As often said, recovery is just as important if not more so than training. We train in order to improve performance but we don’t see the positive adaption until the body has recovered. Each training session damages the body but the recovery period isn’t easy to calculate. It varies a lot, with every athlete reacting differently to each session. Outside stresses such as; lack of sleep, diet and psychological stress also have a huge impact on recovery.
This short article will look at HRV (heart rate variability) as a means of measuring recovery and general health.
HRV was something that until recently would’ve been very difficult to measure for the everyday athlete. Now there are affordable and easy to use devices and apps that allow you to measure and track your HRV from home.
There are 4 major types of fatigue used by coaches; acute fatigue, functional overreaching, non functional overreaching and overtraining syndrome.
Acute fatigue – acute fatigue is something you’d typically feel from a medium level session. You would have a small amount of muscle soreness but generally your body is able to recover within 24 hours of this session.
Functional overreaching – functional overreaching is essentially pushing your body hard, even through some days where you haven’t fully recovered. You’d normally see functional overreaching through a heavy training block where you have limited recovery time. It can take a number of days or even weeks to recover but you will see larger performance gains.
Non-functional overreaching – non-functional overreaching is when you’ve been training too much and/or not recovering sufficiently (this could be down to; lack of recovery time, nutrition, sleep, stress or a combination of these things). When you hit this point the body will feel incredibly tired and by the time your body has been able to sufficiently recover you’ll have lost all potential performance gains.
Overtraining Syndrome – Overtraining Syndrome is fairly uncommon but it does occur. In this state the athlete will be intensely fatigued, potentially suffer from hormone imbalance and it will most likely have a long term impact on performance.
What factors effect recovery?
As briefly mentioned above, there are plenty of factors outside of training load that effect recovery. If ignored, they can have a lasting effect on both recovery and consequently performance.
Sleep – one of the most simple but critical aspects of recovery. Chronic Sleep Deprivation has a host of negative impacts on the body. Things such as; slower recovery, lower immunity, lower insulin production and slower reaction times. It roughly takes 30 hours post sleep deprivation for your body to feel any negative effects, so if you struggle to sleep the night before competition don’t worry! Chronic Sleep Deprivation occurs when you regularly have too few hours sleep.
Again, everybody is different and everybody will require a different number of hours of sleep to fully recover. As a rough guide, you should feel refreshed within 1 hour of waking.
Stress – psychological stress is also a well known factor in inhibiting good recovery. Some factors may be hard to control but during a highly stressful period (for example, exams), training should be knocked back in order for your body to fully recover from each session.
Diet – another well known factor that effects recovery and another that varies between athletes. Along with getting your bodies required nutrients for the day its a good idea to keep track of what you’re eating and looking for trends in training/recovery to see what works best for you.
We have 2 forms of measuring recovery; subjective and objective.
Subjective measures of recovery consist of things such as; muscle soreness, mood and general fatigue. These factors are all reliant on the athlete being honest and knowing their bodies well enough to detect the above signs. So all in all, not particularly reliable.
Objective measures of recovery are based around testing and fact. HRV is the most accessible means of objective measurement.
How does HRV work?
HRV works by observing and measuring the autonomic nervous system and gives insight into stress and adaption that is difficult to get from any other means.
Within the autonomic nervous system you have the sympathetic nervous system branch and the parasympathetic nervous system branch.
The sympathetic nervous system branch is what’s active during training and is what activates our ‘flight or fight’ instincts. It controls things such as; release of adrenaline, release of glucose, accelerating the heart and opening up the lungs. This branch of the autonomic nervous system also inhibits digestion which would occur during and for some time after training.
The parasympathetic nervous system branch is responsible for putting your body in the correct state to recover and achieve super-compensation (performance gains) from training. This branch also; stimulates digestion, slows down the heart, rebuilds the livers glucose levels and regulates inflammation.
Contrary to what most people think, a heart beats in rhythms and isn’t regular. It speeds up when you inhale and slows down whilst you exhale. The amount in which it speeds up/slows down in controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system branch and this is is what is measured and recorded to give HRV.
Benefits of using HRV
Along with the obvious potential performance gains from using HRV, it is also a good indicator for your overall health. It is sensitive to current stress levels, can give a good early indication of recovery imbalance and can give early signals of sickness.
Unlike using resting HR as a fatigue indicator, with HRV a higher baseline number is often better. A high HRV suggests a high aerobic capacity and a strong resilience to stress, whilst a low HRV indicates high current levels of stress, being burnt out or being in ill health.
How to use HRV
There are lots of devices available now that can measure your HRV but it’s important to use it properly and control as many variables as possible. Initially, you’re looking to set a baseline so you’re able to spot any sudden changes in the future that can be used to see when your body is struggling. Variables include; time of day, body position (standing, sitting, lying), device, breathing, hydration, time since last workout, caffeine and stress. Although that seems like a lot of variables to control, it can be simply done by measuring your HRV as soon as you wake up.
It’s also important to keep track of each day with comments/feedback. This way, you’re able to spot trends and identify how different things are effecting your HRV.
Once you have a baseline set over a few weeks, you’re looking for stability in the trend. High/low points from the baseline are the indicators that you’re looking for, which may be cause for concern. For example, you may see a drop in HRV after a long haul flight, as your body has been under stress and you can use your baseline to establish when your body has fully recovered.
I think a lot of us put the majority of our time into planning our training with little thought put into our recovery. However, a lot of athletes can struggle at certain points of the year due to varying reasons. Monitoring HRV could be the key to avoiding sickness, knowing when to take a day off or realising you can push on a bit longer than you thought.
Avoiding illness is one of the major factors in performance with research showing that ‘athletes who completed 80% of their training without injury or illness were 7 times more like to succeed’.
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