The WISE System

The Workload Impact Systemic Evaluation System

[This document is a guide for clients on how to use the WISE™ System. It is an excerpt from my upcoming book on training for peak performance through the lifespan.]

The WISE system is how we get wise about training. It is based upon the simplification of the training parameters of intensity, duration, workload, and impact. WISE allows for more efficient projection of training and more accurate assessment of the stimulus/adaptation response in the trainee. It also facilitates clear communication between coach and athlete to provide greater understanding of program objectives and recovery needs.

WISE utilizes three symbolic colors with which everyone is familiar. These same colors are applied to each training parameter in an easily understood manner. The WISE system is easy to utilize and is extremely effective in improving conditioning while avoiding breakdown.



Below is the traditional stratification of training intensity. While multiple versions of this scale exist, and the interpretations and terminology across various training disciplines differ slightly, this is a good general illustration of intensity. Keep in mind that intensity is simply the effort applied to a training session…the major focus or intent of the workout. A workout may include warmups, accessory work, etc., but it is classified by the primary intensity level emphasized in the training bout. This is good to remember when mixed intensities are used in a single session.

ZoneEmphasisTraining TypeRPE 1-10%MHR (varies w/ LT/FTP or VO2max)%Max Speed or Power Reps In Reserve (RIR)
1Recovery DAT, LIST5-650-5950-59n/a
2Endurance DAT, LIST6-760-6960-695-6
3TempoANY TYPE7-870-7970-793-4
4CapacityRT, HIRT8-980-9580-891-2
5MaximalRT, ST9-10n/a90-1000

Training types are the 5 modes of exercise training which exist in the exercise physiology literature.

  • DAT = Dynamic Athletic Training (stretching, drills, posture, trunk, balance, etc.)
  • LIST = Low Intensity Steady-state Training (easy aerobic work)
  • RT = Resistance Training (weights, machines, bodyweight, etc.)
  • HIRT = High Intensity Repetition Training (interval-based work and rest bouts)
  • ST = Speed Training (sprints, plyos, Olympic lifts)

*Note that practically any type of training can be modified to use moderate intensity, although doing so may cause the training effect to be suboptimal for the specific form of training and its desired outcome. For example, most recovery work needs to be done at relatively low intensities to be restorative. And conversely, heavy lifting and sprinting, by definition require maximum intensity. But some forms of steady-state and repetition training are occasionally performed at moderate intensity. We’ll touch on this again later as we progress through the WISE model.

Each training type generally develops a specific adaptation.

  • DAT = Agility
  • LIST = Endurance
  • RT = Strength (and hypertrophy)
  • HIRT = Power
  • ST = Speed (max velocity)

By recognizing the potential for overlap of intensity zones 1-2 and 4-5, we can simplify intensity of training by reducing it to only three levels. Most athletes find this a welcome and refreshing way to look at effort. Having only three choices makes life a bit simpler by removing excess complexity and choice. In general, effort can be classified as either low, medium, or high intensity. Each of those descriptors corresponds to Level I, II, and III, respectively.

ZoneIntensityLevel (I)Intensity RatingColor

Let’s discuss intensity a bit more by comparing the 3-level model above with the classic 5-zone distribution of effort. The 5-zone intensity classification has been a cornerstone of training models, particularly in endurance athletics. The breakdown of the numbers varies depending upon whether the zones are based on percentages of maximum heart rate, lactate threshold, VO2max, or functional threshold power, but the divisions have major similarities. I still use this system on occasion, particularly when I work with athletes who are both familiar and fond of the approach. 

Zones 1-2 represent primarily aerobic training, in which the effort lies below the anaerobic or lactate threshold and training in this effort region emphasizes development of the aerobic system. One can make the argument that there is a difference between Z1-2 but in reality it is a fairly small difference, often going to the hair-splitting level. Without being snarky, I ask most athletes if they can really feel the difference between a 58.7% output and one at 63.2%. We tend to agree that low intensity is low intensity. The human body tolerates and absorbs a high volume of low intensity training.

With medium intensity training, this effort focuses most workouts into the threshold or tempo territory. Experts describe this effort as “comfortably hard” and Level II is essentially synonymous with Z3. Medium intensity training certainly has a place, but it tends to have a relatively low yield on investment. We’ll discuss that more a bit later.  

But once we go above this middle range of output, effort is high and training is hard. It’s simply how long you are sustaining it in your reps. Zone 4 intervals are generally conducted for several minutes while true Zone 5 work is only for seconds. 3 minutes at 88% is just as “hard” as 10 seconds at 97%, at least in terms of the amount of focus and systemic strain involved. Also, a common point that needs to be clarified with many athletes is that heart rate is a valuable metric with Z4 training, but it is not with Z5. This is because true max velocity can’t be sustained for more than about 7 seconds and HR doesn’t climb up near max and stabilize like it will in a Z4 rep. Z5 is all about peak speed, pace, and power and we really want to look at that in terms of meters per second, specific pace/speed splits, or watts. Because we use this descriptive terminology in workout programming, when an athlete sees Level III, he/she automatically knows the intensity will be high and the specific parameters of the session will determine exactly what kind of training is to be performed. High intensity training drives the greatest adaptation in the human organism, but the dose makes the poison. In other words, you’ve gotta be smart and careful in the application of high intensity.


