It can be all too easy for athletes to forget the golden rule of fitness: It’s sum of work plus recovery. I’ve seen the truth of this magic equation time and again during my years as a coach of endurance athletes. Two athletes can put in the same amount of training, and one will get a huge performance boost and the other will barely improve. While there can be multiple factors at play when an athlete fails to respond as expected to a given dose of training, one of the major and most consistent factors in these scenarios seems to be that the athlete’s recovery from training, well, just plain sucks!
So if you’re not getting the expected fitness “bang” from the training “buck” that you’re investing, how can you determine if poor recovery is at play? How do you know if your recovery sucks?
There are several tell-tale signs that I typically look for when assessing if an athlete has a less than optimal recovery profile. Combined, these factors can help to tell us just how limited the athlete is when it comes to recovering from training load and just how much attention should be given to the recovery side of that critical ‘fitness = work + recovery’ formula.
Sucky recovery sign #1: Your heart rate variability is low and erratic
The athletes who I’ve worked with who have responded the most to the training load had one factor in common—remarkably stable heart rate variability (HRV) numbers. While your typical over-stressed, under-recovered athlete’s HRV numbers may swing a lot on a daily basis, healthy, fit, well-recovered athletes operate within a very narrow range.
Very durable, fatigue-resistant athletes, who respond well to training, show HRV swings of only 10-20%. For example, a very fit athlete with a HRV of 100ms (milliseconds) might see it drop to 90ms after a very hard workout or stressful day. On the other hand, athletes who struggle with recovery will see a lot more variation. Our fit athlete with a norm of 100ms and a poor recovery profile might see the HRV swing as low as 50ms (50% of their normal value) following hard workouts or stressful days and take much longer for the HRV to return to their norm.
Additionally, athletes who exhibit poor recovery often have lower than average absolute HRV numbers. While there are some individual factors at play related to age or genetics, for example, an HRV—RMSSD, the root mean square of successive differences between heartbeats—hovering below 50ms is a good sign that recovery should be given extra attention within their training.
Sucky recovery sign #2: You feel stressed throughout the day
I ask all of the athletes who I work with to track their self-reported life stress on a daily basis and, without question, the athletes who report the highest levels of life stress also show the slowest recovery from hard training.
This relationship has long been an interest of mine and, in fact, was the topic of my Masters’ thesis, “The influence of psycho-social stressors on the adaptation process of elite swimmers.” While I expected to see some relationship between life stress and poor adaptation, even I was surprised by just how strong this relationship was and, in the years since, this relationship between athletes reporting feeling stressed and adapting poorly to the training has been affirmed time and time again.
Sucky recovery sign #3: You sleep poorly (sans medication)
Sleep is one of the most important parts of the day for the serious athlete. It has been said that as athletes, we get tired when we’re training, but we actually get fitter while we’re sleeping! There is a lot of truth to this. The growth and repair processes that lead to supercompensation, i.e., having upgraded physiological “machinery,” largely happen while we’re in the middle of high-quality sleep. This is when the endocrine and nervous systems move from work mode to rest and repair mode. It should come as no surprise, then, that compromised sleep leads to slow recovery from the training and compromised adaptation.
This sleep-recovery relationship is very much a two-way street, i.e., when an athlete is having a hard time switching on their recovery systems, this leads to poor sleep which further inhibits recovery. It’s quite easy for an athlete to get trapped in this “fight or flight” nervous system dominance and, when coupled with the additional life stressors that are abundant in our modern lives, it’s of no surprise that around 10 million Americans are now relying on pills to help them sleep. Athletes are not excluded from this. Poor/restless sleep or the inability to sleep deeply without medication should be taken by the serious athlete as a huge red flag that they are not getting all the fitness benefits they could from their training.
