The final article of the heart rate variability series (HRV) ties everything together, including the first article on data capture. It’s easy to see monitoring athletes as a combination of planning and reacting to the response of training and competition, but it’s really a model that requires constant upgrades and refinement. This article will reduce the common temptation to train and add recovery modalities to patch up poor responses. In addition to better training and recovery plans, I outline how athletes are more consistently part of the process.
Actionable Data Requires Modeling
The term “actionable data” is common in every sales pitch for monitoring, and some information is more conclusive to use for decision-making purposes. HRV is not a diagnosis—it’s more like a summary—and in sport, many coaches will use it as a proxy for fatigue management. Recovery is the primary use of HRV, but modeling adaptation eliminates the typical mistake of load and hope. There’s nothing wrong with a little trial and error; that’s called “fine tuning” in sports training.
Throwing mindless training against the wall and seeing what sticks with recovery is more common than I believed. A good training model makes the difference between actionable data and just overreacting to data. I have mentioned training modeling in very finite detail in my article on swimming, but the gist of it is to have a good plan and understand the key variables to success. HRV monitoring is part of the glue that keeps a good model together, and I have mapped out an outline that you can refine and customize to fit your needs.A good training model makes the difference between using actionable data and overreacting to data. Click To Tweet
Understanding recovery is really understanding training with a high degree of precision and specificity. Most of the recovery process, outside of the support of sleep and diet, involves internal pathways in the body that help it repair and restore. The wrong training program can never win, even if athletes are supported by all the recovery modalities in the world. When coaches ask about recovery but believe they have all the answers on training, I get worried. Their mistake is thinking that they just have to load and wait, when in reality, many different systems of the body are recovering at different rates.
Modeling solves all of this by transforming physiology into simple requirements and goals. Without modeling, coaches will add recovery techniques to facilitate better HRV numbers and then find themselves constantly let down because the right training trumps external modes of recovery.
Actionable information with HRV monitoring and performance is specific enough to merit a fast response without risking unnecessary energy. Actionable data is also constrained, meaning it is unlikely to cause harm when following through. While some human filtering should be done before coaches make a move, a good model, along with procedures in place, will nearly automate the process. Automation is hardly brainless or lazy; it requires a deep understanding of what HRV information means. Automation also requires that those using it are experienced enough to know that what you do with it is going to improve the outcomes with athlete preparation.
Periodizing Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Balance
Training should never be reduced or simplified to physiological states, but modeling general trends of HRV has value when planning workouts for the season. Coaches should use recovery as a way to reload sympathetic drive, not hide from fatigue or avoid being tired. The smarter the load, the more likely the athlete is going to respond favorably.
Assuming that the load is appropriate in type or prescription, the more demanding the stimulus, the more likely it can help the athlete get better if they can recover from it. If the load is too much, we all know the athlete will not be very productive for days afterward or it can even injure them. Conversely, with too little stimulus, the athlete misses a chance to get better, as many workouts are maintenance by error.
I prefer that the athlete is more recovered than tired, even during heavy training periods. The reason is that athletes may be healthy and have solid HRV scores, but they are still tired from the residual effect of constantly training. I don’t care if the athlete has poor HRV at game time, but they need to be relaxed enough when not competing or they will burn out. As the athlete ages, they learn to let it go, because wanting something too much will crush their goals.
Physically, it’s up to the coaches to pace the season so mental peaking is possible. The mental biomotor ability is usually the last programmed in, when speed and power seem to dominate importance. However, if I had to do it again, I would take more interest into sports psychology earlier to understand how to better support adrenaline and relaxation.
An easy way to take microcycles, or weekly plans, is to use ithlete HRV colors with heat maps in addition to training monotony. Exporting or using the API component of the program serves as a great review of a season, as well as the conventional tools. Even the mood map for each month is useful to see how the flow of the time period worked with the athlete’s body.
Environmental Factors, Building Work Capacity, and Feedback
Immediate feedback is a direct way to improve output, and measuring athletes in any test or training period will drive change. Leaderboards, aggregators of individual output, will raise arousal further, making a session into an onslaught of adrenaline. Competition, even if not measured directly, will raise adrenaline and, thus, output will rise with it. Sometimes feedback can control arousal by manipulating how an athlete handles their energy, like learning to relax while sprinting. Finally, a good program will also find a way to target low intensity work to improve residual day readiness. Feedback is not about just jacking up the adrenaline volume, it’s also soothing the racehorse to go on a recovery trot when needed.
