[Extracted from Rushall, B. S., & Pyke, F. S. (1990). Training for sports and fitness. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan. (pp. 84-95)]

Chapter 7

The Principle of Individuality

The Principle of Individuality dictates that the decisions concerning the nature of training should be made with each individual athlete in mind (Rushall, 1979a). A coach must always consider that each athlete should be treated independently (Bompa, 1986, 17). Incorrect forms of training prescription result from all athletes in a team training with the same schedule and load. Attempts to copy the programs of champions, which is still a common practice among many coaches, will also result in incorrect loadings of the work of training for most individuals.

It does not take an astute coach long to realize that athletes within a team or squad are quite different. They have different performance and fitness attributes, life-styles and nutritional preferences, and they respond to the physical and social environments of training in their own unique ways. It is essential that training programs cater to these individual needs and preferences to optimize performance improvements. The factors that exist in the training process around which programs are designed are: the quality and abilities of the individual athlete, age, and the principles of training. This chapter discusses the major factors that need to be considered when individualizing training prescriptions.

Tolerance of Training Loads

The optimum training loads vary between athletes. Australian swimming coach Forbes Carlile often recounts the training performances of Shane Gould and Karen Moras, the best two distance swimmers in the world in the early 1970s. Shane Gould thrived on seemingly hard training, with her training performances being of quite a high level. On the other hand, Karen Moras exhibited training performances that were much slower than those of Shane. However, in competitions, the two recorded remarkably similar times. It was the training loads, as exhibited by training performances, which were different. It is conceivable that if either of the two athletes were made or encouraged to train closer to the other's performance level, her subsequent competitive performance would have suffered. Dr. James Counsilman of Indiana University also described Mark Spitz as being a light trainer when compared with other swimmers in the same pool. His training load was less than that for other swimmers such as John Kinsella, although both were the best in the world at that time in freestyle swimming events. These are examples of different training loads being required for different athletes to produce the optimum training stress to record world-best performances.

There is no guarantee that an athlete who tolerates heavy training loads is going to be the best performer in competitions. They often set the `training standards' imposed by the coach but are not capable of succeeding in contests against the peers whom they have beaten consistently in training. Their performances also suggest that fitness is not the only factor responsible for achieving sporting success. The tolerance of training loads also seems to be related to an athlete's history of involvement. It is simply not possible to withstand the rigors of a heavy training and competitive schedule if the foundation or basic training is weak and insubstantial. Gradual adaptation to training over a number of years provides an essential basis for absorbing later heavy loads. The coach must carefully monitor the capacity of the athlete to cope with the training load and adjust the training program when necessary. The signs, symptoms, and measurement of overtraining are discussed in some detail in the next chapter.

Responsiveness to Training

The capacity to respond to training is related to the initial level of fitness and the physiological characteristics of the individual. The potential for improvement is greatest when the initial level of fitness is lowest. This is clearly illustrated in the change-maintenance training graph (Figure 4.5). When an athlete is not fit, then performance improvements will be obvious and substantial with the onset of training. When an athlete is fit, performance improvements will be small and relatively infrequent. Once maximum fitness has been achieved, it requires much less training to maintain performance than to gain it in the first place. Thus the response of an athlete will vary depending upon the level of fitness and the training program content.

There are some athletes with higher sensitivities to the fitness component being trained. With regard to strength, this becomes very noticeable in males around the time of puberty when some have increased their secretion of testosterone while others have not. Early maturers develop muscle size and definition quickly and often dominate strength and power-oriented sports in a particular age group. No matter how much weight training is completed, a late maturer has to await the arrival of puberty before significant gains are made. But even with the advent of puberty, individuals will differ in their response characteristics and performance levels resulting from programs. Some athletes just cannot become as strong as others.

A further strength-training factor that produces individual responses is the proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the muscles. Those athletes with a high proportion profit more from strength training than do endurance-oriented athletes (those with a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers). This is because the high degree of tension created in the muscles during weight training exercises requires the fast-twitch fibers to become involved. After some time these fibers hypertrophy and, due to their abundance in the muscle, contribute significantly to increases in its size (Dons, Bollerup, Bonde-Peterson, & Hancke, 1979).

