I think many would agree that the biggest obstacle in making continued training progress is experiencing illness or injury. This assumes of course that the programming is appropriate and progressive in nature for the individual. Therefore, monitoring training status is essential to appropriately manipulate training loads in effort to; a) maximize progress and b) avoid set backs. This gives you much more control over the process of training and in many cases can potentially allow you to avoid illness, injury, overtraining etc.
Unfortunately sometimes, illness or injury happens despite careful monitoring. However, it’s how you handle these unfortunate situations with proper training loads that can make a huge difference in continuing where you left off before the incident, or seeing massive performance decrements that take much longer to recover from. I have experienced both situations. I’ve fallen ill and seen my strength plummet for quite some time after the illness. This was most likely from insufficient recovery from before I resumed intense training again, lifting too heavy, too soon. More recently however, I handled illness much more appropriately and have been able to continue from where I left off without suffering significant performance decrements.
When I was visiting some family in Cincinnati this spring I was very excited to see my twin nephews. I hadn’t seen them in over a year since they were born. A few days before they arrived in Cincinnati (coming from New Hampshire) they contracted hand, foot and mouth disease. My sister warned us that it was contagious for anyone who has never had it before. I wasn’t too concerend and we all wanted to see the twins even if it meant getting a little sick. Well, long story short I picked up the virus and it destroyed me. If you’ve ever had this as an adult you know how awful this can be.
In my chart below you can see a distinct disruption in my HRV trend occuring when I experienced the first symptoms of the illness. On June 9th I woke up with a resting heart rate of 108bpm and an HRV score of 42.9! I had a terrible sleep that night and had a high fever that morning. The fever persisted for about 72 hours at which point I assumed the worst was over. I saw my HRV start to climb back up a bit, however at this point some new symptoms appeared and my HRV again dropped. As you can see in the chart, I didn’t train (the vertical purple bars represent training load). Once all of my symptoms subsided and HRV returned to previous baseline levels I resumed training at very moderate loads (session RPE of 7).
You’ll notice that these moderate loads were apparently very stressful on my body reflected by large HRV fluctuations. Typically a workout rated as a 7 is a deload workout for me. Being able to see my body’s responsiveness to these moderate loads showed me that although my symptoms were gone, my body was still trying to overcome the illness. In the past I likely would’ve resumed intense training once symptoms subsided, however by monitoring HRV, I was able to hold off on more intense loading until my body was capable of handling it sufficiently. You can see that it was nearly 3 weeks until I performed a more intense workout (sRPE 8). I can happily say that althought there was some minor strength loss (bound to happen after nearly 3 weeks of 0-moderate training loads), I was able to gain it all back very quickly unlike previous instances.
In the image above on the right hand side of the chart, you will see about a week’s worth of low HRV scores indicated by red and amber deflections. This was the week that I moved from grad school (I completed my Masters) back to Toronto. Clearly this was a very stressful week settling into a new place and dealing with all of the typical issues associated with a move. After appropriately manipulating my training loads (reducing them) I was able to maintain strength and see a return to baseline once I felt settled in. In the past after my first day of being back I likely would’ve continued with intense training. As you can see, this likely would’ve been detrimental to my progress.
Take Home Messages
First and foremost, have an effective monitoring strategy with yourself/athletes. Without one, it’s nearly impossible to make critical manipulations in training load to avoid running into problems. I’m obviously a proponent of HRV and recommend you track yours. Once you have your monitoring in place, have the discipline to reduce loads when you know you should. Sometimes you may not even perceive yourself as being under significant stress, however this is often how people end up hitting a wall with their training. You can’t necessarily ‘feel’ if your adaptive capacity is high or low. In previous posts I showed what happens when you train hard with low HRV. You simply delay recovery and potentially hurt progress.
Think outside the box a little. Training hard for 3 weeks and deloading on the 4th week is pretty standard and for the most part effective. However, just because your program tells you it’s week 3 and therefore you need to train heavy, doesn’t actually meant you HAVE to. I used to do this and thought that if I missed a workout or didn’t hit my goals that day, that I wouldn’t make progress. I’ve learned that the opposite is actually the case.
Lastly, have a plan in place for when certain events occur such as moving or illness. Have a strategy for how you will deal with it (hopefully in response to your monitoring data). This should help you maintain training progress better by allowing your body the appropriate time to recover while imposing loads that remain within your body’s ability to adapt.