Written by Erick Avila
You’re working out like never before to prep for you next power lift/strongman/crossfit/whatever event. Your program calls for you to operate at 85% of your 1RM today but you just don’t feel like you have it in you to do it. While at times an intensive training camp will call our mental resilience into question and we’ll be forced to train through it and push, at other times our body is giving us warning signals to prevent an oncoming injury or illness caused by being fatigued. The question is how are we able to distinguish the two?
Tracking recovery is a practice that’s becoming increasingly popular amongst professional sports teams as sports science continues to show the correlation between performance and recovery status. It’s understood that elite level performance requires intensive training. Our bodies undergo an adaptation to this training load in the cardiovascular & muscular system this is seen in increased muscle cross sectional areas, higher levels of motor unit activation, larger glycogen stores, and a more efficient heart. For these adaptations to occur it’s crucial for our bodies to adequately recover. Improper recovery impairs our ability to adapt to the training stimulus. To elicit the benefits from training it is necessary to stress the body and force it to adapt. But when we stress the body and the level we stress it to is important.
Overtraining is a common fear for most people but outside of high level athletes that’ll have 2-3 intense training sessions a day, under recovery is a much more tangible threat for everyone. Under-recovery can be affected by a variety of things:
Training Specific Stresses:
Lifestyle (non-training stresses)
It’s easy to see how any combination of stressors can significantly impact your ability to recover. Tracking your response to training load is important for a variety of reasons in a program it can serve as a form of injury prevention, a signal of non-functional overreaching, and as a parameter to ensure optimal conditioning when peaking for an event.
Sport scientists have used a variety of monitoring tools ranging from blood lactate measurements, hormonal/immunological assessments, to time motion analysis. For the purpose of this article I want to focus on some of the most practical measurement types that require as little equipment as possible and are easy to understand for a broad range of people.
Nutrition Logs – Nutrition goes hand in hand with performance and recovery. While people are quick to point out genetic outliers pro athletes that profess their love of pre-game candies, a common theme amongst the elite performers who continue to excel years after their peers have retired (think Bernard Hopkins and Jerry Rice) is that they stress the importance of a nutritious diet. Tracking your calories and macros is the most common method of overseeing one’s nutrition, and it’s relatively simple and very effective. With the busy schedules that both athletes and working professionals have, it can be easy to miss a meal, over time that adds up. A simple way to start is to either do the aforementioned tracking of calories/macros or keep a food diary where you just record the amount of meals you have and what they’re comprised of. Ensuring your consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel your performance, protein to repair muscle, and fat to optimize hormones will help you reach PRs a lot sooner than the person guessing away at their diet or chasing the latest fad diet.
Body Weight/Body Fat – Weight can fluctuate based on things like carbohydrate/sodium intake and hydration status but it does provide a good insight if it’s something that’s measured consistently. Body fat is an even more efficient method of recovering tracking as it can provide insight on the amount of lean body mass you have. There’s a host of chronic conditions associated with excessively high levels of body fat and likewise extremely low levels of body fat will negatively impact your immune status and performance. Finding a lean body mass range where you feel and perform optimally at and staying near that amount will go a long way in helping you reach your goals.
Sleep Tracking – Poor sleep is associated with decreased performance, higher risks of injury, infection and impaired cognitive performance. Sleep is when tissues regenerate, growth hormone is released, and cortisol is lowered. Bad sleep schedule means you’ll never fully recover from your previous training session and you’ll head into your next training session in a weakened state. Sleep deprivation has been linked to decreased strength levels and poorer weight lifting performance.. There are a variety of sleep tracking apps available for smart phones with functions ranging from measuring movement while asleep to amount of times you reach deep sleep. An even simpler method for someone that doesn’t want to use an app is to just track the total hours of sleep you got in the morning and an honest assessment of the quality, we all know the difference between a refreshing night of sleep and a bad one. A good range to aim for is 7-9 hours of sleep, anything below 6 hours has been associated with negative effects.
Resting Heart Rate – Your heart rate is a great indicator of general fitness levels and also of recovery. There are plenty of apps that’ll take your measurement for you, if not being able to find your pulse and a stop watch will suffice. Stressors like dehydration, poor sleep, or emotional stress will impact our heart rate levels. Increased sympathetic nervous activity (fight or flight system) results in a higher heart rate. Increased parasympathetic nervous activity will show a lower heart rate. It’s important to understand that both our sympathetic & parasympathetic systems can be stressed and the observed effect will be noted in abnormally elevated or decreased heart rates.
Hydration Status – Studies have shown that slight dehydration of as little as 3% can reduce contractile strength by 10%. A weaker contractile strength leads to a lower power output which is not desirable state to be in before you grab a barbell. There are scales and other types of electronic measurements that can determine your hydration status but a simple method is a urine color chart. Clear colored urine indicates that you’re likely drinking too much water whereas dark colored urine indicates dehydration (excessive supplementation can also have an affect on color). Pale yellow or straw colored urine is a good indicator of a proper hydration level.
Self-Assessment – Honesty is the best policy, and a self-reflection is one of the best methods of assessing your recovery levels. It’s not necessary to obsess daily over your training program or recovery status, but one must be honest with themselves that they’re doing all the necessary things to optimize their recovery. What’s your mood the all the time, while it’s unrealistic to be happy and chippy at all times if you’re feeling lethargic and unmotivated the majority of time it could be a sign of adrenal fatigue. Constant muscle soreness is another indicator of under-recovery, some soreness after the introduction of new training stimulus or a hard session is normal but in a properly designed program well designed athletes adapt to the volumes and soreness is eventually supposed to subside.
To reach new levels in competition, intense stimulus is needed in your program to create an overreaching effect. For your body to adapt to the overreaching effect caused by hard training you must ensure you’re doing everything you can to optimize your body’s recovery to this training stimulus. Rather than going through years of trial and error to figure out the right volumes and intensities for yourself use science as an aid.
Reilly T, et al., “The effect of partial sleep deprivation on weight-lifting performance. Ergonomics.” 1994 Jan;37(1):107-15.
Burke, L., Kiens, B., & Ivy, J. (n.d.). Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences, 15-30.
Maintaining Proper Hydration – Online Articles: National Council on Strength and Fitness Trainer’s Tools. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2015.