Throughout this text, further features that cause differential responses to training between and within athletes will be discussed. A person of one age will respond differently from one of another age, such as in the example of strength training and the maturational factor of puberty. With regard to training loads, young athletes will break down and recover faster in training than they will when they become older, a feature discussed at greater length in Chapter 20. The practice of individualizing training programs requires consideration of the `responsiveness to training' factors.

Figure 7.1 illustrates the training responses of five Canadian Olympic swimmers during the final stages of the `hard' training phase prior to commencing a taper (peaking) period for the 1976 Canadian Olympic Team trials. Throughout the time of the observations, each athlete completed the same training segment on a number of occasions. What is depicted in the figure is the average time for each set expressed as a percentage of the time recorded in the subsequent competitive performance. The data can be interpreted as the percentage of effort when time is used as the basis of calculation. What is noticeable is the variation of performances within and between each individual.

Figure 7.1. Training performances of Five Canadian Olympic Swimmers for a Three-week Period prior to the `Tapering' (Peaking) Phase of Training Leading to the Olympic Trials.

Simmwers' responses

[The repetition training segment is expressed as the number of repetitions by distance. The value following the slash character is the racing distance against which the intensity of the training efforts was determined. A data point constitutes the average percentage for the number of repetitions in the segment when compared with the subsequent competitive performance.]

A summary of the data follows.

  1. Subject JB completed four of five sets within an 86-89 percent intensity range. The remaining set was slightly over 83 percent. Except for the lone lower figure, the training responses were remarkably consistent.
  2. Subject WS performed two events, one a 100-meter sprint, the other a more endurance-oriented 400-meter event. The intensities of training for both events fell within the same range, 86-93 percent. The commonality of the training intensities is surprising since sport science suggests that endurance event training should be performed at a lower intensity than sprints.
  3. Subject BS performed two 100-meter sprint events. The freestyle performances were consistently three to four percent higher in intensity (range 87-89 percent) than were the butterfly performances (range 83-87 percent).
  4. Subject GS's performances ranged 78-88 percent for the 100-meter breaststroke event. This included the lowest intensity of any training segment and widest individual variation of the five athletes.
  5. Subject TA exhibited four consistent levels of performance with two subsequent performances being elevated prior to the commencement of the taper. Performances ranged in intensity from 83-87 percent.

What is evident from these data is that some athletes trained consistently while others varied considerably; most athletes produced little performance change over the period of observation; and the training intensities of two males (WS and GS) differed considerably. The individual variations in training responses of these athletes training in the same pool would warrant different programs and performance expectations. Such needs would not be met by having the athletes perform the same training program with the same training stimuli.

Recovery from Training and Competition

The recovery time from heavy training or intense competitions is longer in some athletes than in others. This is particularly the case with older athletes. Many players of contact team sports late in their careers find that they are only able to train lightly from one week to the next. Such light loads are required to facilitate recovery and negate the possibility of further overload training to produce altered fitness states. Coaches should recognize these differences either by reducing the training load or lengthening the recovery period in athletes who display the symptoms of chronic fatigue described in the next chapter.

Athletes with different physiological profiles also seem to require different tapering regimes. Strength-trained athletes show a level of maintenance of strength-related variables during periods of inactivity. Hence, reduced or tapered training loads can be extended without fear of deterioration in strength or explosive power performance. On the other hand, endurance qualities are lost quickly, and extended periods of reduced training in distance-oriented athletes are not recommended. Thus an athlete's type of training will require different programming considerations with regard to what occurs in recovery periods. However, even within like sports, individuals will recover at varying rates.

Training Needs

The coach should aim to develop a balanced profile of attributes in each athlete that have been determined through objective measures. The individual case for fitness training must be weighed against the need for skill and mental training. More particularly, the prescription of fitness training should be based on known strengths and weaknesses in the physical profile of each athlete (see Chapter 12). For example, a pursuit cyclist with well-developed endurance capabilities but a weak sprint, would be best advised to spend training time on improving anaerobic power and capacity which would contribute to improved sprint performances. Another alternative for improving sprinting would be to develop a race strategy aimed at maintaining a fast pace throughout rather than relying on a sprint finish. Such an athlete would need to train with a program that was different from others with dissimilar needs.