Duration is simply the length of time of a single training session. While there will be exceptions, we can group most workouts into ranges of approximately 30-60-90 minutes. Extended team sport practices or endurance bouts will occasionally be longer.



Now that we have defined intensity and duration, we can multiply them to calculate workload. This represents the projected demand of the training session. It is a measure of how difficult the training session may be and how tired it may make the athlete. An important point you will notice is that a workout can be very intense, but if brief, it may not produce a high workload. And, conversely, a low intensity session performed over a very long duration may actually create a relatively high workload effect. Remember, intensity is the effort you put into a training session…but workload includes how long you apply that effort. Workload is a much more specific parameter than intensity alone when projecting and assessing your training. Remember, workload describes the estimated challenge of a single workout. 

Human beasts are diurnal mammals. We are primates whose physiologic functions are integrally tied to the sun, in just over 24-hour cycles. While we could potentially consider workload over any time period, the body is wired to reset-recover-recuperate-regenerate (you get the picture) over each daily circadian cycle. Sure, there can be accumulated stresses and adaptations that occur over multiple days (weeks, months, years), but most of our biology is designed to work in day-to-day fashion. We get fit by progressing from workout to workout, and this is why appreciation for daily workload is so important. Even when we have a multi-year plan in place, and a very long-term set of goals and views, we still build our castle of excellence one brick (day) at a time. 

Workload(I x D)A(1-30’)B(31-60’)C(61-90+’)
Level I123
Level II256
Level III369

Right away you’ll want to question the math regarding the central shaded cell in the above table. Yes, 2 x 2 = 4, but  Level II intensity performed for a “B” duration is given a “5” workload value. This is because there is a very tenuous existence of “middle ground” training. A moderate workload can potentially feature any level of intensity, but most athletes tend to utilize Level II intensity in these sessions. Workouts that are of medium intensity and moderate length can have a place in a training program, but that place is fairly limited. They can actually be slightly harder on the body, but less useful, than they may seem. Occasionally, athletes will use this workload as they “go through the gears” (velocities, paces) of their sport, work on specific aspects of technique, or simply maintain the current level of conditioning. Those emphases may illustrate the true purpose and value of the moderate workload. 

But in reality, moderate workload training is a little too hard to facilitate true recovery, while at the same time it is not quite hard enough to provide the optimal stimulus to drive adaptation and gains. And often, this is a seductive place in which uncoached or self-coached athletes find themselves. They tend to want to seek a certain level of fatigue, and consequently feel compelled to use a somewhat moderate workload on recovery days. Then, unfortunately, they can’t quite hit their output goals or key performance indicators (KPI’s) on the big days due to accumulated fatigue. Consequently, they end up performing another moderate workload session. It’s a trap. A never-ending plateau of chronic fatigue, static performance, and frustration ensues. This is entirely avoidable by using the WISE system, because both athlete and coach are made imminently aware of this situation, and it is easily corrected.

Next we can put workload into context and appreciate it. Knowing what represents a green, yellow, or red workload for each athlete allows us to design the training program intelligently. Based on knowledge gathered in an ongoing manner about the athlete’s performance abilities, we can very accurately design training sessions with the optimal amount of stimulus. We have a much better chance of targeting the appropriate amount and type of training to elicit the best adaptation response in the athlete…while minimizing the risk of overloading and breakdown.

WORKLOADNumeric ValueChallenge 
Primary Training 
Green1-2MinimalHighRecovery,Light Stimulus
Yellow3-5ModerateVery LowMaintenance 
Red6-9MaximalLowFitness Maker,

Here’s another way of thinking about that last paragraph. Training is basically just stress inoculation and the dose makes the poison. Train too light all the time and you don’t stress the system enough to make gains. But overdose on your workload, as in having too many red, or even yellow, days on your calendar and not enough greens…and training can suddenly have a toxic effect. Respecting workload, and your body, will reap great benefits.

We can further simplify the concept of green, yellow, and red workouts by using descriptive terms that are easy to understand.

