load can be assessed directly so that we
can be sure that the intended psychophysiological response was
induced as planned.
The recent development of more sophisticated (micro)tech-
nology now allows for increasingly detailed information about
For example, with the use of GPS (global posi-
tioning systems), accelerometers, and gyroscopes, it is now rela-
tively simple to quantify accelerations, decelerations, speed, and
power during exercise. However, as a result of the increased
availability of these devices, the attention of coaches and scientists
appears to have shifted to examining the external load rather than
the actual psychophysiological response (ie, internal load). Caution
should be taken in shifting this attention if we are monitoring
athletes. In this case, it is the internal load rather than the external
load, which ultimately determines the functional outcome of
training and therefore should be monitored. However, the advan-
tage of having greater information on the external load is that this
may allow for more precise prescription of external load.
External Over Internal Load
In practice, it is not always possible to measure the internal load as
there are situations where there may not be a readily available valid
indicator of the internal load. For example, single and repeated
sprint interval training induces greater neuromuscular responses
(internal load) compared other forms of high-intensity training
that involve longer duration bouts completed at lower speeds.
However, at present, there are no established valid indicators of
neuromuscular involvement that are available to be used during
real training conditions. By contrast, there are other indicators
of external load such as velocity or time (to complete the sprints)
that are easily measurable and these are typically applied. It is
Figure 1 —Theoretical framework of the training process.
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2Impellizzeri, Marcora, and Coutts
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commonly assumed that there is a higher involvement of neuro-
muscular components with increasing running speed.
external load indicators such as weight lifted, work, and time under
tension are commonly used in resistance-based training. However,
also for strength training methods, internal load measures based on
perceived exertion have been proposed.
Practitioners often implic-
itly estimate internal load based on these measures of external load;
however, as explained previously, this approach is conceptually
limited as it cannot be assumed a direct correspondence between
external load and internal response.
Integrating Internal and External Load
Despite the increased availability of external load assessment tools,
we caution against the exclusive use of this load measure for
monitoring athletes as it has conceptual limitations. For example,
it is difﬁcult to make accurate interindividual comparisons of how
athletes are responding to (or coping with) training (eg, low respon-
ders vs high responders). Indeed, by deﬁnition, a low responder is an
athlete who has a lower response to the same internal load, which
stipulates that internal load measures are required for such evalua-
tions. To this regard, also the use of an appropriate internal load
indicator is crucial. For example, it is well known that the percentage
of maximal oxygen uptake (VO
max) can correspond to different
percentages of the lactate thresholds.
Therefore, athletes exercising
at the same percentage of the VO
max can have different internal
load responses (lactate thresholds) explaining apparently different
training-induced adaptations (responder vs nonresponder when using
max as internal load indicator).
from a conceptual point of view, there are additional advantages in
integrating internal and external load measures for monitoring
training. For example, the uncoupling between internal and exter-
nal load may be used to identify how an athlete is coping with their
training program. Speciﬁcally, athletes who exhibit a lower internal
load to standardized external load completed in similar conditions,
would be assumed to reﬂect increased ﬁtness. By contrast, when
the internal load is increased in this situation, the athlete may be
losing ﬁtness or suffering from fatigue. Moreover, the combination
of psychological and physiological measures of internal training
load may suggest the kind of fatigue the athlete is suffering from.
Speciﬁcally, muscle fatigue increases both heart rate and rating of
whereas mental fatigue increases only rating
of perceived exertion.
This knowledge may help to choose the
most appropriate intervention to reduce fatigue, for example, a
reduction in muscle-damaging exercise or better sleep hygiene.
Clarifying Internal-Load Indicators
As previously mentioned, internal load is deﬁned as the psycho-
physiological response during exercise. There is a common mis-
conception that measures such as heart rate recovery or heart rate
variability collected after the exercise (immediately after or in the
following morning) are indicators of internal load. However,
according to the deﬁnition, these measures cannot be considered
internal load indicators as these are responses occurring after and
not during the exercise. We suggest that a postexercise response
can be used as an indirect (surrogate) measure of the internal load
when there is a strong association between these 2 variables
(ie, internal load and the surrogate). But even in this situation,
this measure is not strictly speaking a measure of the internal load
but a measure of the postexercise response to the internal load.
Similarly, other common athlete monitoring measures such as the
hormonal response after exercise, jump tests used to assess neuro-
muscular fatigue or self-reports about postexercise symptoms
(eg, fatigue and muscle soreness) should not be considered as
measures of internal load. As a rule of thumb, an indicator of the
internal training load is any indicator that can be used to prescribe
Practical Applications and Conclusions
After 15 years since the conceptual model was ﬁrst presented, the
concepts of internal and external load are now widespread and
common in both research and practice. In this commentary, we
have clariﬁed the deﬁnitions of internal and external load and also
explained the relevance of these constructs within the training
process. Furthermore, we have highlighted the importance of using
internal load, especially when monitoring athletes and discussed
the limitations of the exclusive use of external load for this purpose.
Finally, we presented the advantages (conceptually) of contextual-
izing internal and external load in understanding the training
process. As this model can be applied to understand the link be-
tween training and the individual adaptive response, it is suitable as
the theoretical framework for developing athlete monitoring sys-
tems. When these systems are implemented effectively, they can
assist coaches and scientists to better control and optimize the
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