Team game players should have individualized programs that not only round out their fitness profile but also allow them to meet the specific requirements of selected playing positions. For example, in soccer a set position player is more dependent on strength and speed than a mid-fielder who has a greater requirement for endurance. While modern team-game coaches increasingly encourage versatility in players they should still have, in the back of their minds, an ideal arrangement of personnel requiring specialized and individualized attention while training.

Training Preferences

In order to maximize the productivity of training, a coach should try to cater to each athlete's likes and dislikes. Some athletes thrive on the formal requirements of interval training accompanied by exact timing of distances and regular monitoring of heart rates. Others prefer a mix of continuous, over-distance, and Fartlek work. Although athletes should not be encouraged to work only on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses, it is important for them to develop and maintain a positive attitude and adhere strictly to a training schedule. Chapter 10 discusses the major factors that are associated with constructive programs and the atmosphere of training that encourage the best training responses. These factors require some understanding of athletes' training preferences.

Nutritional Preferences

The important role that nutrition plays in optimizing training was stressed in Chapter 5. While it is relatively easy to maintain a balanced diet in the Western world, it is important for coaches to understand that small deficiencies can become major obstacles to improvement in the hard-training athlete. For example, vegetarians need to take special care to ensure that they get enough minerals and vitamins in their diet. This can become a particular problem for the Vitamin B complex and iron and may require multi-vitamin and mineral supplementation. Coaches should be particularly aware of the potential for poor nutrition in young athletes who are living away from home for the first time. Some form of regular dietary counseling is advisable to keep track of and correct any dietary inadequacies. Poor dietary habits can cause differential energy responses and fluctuations in body composition. These variations will affect individual needs for training programs.

Environmental Tolerance

There are wide individual variations in response to physical features of the environment. Tolerance to heat and cold is partly related to body physique and composition. Body heat is more easily retained if there is an ample amount of insulative body fat and the ratio between body surface area (for heat removal) and body mass (for heat production) is low. Hence, fatter individuals with heavier builds are more tolerant of cold than those with slighter builds. The reverse is true for hot conditions. Training responses and needs will vary depending on climatic fluctuations. A coach should be aware of these differences when exposing athletes to training in hostile and extreme climates.

It is also known that altitudinal and polluted environments affect some athletes to a greater extent than others. Symptoms of mountain sickness, such as headache and insomnia, can be debilitating for some individuals at quite moderate altitudes whereas others can tolerate more severe hypoxic stress without encountering problems. In a similar manner, some athletes experience respiratory distress in only mildly polluted air while others are unaffected. The negative psychological effects associated with the mere smell of ozone, one of the major constituents of pollution, and the irritation it causes the eyes, nose, and throat, can make training difficult for some. A coach must be able to adapt training loads according to the perceived tolerances of individuals for varying environmental conditions.

Physical Characteristics

Variations in body physique and composition can influence the capacity to withstand a training load. More heavily built athletes have a low tolerance for heat and are more prone to injuries in sports in which they have to fully support their own body weight. For winter sports, care should be taken during the late summer preparatory training phase to ensure that larger team-game players do not overheat. If distance-running training is prescribed, heavy individuals are also at risk of incurring orthopedic injuries. Progressions in training intensity and duration should be gradual, and appropriate footwear should be worn to avoid injuries due to a sudden increase in one specific form/surface of training. There is less concern for heavy-bodied athletes when they engage in weight-supported sports such as swimming and rowing, since the environments of these sports usually facilitate the removal of heat.

Life-style Variations

Within a training squad there are often athletes from all walks of life. Some might be students, manual laborers, or office workers, while others may work different shifts. Since the demands of their working life often compete with those of their sport, the coach should be aware of such commitments when planning training loads. These commitments may change from time to time. Peak external stresses for a student may occur at the time of final examinations, for the office worker at the end of the financial year, and for a laborer at the deadline for a job completion. Life stresses are cumulative and so training loads should be adjusted to compensate for any variations in life-style that will affect the degree of stress imposed upon the serious athlete. Chapter 8 describes a measurement tool for assessing life variations and impacts.