WorkloadDescriptive Terms
GreenEasy, light, refreshing, fairly exhilarating
YellowAverage, modest, doable, middle-of-the-road
RedHard, very challenging, quite difficult, relatively exhausting


Finally, we reach the stage where we need to evaluate the effectiveness of the training interventions. Obviously, we will occasionally measure KPI’s in workouts and competition, but we must also have the ability to adjust ongoing training to best fit the athlete’s dynamic ability to recover from training and make progress. Using a pharmacological model, we view training during most of the year as needing to reside between the minimum effective dosage and the maximum absorbable dosage. Advancing this concept to workload, we need to ensure that we are generally keeping training between Minimum Effective Workload (MEW) and Maximum Absorbable Workload (MAW). This is where the coach must be a strategist in designing and modifying the training program.

While there are numerous devices and metrics available to assess recovery status, such as heart rate variability, sleep tracking, temperature, etc., these tend to have strong correlations to intrinsic biologic feedback. In other words, how the athlete feels in the first few minutes upon awakening the next day, can be very descriptive of how he/she was impacted systemically by the prior day’s training. We call this the Impact Rating and it provides an incredibly valuable measure of the effect of training and what adjustments, if any, might need to be made going forward.

It is absolutely essential that you record your Impact Rating in your training log first thing in the morning following each day’s session, as part of a brief morning self-assessment. This is because your levels of energy, mobility, and alertness will accurately reflect how you were impacted by the previous day’s training. While you could try to rate your workout’s impact immediately following the session, doing so will not provide a rating as reliable as you’ll get on the next morning. The main reason is that your body may be jacked up hormonally (elevated cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, etc.) for hours after your workout, and this will artificially mask your response to the session. Once all this has calmed down by the next morning, and your system has had time to take stock of the situation (microdamage from training), you’ll get a much clearer message of how your body is doing. This is part of the instinctive wisdom which resides inside each of us.

All you need to do is spend the initial moments of each day getting a sense of how you feel. Here’s how you do this morning self-assessment. When you awaken in bed and then as you begin the first few minutes of your day, just ask yourself if it is a green (1), yellow (2), or red (3) day. Then enter that number in your training log in the row for the prior day. No fractions or decimals. Just a 1, 2, or 3. That’s it. You know a green day when you feel amazing as soon as your eyelids open. Yellow days may have a tiny bit of fuzzy, foggy, groggy, or sluggish sensations, but they wear away quickly in those first few minutes. A red day does not feel good and it doesn’t get that much better as you move about. Don’t overthink this…trust your instincts and the WISE system. It’s called that for a reason.

Inputting the Impact Rating first thing in the morning only takes a few seconds, and it provides your coach with critical information that can be used to adjust ongoing programming. The rating will corroborate other data in your training log such as the actual work you performed in the session as well as your subjective comments (how it felt at the time, etc.).

Also, keep in mind that even light to moderate workloads in training can sometimes ironically associate with you waking up feeling like you are in the red zone with respect to recovery status and rating your Impact at 3. Compromised conditions like high stress, poor sleep, suboptimal nutrition, and other issues can make what should have been an easy session feel like a total beatdown. The morning self-assessment gives you the information you need to determine how your body feels…not just what you did for training. Trust those feelings and don’t try to cognitively override them. Remember…health first is one of our most important principles.

But if we are designing programming effectively, and taking into account all of life’s other variables, the athlete (YOU) will awaken feeling rested (green) on most days, a bit tired (yellow) on some, and possibly wiped out (red) on a few. This is where the concept of flexible programming comes into play. It doesn’t matter what type of workout we’ve got on the schedule…if the athlete isn’t relatively fresh and ready to go big, we will be wise to make a few modifications and go a bit lighter and easier until the next “fitness maker” opportunity presents itself. Blindly plowing through a schedule usually gets poor results, and often results in illness and injury. We’ve got to be wise about the training process and use the Workload Impact Systemic Evaluation.

1GoodYou feel rested and energized. 😀You are balancing training and recovery effectively. You are ready for any workout.[GOOD TO GO]
2FairYou sense yesterday’s training effect was strong. You pushed yourself to your reasonable limit. 😕 You are just a little tired and you know you can train, but not at a high workload. [PROCEED WITH CAUTION]
3PoorYou are very fatigued and are quite sore. You overcooked it and are paying the price! 😖The only training you feel like doing today is easy stuff. [STOP AND ADJUST PROGRAMMING]

In the above table, Good and Poor are relatively easy to recognize and these conditions tend to remain static through the day. However, an impact rating of Fair (2) can sometimes swing either way. In other words, a fair day (or at least how you feel) can turn better or worse. This is where the instinctive wisdom of the athlete and the experience of the coach come into play. 

Sometimes, on a yellow day, you can ease your way into a challenging workout and have no problems completing it. But the key is not to force it. If the mojo is there so be it, but don’t strain to conjure it. Humans have the power to psyche up and cognitively override, at least temporarily, fatigue and diminished capacity. This is a built-in survival mechanism. But using this precious reserve more than occasionally in training usually results in an overstressed and exhausted body that will spend too much time in the red zone. 

