Intensive training: how to balance it with rest and recovery!

How do you know when you’re at risk of overtraining? As Owen Anderson explains, it’s a simple matter of how well you feel, sleep and eat

To reach peak levels of performance, athletes must find a way to blend very hard training with exactly the right amounts of rest and recovery. Finding this optimal balance between work and recovery is a very difficult challenge. The main problem is not that atheletes don’t do enough work: indeed, they usually pile on too much work and fail to devote enough time to recovery. But the fact is that many athletes are unsure about how much recovery they need after each quality workout, and also about how much rest to build into each week, month and year of training.

 This is unfortunate, because an athlete’s pattern of recovery can make or break his/her entire training programme. Recovery periods give the nervous, endocrine and musculoskeletal systems a break from the traumas of training and the opportunity to carry out some vital repair work. The muscular system, for example, often yearns for an opportunity to fix up cell membranes torn during strenuous effort; muscles also require the time and materials to fill energy depots and to synthesise new enzymes and energy-producing structures like mitochondria. During recovery, the nervous system ‘re-wires’ itself so that it can better control the specialised motor patterns used during training, while the endocrine system must return to equilibrium following the hormonal upsets induced by rugged exertion.

Most athletes don’t care too much about the specific physiological details of recovery, however. Instead, they want answers to practical questions, such as:

l. After a tough workout, how long does it really take to recover?

2. How can I tell when I am really ready to perform another serious workout?

3. When am I on the verge of overtraining and in need of a longer break than usual?

4. Is there some way to monitor my recovery during specific portions of my training cycle to work out whether it is going well?

Fortunately, there are relatively straightforward answers to these questions, and these are particularly important for athletes and coaches who believe that performance can be optimised by training at an extremely high level – very close to the point of overtraining. For such people, the closest approach to overtraining usually occurs just a few weeks before the most important competition of the year. During the remaining weeks, training load is drastically reduced during a special recovery period known as a ‘taper’ to enable athletes to pull back from the precipice of overtraining and allow optimal muscular, neural, cardiac, and endocrine adaptations to occur. Such athletes need a monitoring system, which keeps them from toppling over the precipice, and indeed all athletes who hope to improve their performances can benefit from a monitoring plan, which provides information about the effectiveness of their recovery programmes. Good recovery monitoring systems keep athletes from doing too much or too little hard training.

In search of reliable indicators

Exercise physiologists have made a serious attempt to help athletes monitor their training and recovery and avoid the overtrained state. Physiologists who are interested in recovery have noticed that athletes who perform very well after tapering tend to show the following traits toward the ends of their recovery periods: improved muscular strength and power, fewer sleep disturbances, reduced stress and fatigue, lower rates of perceived exertion during exercise, lower heart beats during activity, and brighter overall mood. In the light of these encouraging findings, scientists have gone on to explore whether these variables could be used as reliable indicators of effective recovery.
In one study, scientists monitored a group of swimmers over a six-month season of training and competition, paying special attention to their ratings of wellbeing (eg fatigue, stress and muscle soreness) during a recovery (tapering) period. As it turned out, simple measures of wellbeing were reasonably good at predicting competitive performance improvement, accounting for 72% of the variation in improvement in race times compared with previous bests(1).

Australian scientists recently attempted to broaden this research to include other variables besides overall wellbeing in a study of 10 elite swimmers (four male and six female) who were training and tapering for national championships. Five of these individuals were ranked in the fastest 20 times in the world and all were specialists at 100 or 200m, using a variety of different stroke styles(2).

Before tapering commenced, the swimmers had trained for a minimum of 18 weeks, with both the training and tapering plans designed by their individual coaches. For the week before and during the overall tapering period, all 10 swimmers kept a daily log of training details, which included swimming distance, time in the gym and training intensity, evaluated on a scale from 1 (very, very easy) to 7 (very, very hard). Before getting out of bed in the morning, the swimmers checked their early morning heart rates manually (by feeling their carotid arteries). Body mass was measured daily, and menstruation status, illness and injury were also recorded. Ratings of wellbeing for fatigue, quality of sleep, stress and muscle soreness were recorded daily, again on a scale from 1 (very, very good) to 7 (very, very bad).

Before tapering, the swimmers averaged 47k of swimming per week at an average intensity of 5.3 (between ‘hard’ and ‘very hard’). They also included 5.3 hours of gym (strengthening) work in an average week. By the second week of the taper, they were down to 30.5k of weekly swimming at an average intensity of 4.2, along with just 0.4 hours of strengthening work in the gym. At the end of the taper (which lasted for 17 days), the swimmers took part in the national championships.

The athletes were tested just before the beginning of the tapering period and again after two weeks of tapering (three days before competition). The tests included resting heart rate, blood pressure and blood lactate measurements, together with a Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire. The athletes were also checked during exercise: after a standard warm-up, peak force during tethered swimming was measured for each athlete using a load cell, attached to the swimmer by nylon ropes anchored to a waist belt. After an active rest of 400m of easy swimming, each subject completed an even-paced 200m freestyle swim at 80% of his/her personal-best pace. Five seconds after this, heart rate was recorded. After another 400m of easy swimming (10 minutes total time), each swimmer completed a single max effort over 100m, using his or her principal racing style, with heart rate again measured five seconds afterwards and blood lactate assessed five minutes later. The time in this all-out 100m swim was used as the performance measure for assessing the benefits of tapering.

