How effective is pre-planned training?

I was about 4 weeks out from Canadian Raw Nationals 2011 (powerlifting). I was on pace to hit personal records in all 3 lifts at a lighter bodyweight. I took a scheduled deload and when I started my last training cycle before the meet, the weights felt like a million pounds. I couldn’t fix whatever the problem was and ended up pulling out of the meet. This was a huge disappointment. I thought to myself that there had to have been a way to prevent this or at least see it coming so I could make adjustments in time to avoid such a disaster. I knew about HRV and considered using it before but held off. It was this meet prep disaster that inspired me to purchase the iThlete to determine how useful it is for strength athletes (see my post here for an explanation of what the iThlete is and how it works). It’s now been 8 months since I’ve been using this device and it has changed my whole outlook on managing the training process.

In this post from a couple of months ago I wrote about my observations with HRV. I also gave a vague explanation of how I was then going to use HRV to guide my training. At this point I’d like to share what I’ve learned from measuring my HRV since then.

  • I have not taken a deload week since late January. Typically I would deload after every 3 week cycle. The purpose of the deload was to allow my joints a break from the heavy loading, allow my CNS to recover from the heavy lifting and allow for optimal recovery so I return at a higher level of strength (supercompensation). I was pretty surprised to see that in nearly 2 months of training I have not felt the need to deload. Instead I have simply chosen to take a deload day only when my HRV score was low. I have squatted heavy every week during this experiment because my HRV was always at baseline or above on Mondays (Squat day). I have had to deload on only 3 occasions. All of these occurred on a Wednesday (Bench Day). I continue to make progress every week and therefore will continue with not taking a planned deload week. On my deload days I simply work up to the heaviest weight I can handle with zero strain or struggle for the same amount of reps I would’ve done anyway.

    For example, on Bench day when I needed to deload I was supposed to work up to 3 sets of 3 with a 4 rep max or RPE of 9. However since my HRV was low and I had to deload I simply worked up to 1 set of 3 with a weight that I felt if I added any more weight too, would cause me to strain. For the assistance and accessory work I simply cut the volume in half. The take home message (atleast so far) is that deloading should occur when your body will not tolerate intense training. HRV provides this information. What’s the point of taking a whole week to deload if your ability to adapt to stress returns to a good level within only a few days?

    I will experiment with planned overreaching in the future where I will purposely train heavy as my HRV declines and follow it up with a planned deload. This is more similar to how athletes are training. My concern with this method is the potential heightened risk of injury from training when HRV is low. See this post for further discussion on HRV and injury.

  • This past week was my spring break. I went to Cincinnati to visit my family. If you know me personally you are aware that I’m pretty strict with my eating. I eat a lot, but I stick to whole foods and avoid processed/junk foods. I also eat fairly low carb. Well, in Cincinnati I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted all week. I was crushing home-made oatmeal butterscotch cookies, ice cream, nacho’s and guacamole, Cheesecake Factory dinners and desserts, the famous Cincinnati Chilli, pub food, etc. It was a disaster. Apart from the binge eating I felt very well rested, slept well and enjoyed some unseasonably warm weather.

    Cincinnati Chili

    It’s fair to say that the only thing out of the ordinary that would have been stressful to my body was my terrible eating. Well, my HRV declined after the second day and it got worse each day after. It only climbed back up again since I returned and resumed my usual eating habits. You can see in the screen shot below that my HRV steadily decreased the longer I ate poorly and started to climb back up on Saturday (returned to PA on Friday evening). Although we’re all well aware that nutrition plays a vital role in how we recover from training and perform, it was pretty eye opening to see just how important nutrition is. Such a simple way to improve performance and adaptation to training is to just eat well. How much time are we wasting busting our ass in the gym if we go home every day and eat terribly?

  • Lately, whenever my HRV is low I feel weaker. I found it interesting that on many squat workouts in the past 6 or 7 weeks I felt that I was fighting the bar, not finding my groove, etc, yet was still squatting heavy. When my HRV has been low (3 low days on Bench days) the weight would feel much heavier. 315×5 is a walk in the park for me typically. However, on a deload day it was a major grind. I really shouldn’t have gone that heavy on a deload. This leads me to believe that performance will be worse when HRV is low (consistent with research that I discuss here.) Since I’ve been able to squat heavy even when my technique felt shaky when HRV was high, it leads me to believe that performance will likely be better when HRV is high. I’ll be doing some research in the near future on collegiate football players to see if I observe the same thing.

My experience with HRV and the research I’ve read thus far has lead me to believe that pre-planned training for collegiate athletes is not optimal. It is common for strength coaches to program around Christmas holidays, spring break and so on. Keep in mind that holiday’s and breaks are usually planned deloading periods that mark the end of a given cycle/phase and will mark the beginning of a new one upon return. This may work if the athlete’s all lived the exact same lives and had the same genes as one another.

A common example of pre-planned periodization that I found on google images

Allow me to illustrate for you an example of how ineffective this method is not because the theory is incorrect (a debate for another time), but because it fails to account for the behaviour of the athletes. I’m going to provide 4 scenario’s of what many athlete’s on the same team may do over the break that will effect there adaptation to the previous cycle and readiness for the next cycle.

Scenario 1: The athlete heads to Florida for spring break and drinks alcohol every day, all day on the beach, parties all night and eats cheap restaurant food.

Scenario 2: The athlete goes home and although doesn’t drink or party all night, he eats terribly.