Other times, a yellow day can gradually or suddenly get a whole lot more red. In other words, you can start a workout that seems reasonable for a yellow day, and then get strong messages from your inner beast that you are not ready for this workload. Fair can turn to downright crappy. In this case…also don’t force the issue. Listen to your body. Back off. Ease up. Even shut the workout down if needed. Hard work is good, this just isn’t the day for it.

The more you practice tuning into your body and using the WISE system, the better you will become at finessing the nuances of training. Ultimately, this means more fun, less pain and fatigue, and goal-crushing results.


There is another “d” word that we should mention…and that’s density. This is a subcomponent of Duration and it can have a magnifying effect on Impact. Density is essentially the concentration of work in a workout, and is determined by the expansion or compression of rest periods. This applies primarily to any training that involves sets and reps such as weight training, or work and rest bouts as in interval/repetition training or team sport practice. A high density workout is one in which rest breaks are very brief. This usually results in incomplete intra-workout recoveries and can magnify the fatiguing effects of the session. A low density workout is more spread out and of longer duration due to more generous rest breaks between efforts. This generally ensures more quality during the work bouts and a lower overall systemic stress from the session. Both high and low density sessions have a place in the athlete’s training cycles, but there are some caveats. High density sessions have a tendency to become kryptonite if done too frequently, breaking down the athlete when done in excess. And low density sessions are very well tolerated but may not always provide enough stimulus for maximum adaptation. Among the two lies the art of coaching, and helping athletes to use appropriate densities for optimal results.


One last thing…and it’s the volume of training. Volume is the total amount of training performed over a given time period, such as a week for example (but you can use any time frame). It is usually identified by multiplying duration (how long or much) times frequency (how often) of training (V = D x F). Volume can be measured in miles or kilometers, minutes and hours, total watts, or total weight lifted (sets x reps x pounds or kilos). There are many examples of what this measure would look like but the most basic would be: if you train for 1 hour per session, 5 days per week, your weekly volume is 5 hours. I always have all my athletes record volume on a weekly and monthly basis.

Volume is an important metric to track in a training program. Knowing how much total periodic volume you do in training can provide extremely valuable information. In many cases, volume correlates extremely well with workload and conditioning level. When you train with a somewhat predictable workload pattern (which is common with experienced, well-coached athletes), higher volume typically indicates higher fitness and performance. For example, in the sport of bodybuilding, volume is the primary marker upon which to focus. This is because bodybuilders consistently train with moderate workloads in order to accumulate the requisite amount of muscular tension and metabolic stress to stimulate muscular hypertrophy. They also commonly use training splits which rotate the stress between different muscle groups or body parts from day to day. 

In locomotive sports, such as running, cycling, swimming, Nordic skiing, speed skating, and rowing (to name a few), volume is also a useful parameter to track. However, these athletes tend to utilize very specific periodization (seasons, blocks, cycles) in which intensity and/or workout duration, i.e. workload, is varied. In many programs, the highest volume of training will coincide with the lowest average intensity, and vice versa. Obviously, this is not written in stone and much variability will exist based on team, coach, and athlete preferences, and what has been shown to yield the best results. With these types of athletes, volume should be considered period-specific.

But for many athletes in numerous other sports and fitness endeavors, volume may be viewed as secondary to workload. Here’s why…volume isn’t necessarily the primary target of our training. The goal isn’t to see how many miles, minutes, or pounds you can amass in a given time period. The goal is peak performance, or the capacity to produce it. Sure, this performance will generally be correlated with overall training volume, but it may not actually be caused by it. What brings about performance is elevated capacity, and this is created more through specific adaptation to finite workloads than magnitude of training alone. We need to make sure we are chasing the right objective.

In the large majority of instances, volume remains subordinate to the execution of high workload training sessions and the subsequent recovery work indicated. It’s never just simply how much training you do…rather it is how well you train and what you get out of it. Let me put this in simple terms. A huge steaming mound of crappy training will generally equate to crappy results. It’s better to do a lesser amount of really effective training. I’ve seen a lot of athletes who focused on getting 300 kilometers of cycling, or 60 miles of running, or 10 hours of practice each week get beaten handily by competitors of equivalent talent and age who did half that amount with greater intelligence. We must continually respect the athlete and sport in consideration. Volume is a valuable metric and it has a place in training program design and data analysis, but it resides below specific workload and impact…which are supremely important.

You’ll be amazed how useful the WISE system is for helping you to get the most out of your training and athletic performance. You and your coach (or your inner self if you are self-coached) can use the data to learn which types of training sessions work best for you, or which ones are easiest or hardest. You can graph out WISE ratings over time and notice if your program design is on point. Seeing lots of adjustments suggests the overall plan requires more tweaking to specifically fit your needs. A lack of results in KPI’s could indicate you aren’t getting after it enough. You will be able to see where your training is working or not, and what needs attention. It all becomes more clear…when you are WISE.

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