In the event, the change in performance associated with recovery was best predicted by changes in plasma norepinephrine concentration, heart rate after the max 100m swim and the POMS measure of the psychological state of confusion. Decreases in plasma norepinephrine and increases in max heart rate were associated with better performances, as were reduced levels of confusion. Plasma norepinephrine was the best single predictor of performance, with changes in concentrations of this hormone predicting 82% of the variation between pre- and post-tapering performances!

A neat adaptation by the body to too much training

What are we to make of all this? Bear in mind that norepinephrine is primarily secreted by nerve cells in the sympathetic nervous system, with the effect of elevating heart rate and boosting the rate of breakdown of glycogen and fat for energy. It also enhances cardiac contractility, allowing the heart to pump more blood per beat. Thus, it would be logical to assume that a rise in norepinephrine levels would be advantageous – a hoped-for outcome during recovery.

Surprisingly, though, the reverse is true. Research has shown that increases in plasma norepinephrine levels are actually linked with staleness in athletes. For example, in a fascinating six-month study carried out with 14 elite swimmers, researchers found that the three athletes who exhibited signs of overtraining (based on performance decrements and high, prolonged levels of fatigue) had significantly higher levels of norepinephrine from the mid-season onwards(3).

While this seems like a paradox, remember that increases in norepinephrine could be viewed as a neat adaptation to too much training – the body’s valiant attempt to cope with an excessive workload. With lots of norepinephrine circulating through the tissues, heart rate would rise and energy mobilisation increase as part of a concerted effort to withstand the unusually demanding training schedule. In this light, drop-offs in norepinephrine could be seen as a sign that the body was under less stress, that it had adapted to the preceding training and had less need to fling the neuroendocrine system into overdrive in order to cope with the workload.

And that was exactly the case in the current Australian study: athletes with the biggest drops in resting norepinephrine levels tended to show the best improvements in performance. At the ends of their recovery periods, they were simply in less stressed-out states. (And here it is worthwhile remembering that norepinephrine and its sister epinephrine are considered to be two of the body’s principal ‘stress’ – or ‘flight-or-fight’ – hormones).

The Australian research is in line with other work in this area, and thus it appears that norepinephrine could serve as a decent and reliable marker of training progress and work-recovery balance. If norepinephrine shot up, it could well be a time to enhance recovery and cut back on total training load; declines in norepinephrine, on the other hand, would be a sign that training was going swimmingly.

The trouble with this approach, of course, is that few athletes have the medical and/or financial resources necessary to monitor plasma norepinephrine on a regular basis. That being the case, what other – more convenient – tools could be used to assess the adequacy of recovery?

Heart rate monitoring

Heart-rate monitoring comes to mind, but both exercising and resting heart rates tend to do a remarkably poor job of predicting performance and assessing recovery status. One problem is that heart rate is dependent on a wealth of different variables, including emotional state, diet, hydration status, temperature, humidity, sleep patterns, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. One or more of these variables could easily mask the drop in heart rate associated with optimal recovery – or might even disguise the ill effects of a totally inadequate recovery!

Bear in mind that measures of wellbeing have often done an excellent job of predicting performance and assessing recovery adequacy. In one study, information from the Profile of Mood States questionnaire proved to be the best single marker of disturbed performance in highly trained distance runners(4). In this investigation, there were no useful changes in resting heart rate or perceived exertion during submaximal exercise.

In yet another piece of research, the POMS questionnaire was given to 17 members of a French soccer team over the course of a season. Positive overall psychological changes, as indicated by the questionnaire, were linked with improved team performances, while negative scores were aligned with reduced performance(5).

The Profile of Mood States was developed in 1971 for people undergoing counselling or psychotheraphy, but it quickly gained popularity with sportsmen and women. In fact, since the Profile was introduced into the sports world in 1975, a total of 194 POMS articles dealing with 32 different sports have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and many studies have indicated that the POMS can be used quite successfully to assess performance status in athletes.

One problem, though, is that the full-fledged POMS has 65 different questions, perhaps a few too many for the busy athlete. There is an abbreviated version, but even this includes 30 questions. Athletes are more likely to use a much snappier wellbeing checklist – one that takes up just a minute or two each day.

There are many different ways to assess wellbeing, but I have found the following ‘quiz’ an extremely useful way to monitor training load and recovery in the athletes I coach. There are only six points, and the whole test takes less than one minute to complete. Simply rate each statement on a 1-5 scale as follows: 1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neutral; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree.

(1) I slept really well last night.
(2) I am looking forward to today’s workout.
(3) I am optimistic about my future performance(s).
(4) I feel vigorous and energetic.
(5) My appetite is great.
(6) I have very little muscle soreness.

Evaluate yourself in this way each morning when you are ready to start your day. If your total score is 20 or above, your overall state of recovery is pretty good and you have probably recovered enough to carry out a high-quality workout on that day. If your total score is below 20, it is probably a good idea to rest or work easily until your score rises again.

This checklist can also be used during tapering periods to determine how well your recovery is going. If you have been training close to the borderline of overtraining before tapering, you might start the tapering period with a score of 15-18 (a lower score may indicate that you are already stale or overtrained). As the tapering period progresses, your score should rise steadily. In fact, the optimal situation would be for your ratings to reach ‘flood stage’ of 27-30 just before your major competition.

Naturally, for this exam to be valid you have to believe in the whole notion of recovery. If you are one of those athletes who gets depressed when you can’t punish yourself on a daily basis, then all bets are off. On the other hand, if you can trust your body to adapt to reduced training and increased recovery with sizable gains in fitness, the little quiz will usually work well for you, encouraging you to avoid hard work on days when you need an easy ride and undertake challenging efforts when you are ready. Overall, it will make you a fitter athlete – an individual who can achieve new peaks in performance.

Owen Anderson

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