Work capacity has two benefits: the promotion of more fitness for performance and the quality to recover from the rigors of training. The problem we see today is that anything and everything is considered training because simple standards and comparisons are lost. Coaches who are incompetent hate traditional means, not because they are not effective, but because they are easy to evaluate in terms of change or ranking. If a coach’s strength program is feeble and athletes lack gross strength and power, what usually happens is the coach focuses on other things besides lifting. The best coaches embrace simplicity and clarity, and want to find better ways to do training that transfers, not discover a way to hide from the inconvenient truth.
A direct way to gauge the work capacity is to see how the recovery of HRV, power tests, and subjective indicators coordinate for better all-around results. Coaches have to juggle training that pushes the athlete to greater levels of fitness, while making sure absolute abilities rise or are maintained, and not interfering with baseline health. Only so many resources are available, as most biological systems in the body are finite. Focusing on spreading out the conditioning to improve wellness while timing intense days more selectively will increase performance—resulting in a better athlete who is also healthy.
Last, but most important, is an athlete’s environment. While family and friends (including romantic ones) are supportive, the distributive nature of others tends to be more of a problem. I believe financial strain is a hidden disease—we are aware of it, but don’t notice it as much. Other areas of life that interact with the environment are home life, religious obligations, and personal development or growth away from the sport. I could write an entire article about this one area that makes or breaks a season, but coaches need to communicate more and have more support opportunities in place for an athlete to access.
Interventions to Support Recovery Patterns
Finally, there are options that can redirect sustainable drives in recovery or provide a temporary change in HRV. It’s easy to relax or have a cold glass of water and see changes in parasympathetic activity, but making sure that change is improving recovery the next day is far different. I have seen countless studies that show HRV changes from modalities that are interesting, but the lasting effects are doubtful. Still, the use of a short-term benefit, even if no hard regeneration metrics show up the next day, are beyond placebo. They make or break mental needs for athletes. Many thermotherapy modalities provide a spa experience that is statistically significant the next day, and chronic use of them may be essential to keep the athletes going.
Some notable fears and concerns exist over recovery methods with negative long-term consequences that fail to trigger adaptation. In order to decide what is essential during a playoff run and what is likely overreaction during a base or capacity-building period, coaches need a good decision-making tree, along with the right ingredient list. Here are the scenarios that help me decide the value and appropriateness of interventions for recovery.
Injured, tired, mentally drained, and on fumes – Coaches find that a nagging, but still playable, injury is the most emotionally difficult, as it lingers for long periods and eats away the staff. Nobody wants to be the guy that says “enough is enough,” and the staff is usually undermined by the people above them, including athletes who just don’t want to take time off. Many team sport seasons are ruined by coaches not wanting to rest players because they need to win. What is important is that belief in the staff and athlete wellness can be improved with interventions that are complementary, like typical passive modalities and popular options such as blood flow restriction (BFR) training. A focus on service-style recovery options to make athletes feel better may stimulate a lost appetite, a willingness to train, and a positive outlook to win.
Burned-out, but time is on your side – After the season is over, even winning has paid its toll. Athletes, especially those who trained hard and sacrificed a lot, don’t look forward to coming back. Some athletes are ruthless and just want to win, and are addicted to the process, but athletes are still human and very mortal when it comes to training. Athletes who are mentally fried are not interested in training or even the sport and recreation aspect. Recreation is lost in modern society, as a “winning at all costs” mentality has killed youth sports and simple fitness activities. Even indoor spinning is a battle, with companies placing leaderboards, leaving the overreached athlete unable to find a workout that leaves them with enough mental space to restore their mind and body.
When the athlete’s mind is trapped, have them escape to nature and do an aerobic workout that leaves them tired from its length, not its intensity. Athletes don’t need to be marathoners, but sea kayaking in the early morning, hiking a mountain, or going for a long walk at night in the desert is invigorating. In fact, the word “vigor” is what we need now as the anti-fragile campaign pushed from the industry is nothing more than recycled Nietzsche. After a few weeks of unplugging (even digitally), athletes can come back craving to train again.