Social Interactions Within the Group

Training squads usually contain an assortment of individuals with different interests, tastes, and personalities. Because of the stress of hard training and intense competitions, these differences can produce interpersonal frictions that have a negative effect on performance. It is the responsibility of a coach to monitor the development of such problems and to affect a program alteration that will alleviate their occurrence. Chapter 10 discusses some of the strategies for designing training situations that will prevent such problems.

This chapter has listed a number of factors that produce individual variations in training requirements. The individual needs of each athlete have to be met to maximize training responses. Each denial of an individual factor will lessen the training experience for the majority of athletes. Recognition and the accommodation of this principle will require radical departures from the common handling procedure of having all athletes in a squad follow the same program. It has been traditional to treat the training of all athletes as if they were clones. Such a singular approach to control is easy and the least time-consuming for a coach. However, because it is easy does not mean that it is the best approach; the deficiency was highlighted by Rushall (1975b). His advocacies are still largely unheeded but are reproduced below to illustrate what it might be possible to organize in order to satisfy the needs of individual athletes, and to produce an optimal training response (Rushall, 1975b, 167-172).

". . . The thrust of this incontrovertible argument is that by using the same program for a group of swimmers the development of most of them is reduced.

The technological procedures exist for analyzing swimmers so that their suitability for particular swimming events can be determined. Once a swimmer's capacities and event suitabilities have been established appropriate training programs should be devised. This will require a complete reversal of orientation for developing swimmers, a change from general/group to specific/individual programs . . .

[Figure 7.2] presents a flow diagram of the programming process for developing the specific/individual content. A computer is used to print each day's program of training for each individual. The coach monitors the swimmer's progress, adaptation, and behavioral reactions. The parameters for program content are altered at any time, but usually only when a change is required (taper, failing adaptation, etc. The task of completing this information is not as great as one would think. It is assumed that in advocating this method, the common unproductive and inefficient time usage procedures of the normal coaching role do not exist.

The psychological features of this process are involved with the use of program boards. Rushall (1975a) described these as being motivational because of their direct effect on training work quantity and quality. The procedure of publicly registering a program unit completion generated social, performance information, material, and performance progress reinforcers. However, those boards were used for small groups. This can be improved upon by having separate programs for each swimmer, but still retaining the public recording procedure. This will provide individual training programs under motivated conditions. [Figure 7.3] illustrates such a board. The change that is required of coaches here is that they will have to be prepared to relegate the control of the training program to a psychological technology through indirect control rather than through direct personal control. The implementation of specific individual programs is designed towards optimizing the swimming development of all swimmers."

Figure 7.2. A Flow Diagram of the Steps for Producing Specific/Individual Training Programs by Using a Computer (Rushall, 1975a, 171).

Flow diagram of individual programming

[The critical feature is the number of decision parameters that need to be considered.]

Figure 7.3. A suggested Structure for Program Boards for Displaying and Using Individualized Computer-generated Training Programs.

Program board for swimming

[The computer generates an individual prescription for the training session. In this example, the output includes the event for which each training segment is targeted, the training segment, and each training unit for each segment (to be marked immediately after completion). The board itself contains panels for each athlete, is waterproofed with plastic protectors, and is constructed for easy access and use (Rushall, 1975a, 172).]

Savage, Brown, Savage, and Bannister (1981) demonstrated the individuality of training responses after they had assessed four physiological parameters over 75 days of intense training in a top collegiate swimming team. Group training produced different individual response profiles for ostensibly the same workout program. Different physiological and performance profiles also were evidenced during a peaking program. They concluded that to train an athlete appropriately, individualization in programming is essential.


  1. Bompa, T. O. (1986). Theory and methodology of training. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  2. Dons, B., Bollerup, K., Bonde-Petersen, F., & Hancke, S. (1979). The effects of weight lifting exercise related to muscle fiber composition and muscle cross-sectional area in humans. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 40, 95-106.
  3. Rushall, B. S. (1975b). Psychological aids for swimming coaches in R. M. Ousley (ed.), 1975 American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic Yearbook, Fort Lauderdale, FL: American Swimming Coaches Association.
  4. Rushall, B. S. (1979a). Coaches and sport psychology. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 10, 164-7.
  5. Savage, M., Brown, S. L., Savage, P., & Bannister, E. W. (1981). Physiological and performance correlates of training in swimmers. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association of Sport Sciences, Halifax.

Return to Table of Contents for this issue.