Are You Ready to Train?
How to tell when you're ready to drop the hammer.
As you continue to put in weeks of solid training, you might be finding it difficult to understand when you can keep pushing yourself, or when you need to back off and allow your body to recover.
In this month’s toolbox article, I’ll be discussing some of the tools that you can utilize to help you assess your readiness to train on a daily basis!
Benefits of Technology
Benefits of Technology
There are plenty of apps and training software designed to help us collect & interpret our health & training data. Training software can be used to analyze your reart Rate & power during your activities, while other apps & services help collect & interpret your physiological data, such as resting heart rate or heart rate variability.
Many cycling training software platforms are capable of tracking your training load – or the amount of training that you typically do – as well as some measure of training score for each of your activities. Some examples of training software that you might have available to you include Strava’s Freshness and Fitness, or other performance management charts (PMC’s) from Xert, TrainingPeaks, etc.
These programs work by assessing how much training you have recently done relative to how much training you typically do, usually averaged over the last couple of months. For example, if you’ve done much more training this week than usual, these performance models will likely be able to identify that you’ve accumulated a lot of acute fatigue and that you may need a recovery week. On the other hand, if you’ve been doing a similar amount of training (or slightly less) than usual, these performance models might indicate that you are “fresh” and should be ready to ride hard.
The Xert Performance Management Chart (XPMC), which shows an athlete’s Training Load (solid black line), Training Status (multi-colored line), Threshold Power (dashed yellow line), and Breakthrough Performances (multi-colored circles).
A resting heart rate
Resting Heart Rate
One rather simple way to track your readiness to train on a daily basis is to measure your resting heart rate (RHR) each day. Your resting heart rate is considered the lowest number of beats per minute (bpm) while your body is in a resting state. Most often, this occurs overnight or early in the morning. There are plenty of apps that can be used to track your resting heart rate, or you can measure it yourself by feeling your pulse and recording the number of beats over a 60 s period. This process can easily be automated, since many smart and/or fitness watches are capable of tracking HR around the clock.
RHR can be a good, simple indicator of readiness to train. As your fitness increases, it’s common to see your RHR decrease as a sign of increased cardiovascular fitness. On the other hand, an elevated RHR, ranging from 2-10 bpm above a normal value, can be a signal of overtraining, other non-training related stressors, or even oncoming sickness.
Heart Rate Variability
In addition to tracking your resting heart rate, you can also look at Heart Rate Variability (HRV). We’ve talked about HRV in previous toolbox articles, but I will quickly summarize below.
HRV4T is my personal go-to app for daily HRV monitoring. I prefer this app because it includes a variety of self-perceived ratings that help factor into the readiness score.
Our hearts do not beat perfectly like a metronome. Rather, each heartbeat is either slightly faster or slower than the preceding beat. These differences between successive beats are known as Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is controlled by the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is further subdivided by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems control your ‘fight or flight’ response, as well as ‘rest and digest’. Most often these two systems are balanced, but HRV can be used to determine when there are imbalances. If the body is in a fight or flight response, the variation between successive beats typically decreases, resulting in a lower HRV. And when the body is in an overly relaxed state, the variation between successive beats is larger (higher HRV).
Elite HRV can also be used to help monitor your daily Heart Rate Variability and assess your training readiness.
Fortunately, there are several apps (most notably including HRV4Training and Elite HRV) that not only measure your HRV, but also use that information to calculate a daily ‘readiness score’. This readiness score can be helpful to make day to day adjustments in your training based on non-training related stressors. For example, if you planned to do hard intervals, but your HRV was depressed, these apps might show a low readiness score and recommend an easier day of training.
Other Recovery Products
Lastly, a few wearable devices have been specifically designed to continuously track your Heart Rate, HRV, breathing, etc. These devices aim to provide a holistic, 24/7 measurement of training and lifestyle stress, as well as detect your readiness for training. The two most prominent leaders in this market at the moment are the Whoop wristband and the Oura ring.
As we will see below, these training software, apps, & devices should not be the sole determinant of when you are ready to train hard or when you need to back off and recover.
Limitations of Electronics
While there are many physiological measures & performance models that can be used to assess your readiness to train, you should not fall into the trap of letting an app or a physiological reading dictate your training on their own. Although these apps & services can be effective in identifying cardiac or nervous system fatigue through various physiological measurements, that is only one part of the recovery puzzle. Other important factors to include as part of your training readiness also exist.
The efficiency of your own self-perceived ratings of fatigue or readiness to train is something that should not be overlooked. Each day, you might consider asking yourself questions like “How do I feel today?” or “Am I ready to train today?”. Despite what your morning resting HR measurement was, or your cycling software’s training status, you shouldn’t let that overrule your gut feeling – if you feel tired, you probably are tired!
In fact, researchers showed that simple analogue scales (e.g. 1-100) paired with simple questions was able to effectively identify functional overreaching in recreational athletes (Twan ten Haaf, et al, 2018). The questions used in the study were fairly straightforward, and included daily readiness to train, a self-perceived exertion for each day of training, and athlete’s overall fatigue rating.
Personally, the inclusion of self-perceived ratings is one of the primary reasons why I prefer HRV4Training, since it combines a morning HRV reading along with a few simple subjective ratings for lifestyle stress, motivation to train, etc.
As you might have guessed, there are other non-training stressors that can also impact your readiness to train, which I wanted to briefly highlight in this section. Most non-training related stress is often caused by workplace stress, like big projects & deadlines, or lifestyle stress, such as arguments with family or friends, etc. You will also likely notice changes in your RHR or HRV after long travel days, or the morning after you consumed more alcohol than usual. These stressors should also be factored into your daily readiness to train.
Putting it all together, there are a wide range of tools available to help you assess how ready you are to train each day. While technology can be helpful in performing physiological measurements or analyzing our training log, that does not mean that your gut feeling about readiness to train should be ignored! I hope to have shared a few tools that you might add and find useful in your training toolbox.
That’s all for this month – stay safe, ride fast, and I’ll see you next time!
Ten Haaf T, van Staveren S, Oudenhoven E, Piacentini MF, Meeusen R, Roelands B, Koenderman L, Daanen HAM, Foster C, de Koning JJ. Prediction of Functional Overreaching From Subjective Fatigue and Readiness to Train After Only 3 Days of Cycling. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2017 Apr;12(Suppl 2):S287-S294. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2016-0404. Epub 2016 Nov 11. PMID: 27834554.