Scenario 3: The athlete goes home and rests all week and eats perfectly.

Scenario 4: The athlete goes home and trains at his own gym and therefore doesn’t get much rest.

Many football teams have over 100 players. This creates 100 different scenarios. It’s quite obvious that not every athlete will be prepared for the same training loads. Any strength coach is already aware of this and unfortunately has to do their best with what they’ve got. However, since HRV is sensitive to any stress that our body experiences, we now have a more accurate way to determine who is ready and who is not. This can prevent you from overtraining certain athletes, undertraining other athletes and most importantly reducing the likelihood of injury. If you so desired, you can investigate further into the personal lives of the athletes to determine why they are experiencing so much stress when the training isn’t the cause.

I realize that monitoring the HRV of all your athletes may seem impossible but the new apps that are available make it extremely easy and affordable. The biggest challenge becomes how you will handle providing different workouts on a day to day basis according to everyone’s HRV score. I’ll share my thoughts on potential ways to accommodate this in a future post, but I believe it can be done without too much burden.

Today’s post paints a picture of what my current thought process is based on my experience and the literature. I am really excited to get the research started on the football players. In my next post I will give an update of exactly what I’ll be doing, why, my hypothesis and all that good stuff.

Thanks for reading.

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About hrvtraining

I hold an MS in Exercise Science and am a CSCS with the NSCA. I"m currently working in the Human Performance Lab at Auburn University (Montgomery) completing several research projects on HRV and exercise. I will be pursuing a PhD in Human Performance this Fall (2014) at the University of Alabama. Formerly, I worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Cal U in PA. I have an extensive athletic background including hockey, rugby and collegiate football. I now compete in raw powerlifting and was the 2010 Canadian National Champion (amateur). I am interested in all aspects of strength and conditioning however my research interest pertains to heart rate variability and its application to monitoring the training of athletes.
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12 Responses to How effective is pre-planned training?

  1. Pingback: How effective is pre-planned training? « Thor's Reads

  2. Good stuff and thanks or writing it up!
    Other than taking a day off, have you found anything that helps bring up your HRV score? Perhaps you stated it, but I may have missed it.
    I would be interested to see if you ate the foods you would at home on occasion, if an all out bender would not be as bad?
    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  3. hrvtraining says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I have plans of writing an entire post on what I’ve seen improve my HRV scores, but in short; the most noticeable effect has been moderate intensity aerobic work for 20-30 mins (I like sled dragging) on off days. I’ll elaborate more and provide other anecdotes in the post.

    I definitely think that people who are more casual with their eating would not experience as drastic of a stress response compared to someone who eats clean. The processed foods were clearly a big stress on my body because I rarely eat them.

    I’m not a nutrition expert, but I wonder if the processed foods caused a decent amount of inflammation that resulted in the HRV decline. Check out this http://www.ccjm.org/content/76/Suppl_2/S23.full for an interesting read on HRV and inflammation.

    Does inflammation caused by food blunt vagal activity? I just found this http://www.springerlink.com/content/g636715760282466/ so I’ll have to give it a read!

  4. Awesome stuff! I’ve found that low intensity work helps “recovery” too.

    Interesting studies for sure! My thoughts are that you need to alter your nutrition so that it meets your training goals by EXPANSION and long term restriction. How many foods can you eat without a crazy bad reaction? That does not mean you live on Twinkies every day, but eating A Twinkie should not cause a tail spin either 🙂 The goal is to be as metabolically flexible as possible and I view this as a state of health actually.

    You can try to eat a “bad” food and monitor your response. If ok, try the next one. Again, this is a small amount initially.

    Keep up the good work!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  5. Pingback: How to increase HRV: Part 2 – Nutrition | HRVtraining

  6. Pingback: HRV response to perceived training load – Observations from 2.5 months of data | HRVtraining

  7. Hi,
    Great blog I’ve just started using the ithlete in the last month and I have been less preoccupied with my running and more in getting a high HRV number before I start my morning run.These are the ones that sometimes work for me: respiratory biofeedback and a 2min+ cold shower.The cold shower always brings my morning standing pulse by 10 or more beats.

  8. hrvtraining says:

    Thanks Leo, Interesting approach. Has this been successful for you in terms of improved performance?

  9. Pingback: Monitoring Athletes: a sample survey | HRVtraining

  10. Pingback: All about the ithlete HRV device | HRVtraining

  11. David says:

    HI Andrew. I know this is a pretty old post, but I’m enjoying going back and reading a lot of the ones that interest me. Anyway, I was just curious when approaching training without a pre-planned de-load, would you just have a few 1 or 2 “off” days in the week and then judge your intensity/volume on your HRV numbers for the day?

    It looks like you were using bioforce at the time. Did you take the day off when you got a Red indicator and just decreased the intensity when you got a orange indicator?

  12. hrvtraining says:

    Hi David,

    I haven’t looked at this post in years. Reading it made me cringe, ha!

    During this time, I would simply take a “deload day” when HRV was flagged as amber or red. I’d work up to one top set with a weight that moved smoothly then follow it up with some assistance work at about half the volume as normal. If my scores were green, I’d lift heavy.

    The app here is ithlete.The app flags a score as amber if it is 1 standard deviation outside of your rolling 7-day average. If it falls outside of this again the next day, it flags it as red. I don’t think I took the day off if it was red, just continued with a deload workout.

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