Judging recovery is essential to making sure you benefit fully from your training. Here I review ways to judge if you’re ready for that next session
[Originally published in Cycling Weekly, May 18th 2017. My thanks to Joe Friel for contributing]
Most cyclists are aware of the role of recovery and how fitness improves as you recover in response to an increased training stimulus. Equally, they know that lack of adequate recovery, commonly called ‘over-training’ as opposed to ‘under-recovery’, risks burnout, reduced performance, illness or injury.
Nevertheless, any coach will tell you that it is often quite difficult to get riders to take the recovery aspect of their training seriously. The focus is usually on load as a measure of training commitment and talk in the bunch about training typically centres on hours on the bike and miles accumulated, along with power, speed and heart rate. These are easily quantifiable – we have numbers to measure and express them – while recovery is more elusive and less assessable.
Recovery is also affected by many variables. General life stresses, for example, releases stress hormones which compromise it. More recovery is needed as we increase intensity in preparation for key goals. Similarly, athletes who are short on time have to compensate with intensity, making the load/recovery balance more important.
In addition, we recover more slowly as we get older. As a 62-year-old racer and a coach working mainly with older riders, I am keenly aware of the importance of knowing when it’s time to rest and when the body is ready for those hard sessions that really count. Masters athletes are often more keenly attuned to judging recovery and can be a useful source of insight and guidance.
Nevertheless, recovery can be quite difficult to nail down and we all get it wrong at times. The concept is even difficult to define in strict physiological terms and there is general agreement in sports science that there is no single reliable way of measuring it.
Riders can be further confused by the plethora of Apps, wearables and other technologies that have begun to wash over the market, each promising bullet-proof ways to manage health and training.
Advice on how to recover is frequently covered in the cycling media and literature, but there is much less emphasis on how we should know when to recover. This review aims to help you figure that out.
Ways of Judging Recovery
The methods of assessing fatigue and judging recovery reviewed here are very much from the perspective of everyday riders and coaches. They do not, for example, cover laboratory or high-support methods not usually available to amateurs such as neuromuscular, biochemical, hormonal or immunological assessments. Rather, it’s a menu to help you decide what might work best for you.
Heart Rate – the fatigue-sensitive organ
Heart rate (HR) is quite sensitive to fatigue in a number of ways and provides a number of useful ways for judging fatigue, but only up to a point.
Resting heart rate
Resting heart rate taken first thing in the morning is the favourite method. General guidelines suggest that five beats per minute above resting HR indicates fatigue, but in my experience this is common enough during blocks of training and just indicates caution. However, 10 beats over is a definite red flag warning.
However, heart rate is affected by other factors, such as emotion, and a review of fatigue monitoring in high performance sport, published in the Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, concluded that limited evidence exists supporting the use resting heart rate due to large day-to-day variability.
Heart rate stand-up test
The heart responds more slowly when fatigued and this method tests variations in response when you stand up from a sitting or prone position. For example, you may have experienced light-headedness if you stand up suddenly when fatigued after hard training as the heart didn’t respond quickly enough and blood drained from the brain.
One such method I tried out was based on a free smart-phone App by Adzumio which uses light from the camera phone to measure heart rate. I did it very first thing after waking in the morning as consistency is needed and my days vary a lot. I felt the method had potential but it was just too much of a nuisance for me to do every morning. Also, it may not be the best thing for domestic harmony if your partner gets the impression that this particular procedure is the first thing on your mind when you wake.
Heart rate variability (HRV)
Simply put, the variation in time between heart beats is not constant and the degree of variability is an indication of health or fatigue. The method comes from a medical background and its application therefore seems promising.
I tried this using a smartphone App. called HRV4Training. The basic method also uses the camera light to measure heart activity, builds up a profile over time and indicates freshness or fatigue. Again, it is best done first thing in the morning but required seven consecutive days of measurement before providing results. If I missed a morning it started from scratch again. I abandoned that also, mostly because it was just too inconvenient for me.
Also, there are questions about the accuracy of judging HRV variations by smart-phone light in the amateur setting, along with the influence of other variables on heart rate.
Heart rate relative to power output
I find this to be one of the more useful methods in practical terms. Normally, our heart rate will reach a certain level, within a certain time, given a certain load. However, if the HR is slower in reaching this normal level, or fails to do so at all, it is a strong sign of fatigue.
You might even notice this in your warmup if you have a fairly regular routine – your heart rate just doesn’t increase as fast as normal. Or, if you are doing a set of longish intervals at a familiar power level, such as ‘sweet spot’ or threshold efforts, and your HR doesn’t reach it’s normal level within the usual time.
This type of observation and knowledge about your body is extremely useful. If you notice this trend, and especially if the effort also feels harder than it should, then a wise and confident rider will click into a low gear and take an easy recovery ride or just go home and put the feet up.
This method is also easy to monitor with analytics software using training data and knowledgeable riders and good coaches should pick up on it and adjust the programme.
Software analytics – ‘the chart’
Training Peaks led the development of analytic software from the late 1990s and other versions have emerged in the meantime, with enormous and sometimes mind-boggling sophistication. At their core are algorithms, or mathematical/computing programmes, which analyse the frequency, intensity and duration of training. This has been adapted by other companies and this type of software is increasingly being used by coaches and athletes at all levels.
At the centre of the Training Peak’s system is the Performance Management Chart (PMC) which provides a graph and scores for fatigue, fitness and freshness. Crucially, it gives a metric, or number, for fatigue.
Therefore, this type of method has very good potential for monitoring readiness to train. However, a degree of knowledge is necessary for good interpretation. Also, the daily lives of amateur athletes vary greatly and fatigue, for example, can be exacerbated by periods of stress at work or in relationships. Algorithms don’t factor in these or certain other physiological or age variations.