Tired, but focused and mentally ready – I find that the art of the recovery workout is lost. This is a shame because it makes polarized training programs that are wildly popular more effective. Athletes who need an easier workout also need alternative options to harmonize what they are usually forced to overdose on: too much specificity and competition. A steady diet of practice and games over a long period is a doomed reality, but still very common or necessary in modern sport. To balance this, I always resort to the big three modalities in my pocket—the pool, a circuit, and general fitness recipes.
- Pool – The fact that many people see the pool as a pain or just nice to have shocks me. Weekly or multiple sessions a week are near magic. If you are not implementing pool workouts each week, you are missing out on an advantage. One thing I learned this past year was the sheer impact of pool training. The benefits could be seen daily, weekly, and over the season. Find a way to get it done.
- Circuits – Classic German circuits that incorporate a few California bodybuilding features, progressive assistance exercises, and modern core training can make a difference. The work balances the body, removes impact volume to the joints, and serves as a great social period due to the proximity of the team to one another. Circuits also release a lot of lactate if done with lower intensities and dense rest periods. Studies on lactate and endorphin relationships explain why a runner’s high doesn’t only happen to those doing miles.
- General Fitness – After circuits, a general day of activities that include mobility and work capacity is a good way to promote confidence and serves as a mental break from the weight room or practice field. HRV is very connected to aerobic fitness, so programs that can keep the heart and lungs challenged without breaking down the legs are a great way to stoke the fires with fitness levels.
Other scenarios exist, but the key is to identify as many profiles as possible with as much precision you have time for. Athletes are n=1, but share enough commonalities to divide them into categories. Some coaches call each category a bucket and toss athletes into them for convenience, but this is lazy and the lack of granularity misses out on results. Instead of placing an athlete into a bucket, do the opposite. Keep slicing the problem up into pieces that are unique enough to personalize the solution. Of course, only so much time exists, but each year this process gets refined and improved by the athletes being involved. When you redirect an athlete to a vague path, the destination is not as far or as effective.
It’s worth repeating: Athletes need passive, active, and different recovery routines, not just the stereotypical massages and other prophylactic options. Make sure you consider the nature of the options in how they provide variety and new experiences, not just a way to mask symptoms of fatigue.
Anticipating the Seasonal Loading and Lifestyle
After a few years of coaching, even without HRV modeling, coaches will be able to plan for the expected challenges of a season. What makes HRV monitoring special is the magnitude of fatigue a coach sees, not just the assistance in deciding what road to take. Another likely benefit for coaches is seeing the “cost of doing business” with games, travel, mental stress, financial troubles, and, of course, the training. The ability to anticipate problems gives any coach a fighting chance, and also allows for all parties involved, especially the athlete, to be accountable.
The classic culture of fitness and capacity reinforces the commitment to finding a way to fit in training. As I mentioned earlier in the article, when coaches see tired athletes, they will often look for quick fixes and turn away from the reasons that athletes are not handling the workload, because of a lack of preparedness. If coaches really care about the athlete’s recovery, and not just improvement to their HRV scores, they’ll use ithlete as a way to facilitate both the subjective indicators and better training results.
Recovery is great, but an experienced coach sees amazing achievements from athletes that are prepared, even if they’re not at their best. A rested, but weak and out-of-shape athlete can never dominate, as programs need the athlete to be as fresh as necessary at the right time, not fresh all the time.
Working with athletes is just working with people along with the obvious coaching duties. It’s better to start with all of the other factors outside of training first, as those tend to disrupt the athletes more than making errors in the weight room or the track. If you spend time thinking of what a daily routine is for athletes, you will see opportunities to address life problems and gaps that sometimes make coaching a living hell.
HRV is only one way, but an effective one, to communicate difficult-to-talk-about problems and solve them objectively. Using ithlete has taught me about finding where the termites are instead of replacing wooden beams in the house. Great coaches have a knack for knowing how to get athletes on the same page. The use of HRV monitoring can enable more coaches to be that good.
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