RELATED: A Triathlete’s Guide to Better Sleep
Sucky recovery sign #4: Your energy swings throughout the day and/or you crave sugar away from training
With the advent of continuous glucose monitoring, coaches are now able to have a window into the day-to-day glucose fluctuations of athletes and one of the most interesting insights from this monitoring is just how different the patterns can be for different athletes, even when eating the same foods. Like HRV, some athletes exhibit very wiggly glucose curves, while others are much more stable. Also, like HRV, there seems to be a strong relationship between a wiggly glucose curve, with frequent blood sugar lows, and poor training response.
While not all athletes have access to continuous glucose monitoring, a dead giveaway of wildly fluctuating glucose can be found in how frequently the athlete experiences energy dips throughout the day and how frequently the athlete craves sugar. In that sense, energy swings and frequent sugar cravings tend to be quite reliable indicators of an athlete responding poorly to the training load.
Sucky recovery sign #5: You’re often moody or agitated
Interestingly, one of the most reliable indicators of overtraining in the research has nothing to do with fancy gadgets or blood markers, it is simply the mood of the athlete. Consistent reporting of anxiety or depression by the athlete has been found to be a reliable indicator of an overtrained (or under-recovered) state.
Going along with our central theme of the relationship between a chronic “fight or flight” stress state and poor recovery, it should come as no surprise that our body is not primed to recover well if we are in a perpetual state of anxiety. This is another marker that I have my athletes record each day and there is a clear relationship between self-reported extended periods of grumpiness and athletes not responding well to the training load.
Sucky recovery sign #6: You’re frequently sick or injured
The best predictor of long-term success is consistency. It follows that athletes who are frequently dealing with illness or injury are going to have a hard time improving. Even when an athlete can keep training rolling along during these periods of ill health, they don’t frequently improve very much as their body is using energy and resources for other more important things—namely fighting whatever bug they’re dealing with or repairing the latest injury.
Frequent illness or injury is a good indicator that the athlete’s protective immune system or soft tissue repair system isn’t working as it should. Excessive stress can be a major player in each—the “fight or flight” stress state both suppresses immune response, and it suppresses the growth hormone response so critical for tissue repair.
If your recovery sucks, what can you do about it?
OK, so you’ve nodded a little too frequently while reading along here and have determined that your recovery may, indeed, suck. So what can you do about it?
A well-planned training program should swing between periods that emphasize work and periods that emphasize active recovery. Often, athletes who struggle with recovery are, ironically, the first to omit these active recovery portions of training from their program. For the time-crunched athlete, things like warming up, cooling down, stretching, doing yoga, and including easy active recovery workouts are often the first things to go. Similarly, there is a strong tendency when time-crunched to notch up the intensity of the training to levels that are significantly more stressful to the nervous system in the name of getting the most load possible in the time available. Paradoxically, this attitude of pushing for more actually leads to less: less training response, less performance gain from the work they’re putting in. It also leads to the athlete spending their day moving from one stressor to the next—from the stress of a hard morning workout with no cooldown or recovery time straight to the stress of the office for a morning meeting. If this describes you, my advice would be to first create some “breathing room” between your training stress and your life stress. Every workout is a story: It should have a proper beginning (warm-up), a middle (main set) and an end (cooldown).
Beyond this, recognize that you are human and as a human, your ability to deal with and recover from stress will ebb and flow over the course of your month, year, and life! Poor recovery often compounds when we don’t back off during the times that we know we should. In other words, don’t be surprised if just being a little more attentive to your recovery needs during the periods that your body really needs it leads to significant positive changes in all the above symptoms throughout the rest of the year.
In conclusion, the athletes who are able to race at the highest levels over the long-term are a strange bunch. They definitely have those “Type A” driven traits that will be so familiar to many of you, but mixed with that, they have incredible self-awareness that tells them quickly when they need to back off and flip the switch into recovery mode. That self-awareness begins with regularly revisiting the above checklist and changing the emphasis of the training when needed by honestly answering that crucial question: Does my recovery suck?
Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science), is an exercise physiologist and endurance coach with 25+ years of experience in the multisport world.