Time to Step off the Treadmill?

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

“I will not be outworked. Period.”

Will Smith said this in a famous interview in which he was asked about the secret to his success. He goes on to explain his ‘treadmill philosophy’:

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me… But if we get on a treadmill together, there’s two things: you’re getting off first, or I am going to die… You’re not going to out-work me.”

As dramatic as this sounds, perhaps there was some substance to what Will was saying. Angela Duckworth is Professor of Psychology at University Pennsylvania. In her book Grit, she references a Harvard study from the 1940s in which participants were asked to run on a treadmill set to a high speed and steep incline for as long as they could. Years later, those who were willing to suffer on the treadmill for longer were found to have higher levels of success in various aspects of their lives.

Hard work prevails; I love this philosophy. It’s ruthlessly simple and yet, exceedingly difficult. However, the benefits of adequate recovery are irrefutable. There comes a time when we need to stop, to rest. The question so becomes; how do we know when to rest, to take a break, to literally and figuratively step off of the treadmill? This is a tough question, but I am confident that at least part of the answer lies in recovery metrics.

Recovery metrics means data and I love data. The point of this data is to offer an insight into the physiological status of our bodies on any given day. This information, when analysed over time, should be able to tell you how well you are adapting to a training stimulus. Why is this important? Well, it allows us to make more informed decisions around training volume. Can we afford to do more? Are we doing too much? What adjustments should we make leading up to an event to ensure we are maximally recovered or ‘peaking’? The goal is to keep our bodies in that sweet spot of challenged but not collapsed; to sustain optimal adaptation over long periods of time.

You could neatly divide the various recovery metrics into 2 categories;

  • Objective metrics

  • Subjective metrics

In my opinion a mixture of both offers the best representation of how you’re responding to your training.

Objective metrics include:

  • Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

Normal RHR for an adult is between 60-100 beats per minute. If you are exercising regularly, however, it is not unusual for it to be below 60. Day to Day, everyone’s RHR fluctuates. So, in truth, each of us has an RHR range rather than a specific value. The daily fluctuations don’t tend to be dramatic however, so it is the trend in this metric that has value. If your RHR is trending up, it can represent under-recovery. If it’s trending down, it can represent effective recovery or mean that you’re peaking, physically primed to compete. It’s important to note that the trend’s meaning is contextual. For example, over longer periods of time, if RHR is increasing and you have been relatively sedentary while nursing an injury, this could signify a deterioration of cardiovascular fitness as opposed to poor recovery.

  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV is the variance in the time (typically in the range of milliseconds) between one heart beat and the next. Changes in HRV are directed by interactions between the 2 branches of the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic and sympathetic) and the heart. The theory goes that if your HRV is high, the autonomic nervous system is operating in a dynamic, flexible and responsive fashion. It’s functioning optimally. Accordingly, the time between heart beats varies more significantly. This can indicate that you are well-recovered and coping with the training volume. Unlike RHR, HRV can change dramatically from day to day. It offers a more sensitive measure of our body’s status.

  • Sleep quantity and quality

Inadequate sleep can limit our mental and physical performance. Much of the adaptation we are chasing happens during sleep. Our muscles repair themselves. The mental components of skills consolidate in our neural networks. Sleep quality and quantity can be measured objectively. The gold standard for this measurement has traditionally been polysomnography studies. These are conducted in sleep labs and involve using over a dozen different measurements to gather information about how we are sleeping. More recently, some wearable tech devices claim to be able to infer some of the same information but by recording fewer variables. When we sleep, certain patterns can appear in our RHR and HRV traces. By correlating these measurements with movement patterns picked up via accelerometers, such devices report that they can not only tell when we are asleep, but even what stage of sleep we are in and our respiratory rate! This is pretty incredible but the jury is still out on the validity of these devices. With further independent, well-conceived, peer-reviewed research, perhaps the reliability of this type of data will be more widely accepted.

When it comes to objective recovery metrics, it’s important to remember that the background on which they sit is constantly changing. The goal of training is adaptation. Adaptation means change. Our baseline RHR and HRV at optimal recovery is evolving as we train. It is for this reason that taking recovery metrics as absolute values can be misleading. You must view them through the lens of current and historical trends in order to extract the most meaning.

All subjective metrics require self-assessment. They are unavoidably subject to some level of bias, but they address an important factor that objective metrics cannot; how do we feel? An experienced athlete’s intuition for their own body is perhaps more reliable than any amount of RHR data. Subjective metrics account for this and attempt to record and represent it in a useful way. Some subjective metrics I have used include:

  • Muscle soreness

  • Energy

  • Motivation

  • Stress

  • Sleep quantity and quality

Typically, these metrics are recorded using some sort of verbal, numerical or visual analogue scale. Personally, I used a combination of a verbal and numerical scale. So, for example, when assessing muscle soreness, you would grade yourself between 1 and 10 where 1 is ‘can barely move’, 5 is ‘sore but I can work with it’, and 10 is ‘no pain whatsoever’. Over time, trends in these metrics can help athletes and coaches learn where their upper limit lies.

A crucial consideration for both types of recovery metrics is; what happens to these data once they have been recorded? Does it disappear into a google drive folder never to be seen again? If that’s the case, you might as well not bother recording it in the first place. Remember:

Information loses its value if it is not actionable

How easy is it to notice weekly, monthly, yearly trends in the data? Do you have to go digging through an excel sheet or are you automatically updated with alerts on your phone? If your RHR is consistently high and HRV consistently low on a background of reduced sleep, what are you going to do about it? Do you have the required knowledge or appropriate support? The goal with recovery metrics is to ensure an adequate training stimulus to promote optimal adaptation while avoiding injury and/or burnout. A plethora of factors impact on our bodies’ ability to work. Its capacity is dynamic and it’s preferable if our training reflects that.

Perhaps it is best to think of the relationship between training load and recovery as a see-saw. We want the training load to be as high as possible while maintaining a reasonable balance between both sides most of the time. Notably, if we can recover better, faster, more efficiently we can afford to drive the training load up to match it. More training means more opportunity to develop as an athlete.

Here’s a common question:

“Is it possible to be feeling a bit shit, with uninspiring RHR and HRV, but still have a productive session on the water?”

Absolutely. The inverse can also be true. Why is this the case? I would suggest that more factors impact performance than recovery metrics can ever account for. In my experience, clarity of mind, focus and feel can exist independently of these metrics, and indeed at times compensate for them. Performance in some sports hinges more on physical condition alone than in others. In my opinion freestyle kayaking is not currently one of those sports. There are other, more abstract variable at play that are more difficult to pin down, harder to account for.

“Hold on, did you just say that recovery metrics don’t actually matter?”

Not quite. They do matter, but they’re not the be-all-and-end-all, especially in a sport like freestyle kayaking. They colour the picture of optimal performance a little more vibrantly. They alert us to when we need a break. They help us to make sure we are in prime condition for an important event. They deepen the understanding we have of how our bodies respond to stress - training or otherwise. If peak performance is what you’re looking for, in my opinion, recovery metrics should be on your agenda.

So far, we have considered how to quantify and measure our state of recovery. These insights can prompt adjustments in training load. But what options are available to maximise recovery? Check out the blog next week to find out! Want an update when it goes live? Subscribe below.

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