By Chris Carmichael
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
Recovery tracking is important for endurance athletes – and big business for app and device makers. There’s been an influx of new technologies that provide coaches and athletes with an unprecedented amount of data. Some of the data is useful and some of it is just noise. For tracking training readiness (otherwise known as recovery tracking) there are tools like Whoop, Oura Ring, heart rate variability monitors, and all manner of sleep trackers. Although these technologies provide insights into an athlete’s readiness to train, athletes must also learn to interpret how they feel. If a device says an athlete is recovered and ready for hard training, how do you know if it’s right?
Subjective feedback is crucial. Your power file may show that yesterday and today you held 240 watts for 20 minutes, with similar heart rates. However, the data file can’t tell whether perceived exertion was a 6/10 yesterday and a 9/10 today. Data does not always convey the exertion required to produce it. Likewise, data related to recovery does not always tell the whole story. How you feel – on and off the bike – provides invaluable context.
So, whether you have all the latest devices or none at all, here are some of the low-tech, old-school ways to know you’re recovered and ready to start training with higher volume and/or intensity again. Keep in mind, there are no red light/green light indicators here. Just like learning how you respond to training stress, you must learn the patterns your body follows in response to rest.
On the Bike Signs of Training Readiness
Your heart rate is responsive to changes in effort
A suppressed heart rate is a common consequence of fatigue. That’s not always a bad thing. Often, an athlete can repeat an interval workout and produce the same power outputs, at a similar perceived exertion, but at a lower heart rate during the second workout. That’s fine. It becomes a problem when you keep the training pressure on too long. At that point, heart rate stays suppressed, power output drops, and perceived exertion increases.
When an athlete is rested, heart rate rises and falls quickly in response to changes in effort level. There isn’t really a rate of change that signals rested vs. fatigued. It’s highly individual, but you can discern patterns on the fly by watching your heart rate values.
Accelerations are easy
You can often tell how another rider is feeling by the way they accelerate from a stoplight or out of a corner. And as a rider you can feel the difference yourself. I’m not talking about the behavior of sprinting back up to speed after a stoplight (don’t do that if we’re riding together, please). When you’re fatigued, accelerations feel like you’re dragging an anchor. You can get up to speed, but it’s a lumbering, unpleasant slog. When you’re rested, the accelerations – whether from a standing start, a slow corner, or to close a small gap in the group or pace line – are notably easy (or at least, easier). Riders often refer to this as having some ‘snap’ in their legs vs. having ‘heavy’ or ‘dead’ legs.
You want to go fast
Rest to an athlete is like a missed meal to a lion. At some point they both get hungry and are ready to jump on anything that moves. One of the biggest problems we have with athletes during a pre-event taper is keeping them from constantly testing their strength and speed. They have high fitness and are reducing training stress to diminish fatigue, and just as the event approaches and they start to feel great, they go out and charge every hill and crush every Strava segment and end up getting to the start line of their event fatigued.
The Transition Period, or any extended time of reduced training, is similar to prolonged taper. Only, you’re not trying to bring about peak performance at the end of it. Rather, you’re resting longer and achieving deeper recovery from a long season of effort. But that feeling of “I just want to go!” is what you’re after at the end of both.
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Off the Bike Signs of Training Readiness
You’re getting antsy to train
With the exception of professional athletes, none of us have to train. We do it because we love the process and like the outcomes. And it’s fun and gives us some cool goals to shoot for. That doesn’t mean training is always easy or enjoyable. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes your goals demand that you have to work out when you don’t really feel like it. That’s part of the process. But when training is a chore and a bore and you have to fight and bargain with yourself just to get out on the bike, it’s time for extended recovery or a significant change in activities.
For a lot of athletes, the Transition Period is about 6 weeks of less structured riding, at about 50-75% of their normal weekly volume. All I ask is that they incorporate some short, high intensity efforts on hills a few times a week, as that’s about all it takes to blunt the short-term decline in VO2 max and power at lactate threshold. And we still talk on the phone. After about five or six weeks, I will typically get the unsolicited question: “So, when can we get going again?” or comments like: “I’ve been thinking about doing X, Y, or Z workouts this winter, what do you think?” If they’re not giving me indications they’re eager to increase the structure and focus of their training, I’ll give it another week and then start directing our conversations to find out whether there’s something beyond fatigue we need to work through.
You’re getting fidgety
A long time ago I worked with an athlete whose wife would call me in the fall to let me know her husband was ready to start training again. Or rather, she was ready for him to start training again because he was driving her nuts. He was starting projects he wouldn’t finish, rearranging furniture she didn’t really want moved, and generally making a nuisance of himself. Training gave him structure and focused his attention and energy. When he started getting fidgety, it was time to get back to training. We used to joke that his cycling habit was essential to their happy marriage, and there was probably a lot of truth to it.
When you’re feeling energized and creative and looking for something to do, you’re rested. That doesn’t mean you should jump back into hard training to suppress those feelings, but rather that you’re recovered from training or other stresses that had previously diminished them.
Combine Technology with Observation
My advice is that training and recovery technologies can’t be used in isolation. Athletes are not machines and cannot be reduced to numbers on a screen or lines on a graph. Use sleep trackers, track heart rate variability, and monitor fatigue with Whoop or an Oura Ring, but always check the data against subjective feedback. Humans have known how to rest – and what it feels like to be rested – for far longer than we’ve known how to measure restfulness. Gather the data, verify with perception.
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