The Importance of Tracking Recovery in Endurance Sports

Photo of male athlete checking his heart rate variability
April 27, 2023

George Epley


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An endurance athlete’s primary goal is to train in a fashion that allows optimal performance gains without harmful effects. The motivated athlete often balances a fine line between maximal training stimulus and overtraining. The importance of a defined recovery practice in the athlete’s overall training plan should be designed and implemented to aid in recovery to gain maximal benefit from their training load. Training volume should increase gradually, and rest periods should be planned. However, for many athletes a beneficial recovery practice is often an afterthought in their training until overuse injuries occur. Many athletes often suffer an injury associated with overuse and a lack of appropriate recovery. Common overuse injuries include patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band friction syndrome, tibial stress syndrome, stress fractures, Achilles tendinitis, and plantar fasciitis, to name a few. In addition, the lack of adequate recovery can also lead to psychological fatigue resulting in a lack of motivation and a loss of performance.

A properly designed training plan can balance training stimulus and recovery correctly, but an injury can still occur even with the best training strategy. Many athletes live by the more is better philosophy of training, never listening to their bodies. I try to enstill in my athletes the confidence to say they are tired and need time to recover from hard training. You would be amazed at how hard it is for some athletes to take an extra rest day when required. Every athlete’s ability to recover differs, and the recovery amount should be individualized for each athlete. Work and home stress can also take a toll on an athlete’s recovery. The amount of stress an athlete experiences from work travel, project deadlines, or family life is difficult to quantize, but it can take a toll on an athlete’s recovery.

Several tools can provide insight into an athlete’s recovery practice and aid in establishing an effective recovery protocol. A key data point that every athlete should track is their resting heart rate (RHR). A normal RHR is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, and the well-trained athlete may have a normal RHR in the 40 beats per minute range. As we age, our RHR will increase, but generally, a lower RHR indicates a more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. For the most part, RHR will remain consistent when the athlete’s recovery rate equals their training stimulus. However, when the athlete is over-trained or ill, RHR often increases from its baseline. Many of my athletes upload their daily RHR into their Training Peaks account, and it’s incredible how often I see an increase in RHR. Then a day or two later, the individual has trouble completing the workout, or indicates they are not feeling well.

Another excellent tool for tracking recovery is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the amount of time or variation between your heartbeats, and this period fluctuates slightly. This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system that regulates heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system can be subdivided into two subcategories the sympathetic nervous system or fight-or-flight mechanism and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. The stimulus that can affect the autonomic nervous system is stress, poor sleep, lack of or too much exercise, and a poor diet, to name a few. When you have a high rate of HRV, it means your autonomic nervous system is balanced, and your body is ready to perform at its best. However, if you have low HRV it is, your body’s way of telling you it is working too hard, and generally, your sympathetic nervous system is overloaded.

There are several excellent options for tracking HRV. Examples are an App based product called “HRV for Training” and a wearable called “Whoop,” both products will give you valuable information on your rest and recovery protocols. Overall, tracking HRV can aid the athlete on in effective recovery strategy.

RHR and HRV are easy data points that every athlete should record daily. Equipped with this information, the athlete has a toolset to help them understand how they recover from their training volume. Perhaps the best recovery protocol an athlete has is the ability to listen to their body. RHR and HRV can provide additional insight to guide the athlete on when to add recovery to their training. The correct amount of hard training for the athlete will improve performance on race day. Still, performance gains will be impacted without proper recovery, and the risk of injury will increase. Remember, go hard on hard days; go easy on easy days. Train smart and use RHR and HRV to help you in your recovery protocol. Good luck with your next race.

Coach Geroge Epley has a passion for knowledge and believes it’s the key to maximizing your potential. He keeps abreast of the latest scientific studies, always trying to find more efficient and validated means of coaching his athletes. Knowledge in the form of communication is just as important. The more he knows about his athletes and the sooner he knows of changes in circumstances, lifestyle, or training, the greater resource he can be.

Coach George is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, USA Triathlon Youth & Junior Elite Certified, USA Cycling Elite Level, USA Cycling Cyclocross Certified, ACSM – Certified Personal Trainer, MBSC – Certified Functional Strength Coach, Training Peaks Coach and WKO4 Certified

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