Thursday, January 27, 2011

Recovery based training - a theory in development. Part one.

Reading books, articles, reports and studies on exercise physiology has been a regular pastime for a long time. Over the last twenty plus years, I have read more articles and reports on endurance training than I can count. I've read about training levels based on percentage of heart rate (max and reserve), percentage of threshold pace, percentage of race pace, colors, and perception of effort. The theories have tended to have a lot in common. Here are some of the shared assumptions. These are also ones I will rely on:

1. A common error in training is too train to easy on hard days and too hard on easy days.
2. People improve (make physiological adaptations) during the recovery from hard work.
3. Overtraining is to be avoided.

Starting from these assumptions, the training plans then set forth criteria and tests for determining how hard to work and then give a schedule for how often to work hard. The importance of recovery is also present in most, if not all, training plans. The various plans set out recovery paces based on different criteria. The idea of hard and easy days appears in multiple training philosophies, rest weeks appear as well. The experts seem to agree that smart training means giving your body the opportunity, through rest, to adapt to increased workloads.

Recently, I've come to wonder whether the training theories all share a similar flaw.  Perhaps it would be better not to focus just on how hard to train, but also focus on determining when you have fully recovered from hard training.  Because, while there are a number of formulations to tell you specifically how long and hard to work, the methods of measuring the amount of recovery are left mostly to generic catchall formulas. For example, a hard day should be followed by an easy day and one out of every three or four weeks should be a reduction in volume of training.

But people recover at different rates. Even the same person may recover from the same workout at different rates depending on things like nutrition, rest, and other stresses in life and their state of health (or sickness). As a result, a generic pre-set catch-all rest period is going to overestimate the amount of rest needed for some and underestimate the rest  others will need.

What if the focus shifted to measuring recovery? If you could accurately measure recovery, couldn’t you maximize the effectiveness of your training? For example, if you trained hard today but recovered within 24 hours, you could do back-to-back hard days. Alternatively, if you trained really hard one day and didn't fully recover for two or three days, then you could (and should!) use those days to recover adapt and get stronger.

If you could measure recovery, you would know whether a long training ride at an "easy pace" should be followed by a rest day or a hard day. You'd also be able to tell whether a set of tough intervals really stressed you enough to generate the adaptations you want to take place and therefore, you should rest long enough to allow it to happen.

If this theory is right then, with the right measurement of recovery, get fitter would be like pumping your legs on a swing: you wait for the right moment on the backswing, push hard, and enjoy as you smoothly soar to new heights. This would be much more effective than swinging your legs at predetermined intervals that may have no application to your swing on that day or only work in a hit and miss fashion.

Measuring recovery-

So how do you measure recovery in a practical, objective, reliable and consistent manner? Obviously, if you can't measure recovery then the theory will have limited application for training.

My theory is to use morning resting heart rate as a measure.  Its "common wisdom" that an elevated resting heart rate (RHR) is an indication that you have not yet fully recovered. An elevated heart rate for a series of days is usually described as a sign of overtraining and a reason to rest.

Figuring out your morning RHR doesn't require anything more than a pulse and a clock and it doesn't take long.

Here's how it would work

1. Determine your fully recovered resting heart rate. Check it first thing in the morning before you get out of bed and start your day. Take your pulse when you are calm and relaxed. You want to know your recovered and rested heart rate, not the one you have the day after a hard interval session or when you are dehydrated, sick or didn't get a good night's sleep. Let's call this the rested heart rate.

2. Add 10% to your rested heart rate. We'll call this the elevated heart rate. (For example If you measured  a heart rate of 50 in step 1, then 55 would be the elevated rate.

3. You now have 3 possible morning heart rate ranges.
"Recovered" - (< 50 using the example) ( I add the less than 50 because it is possible that with a day or two or more rest, you may discover that your rested heart rate may be less than you thought. If that occurs - adjust the numbers.

"Tired" - above rested heart rate but less than 10% (51-55 using the example) and

"Elevated" - above 10% (55+ using the example).

 4. Now for the Plan - the morning heart tells you how hard you can work that day:

Recovered = Hard day: go hard, go long, go for it! The particular workout you do on a recoveredday is up to you. Do what ever interval session, long workout, HIIT you want : Max intervals, hard Tempo runs, AT runs whatever.

Tired = "Easy day" depending on whose plan you follow this can be described as an aerobic day, below LT, 80% FTP pace, 70% HRR, etc. (If you read this far into the post, you probably already know what I mean.

On a tired day, you will have to exercise some restraint, a heart rate monitor, pace, or RPE, or whatever method you choose to regulate your easy day pace should be followed.

Elevated = "day off" zone 1, less than 60% HR - or just take the day off, recover and get fitter.

UPDATE - One year later: Part Two


  1. Nice thought process. An all too common trait among athletes is to over-estimate how much we can accomplish in the short term and conversely, underestimate how much we can accomplish in the long run. As we get older most of us are unable to sustain the level of intensity that we did during our salad days; we think back to how easy it all was and over-reach. Recovery is king; easily said, difficult to do well.

  2. Bill - Good point. The rosy lens of "how easy it all was" makes for a daunting taskmaster. I've already begun self-testing this theory. I'll probably post updates along the way . . .