Training FAQ: How to gauge recovery needs

Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer all your training and nutrition questions.

Photo: TDW

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Dear Chris,
As someone who has experienced the debilitating effects of overtraining in the past, I am acutely aware of the importance of proper recovery. That said, I have a hard time figuring out how much recovery I need given my training load, life stresses, and other things. Are there tools to help me better understand what my recovery needs are?
— Kristin

Dear Kristin,
This is such an important question. Many athletes often overlook recovery or even forget it altogether. But as you know from your personal experience, that is a recipe for disaster and can lead to long-term, permanent damage and/or debilitating health issues. Just as important, anyone who is looking to maximize performance must pay close attention to recovery.

That’s because, in many ways, the act of recovery is as critical to a strong performance as is your daily workout and weekly riding volume. While in today’s technology-driven training world, we have easy-to-use tools like power meters to help us track and quantify our training stress and performances, tracking recovery is not so easy. That’s another reason why recovery is the other side of the training balance that we often neglect. It often comes down to the fact that athletes lack a clear metric or tool to tell them when they’re fatigued.

If you discuss the topic with coaches and elite riders, they’ll each suggest a different way they monitor their recovery. Some will point to objective measurable metrics like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, or blood tests. Others will use more subjective measures — how they feel generally, the soreness they experience when they climb the stairs in the morning, or, sometimes, how much their family wants to avoid them because of how grouchy they’ve become.

It’s important to understand the balance between training and recovery, and how that balance plays such an important role in performing at our best. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being recovered all the time is a good thing. There is an important difference between overtraining and functional over-reaching. We’ll leave that discussion to another Training FAQ.

Now, to address your specific question about the best method or tool to understand your recovery needs, we turn to the science. I reached out to Dr. Paul Gastin, a professor at the Centre for Exercise and Sport Science at Deakin University in Australia, who has spent over a decade working with coaches and athletes in the field. He’s particularly interested in how to measure recovery outside of the lab and has written an influential review paper on the subject, comparing objective and subjective measures.

The results? If you think that a blood test or heart rate measure is necessarily better than answering a few questions every morning about how you feel, think again. In fact, some of the subjective tools for monitoring recovery, including tests like the POMS (Profile of Mood States) questionnaire and the 76-item RESQ questionnaire, as well as some other scales that look at anxiety levels and daily demands, seem to have some of the most value at predicting recovery state.

As Dr. Gastin put it, “the subjective measures were more consistent in their ability to pick up changes, they were more sensitive, and they provided earlier warning signs.” On the other hand, measures like heart rate variability seem to be less effective, though they still provide valuable information. “Many of the objective measures were better at picking up chronic changes, but those are changes you’re probably seeing when you’re heading into over-training,” Dr. Gastin said.

In summary, Dr. Gastin felt a combination of the two types of measures provided the best toolbox for understanding recovery.

“The best combination are a blend of objective and subjective measures. The subjective measures are very sensitive, so looking at training diaries, moods, a short questionnaire or scale that you may be able to record, track, and monitor on a regular basis, are valuable. It’s the serial value over time; it’s looking at trends more than individual, daily scores. On the objective area, it’s probably the heart rate measures that are most valuable. Heart rate variability, heart rate kinetics, it’s still early days in our understanding, but I think there’s some good, practical upside in heart rate.”

We dive even deeper into the subject of recovery in the following episode of Fast Talk.

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