Quantifying Recovery: Do I REALLY Need that Rest Day?!
Yep, that’s right. ANOTHER post about recovery. I can hear the collective groans and hisses from circus artists all over the world. Really, I can. Bear with me, friends, I think you’re going to like this one! This is the post in which I teach you how to ACTUALLY QUANTIFY recovery, and your body’s readiness for training. In this post, you’ll learn about one of the best tools out there to measure how recovered you are from the previous day’s training, and how to adjust your training program to maximize DEM GAINZ!
Do I have your attention? Great!
Nervous System Physiology 101
To kick off the topic, lets quickly chat about the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is basically the “stressor control system” of our body. Within the ANS is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).
The SNS is the ALERT system that helps us activate the “fight or flight” mechanism during scary situations (and exercise!). The PSNS is the opposite: it activates the “chill and recover” switch when we are in a non-threatening situation. Balance between these systems is VITAL to us as athletes- we need to be able to optimally switch between systems in response to our situations. When we’re training, we should be ALL about that #SNSLyfe. HOWEVER, when we’re NOT training, we MUST switch over to the PSNS, to activate the “recovery” switch in our brains (literally) and release the hormones and neurotransmitters necessary to HEAL OUR MUSCLES! This ability to toggle appropriately between systems is VITAL to our overall training success.
Here’s the problem: WE ARE A STRESSED OUT SOCIETY!
Between work, electronic devises, and generally managing our day-to-day responsibilities, we are PERPETUALLY living with our SNS ACTIVATED. This is an issue for a lot of reasons, but I’ll stick with how it affects our training and our goals. If we cannot toggle between nervous systems as appropriate, we never fully recover from a hard training day (or stressful work weeks). If our PSNS doesn’t get to do its thing, our muscles don’t get the neurotransmitters and hormones necessary to mend after training. Can you see where I’m going with this??
MODIFIABLE!! INJURY!! RISK!! FACTOR!! RIGHT!! HERE!!
Here’s the thing with athletes: we like goals. And training. We like objective markers of progress. In circus, we work towards very concrete goals, and you either achieve them or don’t: you can either do a pull up or you cannot, you either have flat splits or you don’t. As a culture, circus artists DO NOT tend to like the concept of “rest” and “recovery” because we don’t have objective markers of their necessity in our lives. There’s no way to MEASURE it, or objectively gauge whether we need it or not. We are taught that circus hurts, and that it is necessary to push through pain and discomfort to achieve our goals. Therefore, we equate “recovery” with slacking off, and then we don’t REST. We don’t trust our “feelings,” so we push through fatigue. AND THEN YOU GET INJURED. Or sick. Or burnt out. And then those goals? Well, they’re even farther away!
But you guys…what if we could MEASURE our need for recovery and how to accurately assess the effect of training on our body?! What if we could measure our body’s physiologic response to the stressors- physical and otherwise- in our lives, and how that is impacting our training?
Might it validate the necessity for recovery?
Might it help us shift our perspective on recovery?
I THINK IT JUST MAY DO THAT!
Heart Rate Variability: The Measurement of Recovery
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the change in time between consecutive heart beats (otherwise known as the R-R interval).
**HRV IS NOT THE SAME AS HEART RATE**
HRV changes consistently throughout the day, and our ANS is the primary driver of this change. Researchers and physiologists have been tracking and utilizing HRV for decades, for its use as an indicator for many different health concerns: heart attack, stroke, diabetes, depression, hypertension, digestive issues…the list goes on. However, its utility in athletics is something that has only recently been brought to light.
Your heart rate variability at any given time tells you which system is dominant at that moment: SNS or PSNS. It considers the TOTAL stress placed on the body, and how your system is responding. Stress, in and of itself, is NOT bad, if we adequately toggle to our PSNS to recover from that stress.
Generally, a higher HRV represents a positive adaptation/better recovery status, whilst lower HRV reflects stress and a worse recovery status. It can be used as a snapshot of where your body is- right now- and it can also be used over time, to observe trends during training cycles.
THIS IS SO COOL, RIGHT?!?
Measuring Heart Rate Variability
Technology has made this TOO easy, my friends. There are TONS of options for measuring HRV, from fancy schmancy jewelry (I’m not kidding), to apps on smartphones. Personally, I use the app HRV4Training, because it doesn’t require any accessories besides my iphone. Here’s what you do: wake up. Open app. Place index finger over camera. Hold for 60 seconds.
Then, it spits out your HRV, and gives you advice on how to alter training for the day based on the state of your nervous system, and how well it’s recovered from the previous day’s stressors.
WHAT?! I know, friends. I KNOW.
So…how do I use HRV to measure recovery and inform my training??
Great question. Because this is a MASSIVE topic, I’m going to leave you with two actionable steps, and then leave the rest of the meat and potatoes (or tempeh and quinoa…you do you) for my next blog post.
1. Pick a measurement tool:
My personal choice is the HRV4Training app that I mentioned before. It’s definitely the cheapest and easiest of the options. If you want something a bit fancier, check out this, or this, or this (AFFILIATE LINK ALERT!). Want to invest in a SUPER schmancy device with WAY more bells and whistles? Check out OmegaWave, Oura Ring, or Whoop (no affiliate links for these bad boys).
2. Establish a baseline.
Measure your HRV with preferred device every morning for 2-4 weeks. Observe the patterns and trends. What does your score do the day after a hard training session? After a night of drinking? After a trans-atlantic flight? After a stressful work week?
Here’s a fun list of factors that negatively impact you HRV: Alcohol. Smoking. Stress. Dehydration. Sleep deprivation. Poor nutrition. Overtraining. Pay attention to how these impact your HRV.
OK friends, I’m going to leave you on that frustratingly anti-climactic note…because I want you to ACTUALLY measure and establish a baseline, and observe trends, before I drop part 2 of this series, in which I tell you how you can use HRV to leverage your training to maximize results, while MINIMIZING illness and injury.