In my view the ‘chart’ has become overly seductive for some riders and coaches and they follow it too slavishly. For example, I get queries, especially from older cyclists, who feel that they are overly-tired and their coach is not taking this on board: “Your chart looks fine – you should be ok to continue with the plan”. This is not the best way to use these powerful tools.
Subjective indicators – how you feel
‘Listening to the body’ is undoubtedly a useful way to monitor fatigue and there are a myriad of such indicators that vary between individuals: general tiredness and that washed-out feeling; irritability – what I call ‘the grump index’; sore muscles and poor sleep quality; a loss of joie de vivre, motivation for training and enthusiasm for being on the bike.
Yet, many riders often ignore these signs even when clearly evident and coaches often have difficulty in getting good feedback from athletes that indicates the need for recovery.
One method of tackling this weakness in self-regulation is to ask athletes to turn how they feel into a metric, or number. There are various sophisticated self-reporting questionnaires for this but I use a simple version which I call a ‘Rating of Perceived Freshness-Fatigue (RPF-F)’ – borrowed unashamedly from Borg’s well-known ‘Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE’)’.
A rider’s self-awareness is usually raised sufficiently by using this for a period and self-monitoring then becomes more instinctive. If done properly, ‘listening to your body’ is one of the simplest and most effective methods of monitoring recovery.
Masters Cycling Coaching
Rating of Perceived Freshness-Fatigue (RPF-F)
Wearables – the great promise?
Are wearable technologies for monitoring health and fitness going the be the next big thing, similar to power meters in the last decade? Certainly, something significant seems to be happening and the revenue from this exploding market is estimated to hit $2 billion in global revenue by 2018.
However, early evidence advises caution for serious athletes who need precise data that can be interpreted meaningfully. A study published in Frontiers of Physiology in 2016, for example, said that few of the new wearables on the market had been scientifically evaluated.
Some of the limitations are technical. One example is the light in a phone or fitness-watch to assess heart function which has questionable accuracy for some applications. The American Medical Association, for example, said in 2016 that none of the wrist-based monitors it had evaluated were reliable during exercise.
Personally, I am suspending judgement on wearables for a while more.
What Works for You
There are a number of key steps in optimizing recovery monitoring as a key element of your overall training plan.
The first is to develop a mind-set that recovery is part of training and that monitoring it does matter. Chris Carmichael, the noted physiologist and coach, put it this way: “I don’t separate recovery from training. Recovery is part of your training. And thinking of it that way helps you to remain as committed to recovering as you are to working out.”
The next stage is to adopt ways of monitoring recovery that work best for you. It is clear that there is no best method – everyone’s circumstances are unique and there is a limit to how much amateurs can allow the complexity of some methods to intrude into everyday life.
Finally, use the insight you gain to refine your training programme. This should be dynamic rather than rigid, adjusting as physiology and day-to-day life indicate.
Professional cyclist Liam Holohan previously described recovery to Cycling Weekly as “the most important bit of training”, and finding the best load/recovery balance is undoubtedly one of the key factors in achieving optimum performance.
Interview with Joe Friel
Joe Friel has iconic status in the coaching world and has been developing coaching methods since the 1980s. He has authored ten books on training, contributes to websites, clinics and conferences, and consults with national sport federations, businesses and the fitness industry. He holds a Masters degree in exercise science and is the co-founder of the pioneering Training Peaks system – www.joefrielsblog.com.
Joe provided this interview on the topic of judging recovery.
Tom Daly: How important is it to be able to judge recovery?
Joe Friel: It is critical and attempting to do a high quality workout when fatigued is counterproductive. Riders often dig a deep fatigue hole and extricating themselves may involve anything from taking several days off to long-term recovery from overtraining syndrome (OTS).
TD: From your experience as a coach, what are the main difficulties athletes have in judging recovery?
JF: Most athletes are so focused on building fitness that they tend to ignore obvious fatigue-related sensations when it comes to quality sessions. Getting an athlete to pay attention and make appropriate adjustments to their training plan on the fly is a very difficult task for a coach to teach.
TD: Does getting older make any difference?
JF: It makes a tremendous difference. It takes longer to recover, largely to do with a reduction in anabolic hormone production, such as testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, and more. Judging recovery becomes even more important.
TD: As an athlete, how do you best judge your recovery?
JF: The best gauge is the accumulation of signs that fatigue is present. There is not one single sign that confirms this. It’s a matter of paying attention to several factors, most of which are highly individualized, although there are some that seem to work for athletes across a fairly wide spectrum. Most of these latter are related to the cardio response — HRV, waking HR, and prone-standing HR differential. But these by themselves are not foolproof indicators. Another common, but individually perceived, indicator may be the level of cardiorespiratory strain and leg fatigue experienced when climbing a flight of stairs. A similar fatigue perception may show up during the workout warm-up. Other highly individualized markers that will not apply to everyone, but may work for some, are quality and quantity of sleep, level of fatigue, muscle or joint soreness, motivation, appetite, thirst, mood, and many more. Of these, mood has been shown in some research to be a strong indicator of an advanced level of fatigue. But measuring this accurately requires a personal status survey that is inconvenient.
TD: When coaching, how do you advise athletes on judging recovery?
JF: The most effective approach is constant communication with the athlete. When the athlete-coach relationship is just starting the coach needs to have frequent conversations with the rider about his/her recent levels of fatigue and how they were recognized by the athlete. This topic should always be included in the conversation to heighten the athlete’s level of attention.
TD: Thank you, Joe.
Thanks for reading, and get in touch if you have any queries.