Planning the Recovery

The inclusion of HRV monitoring into my training has caused me to change my perspective a fair bit on the subject. It has also provided me with a lot more questions than answers, but I don’t consider this to be a bad thing. My main interest and focus has always been on how to increase strength. A quick look over at my bookshelf and I can see that I have accumulated a small library on the topic. In pursuit of increasing my own strength I’ve been on an ongoing mission to discover and learn the best training methods and programs that can get me stronger. Today’s post is about the polar opposite of what I’ve been spending years of my life on learning. That is, the opposite of training. HRV monitoring has inspired me to consider not just appropriate planning of training loads, but the planning of recovery and restoration modalities – the opposite of physically stressful training.

First I’d like to assert my current position or philosophy on training; Your workouts are only as effective as the quality of your adaptation to them. This is analogous to the nutritional concept of being not necessarily what you eat, but what your body assimilates or absorbs from what you eat (I believe it was Poliquin who said that). I believe that the more advanced you get with your training, the more this statement applies. To elaborate on this concept, if you’re out-training your body’s ability to favourably respond to the stress, it doesn’t matter how perfect or scientific your program is. This is what makes monitoring something like HRV so invaluable. Understanding complex training methods and being able to apply them is simply one facet of the overall process. The recovery process also requires planning, structure and strategy.

At this point I wish I could tell you how to perfectly strategize and plan your recovery but I simply don’t know the answers. What I do know, and I’m stealing this term from Mladen Jovanovic, is that a complementary approach to training is necessary. Putting a ton of time into devising your next training cycle must involve considerations of recovery processes. This is not to say that that you must actively perform some mode of recovery at all times but rather that it would be wise to consider matching increases in training stress with a logically applied increase in recovery strategies to assist in the recovery and adaptation process.

Below is a brief list of factors I’ve been considering more when planning my training/recovery process;

(Note that the following are simply stated to provoke thought, I’m not recommending anything in particular as I’m not qualified to do so)

Sleep: Quality and length are obviously important during all phases of training. Can Inclusion of daily naps at certain times/phases be of any benefit? What about time of day training? Myllymaki and colleagues (2011) found that late night exercise resulted in higher heart rates during the first few hours of sleep compared to control however no effect on overall sleep quality or nocturnal HRV was seen. Perhaps post exercise static stretching would further reduce HR post-exercise (see below: static stretching) – You can monitor your sleep with mobile apps although I have yet to do this.


–          Macronutrients, caloric intake (matched to body composition and/or weight class goals), manipulation of macronutrients according to training phase (i.e. higher volumes accompanied with higher carbohydrate intake?)

–          Micronutrition (Ensuring adequate vitamin and mineral consumption. Does this change with variations in training load?)

–          Anecdotally I can say that I almost always see an acute spike in HRV the morning after a night of purposeful overeating.

–          Ingesting foods that are anti-inflammatory? Reducing or eliminating foods that are pro-inflammatory? For a discussion on nutrition and HRV see this post.

Supplements: Inclusion of ergogenic aids at appropriate times; vitamin D over winter; supplemental forms of Zinc, Magnesium, C, etc. Rather than taking certain supplements year round would they be more effective by being cycled in at certain times?

Massage: Beneficial in periods of high loading? Massage has been show to acutely increase HRV in athletes (Arroyo-Morrales 2008) and healthy subjects (Delaney 2002). See Patrick Ward’s site for more insightful discussions on HRV and massage.

Static Stretching: I understand that static stretching is a bit of a hot topic and is widely debated. But static stretching post-workout increases HRV (Mueck-Weymann 2004, Farinatti et al. 2011) and therefore more rapidly initiates the recovery process. How much of an effect this may have on the overall process I cannot say but it’s worth considering.

Cold Water Immersion: The effect this has on recovery is debateable (see a good article by Dr. Marco Cardinale here) but it does appear to enhance parasympathetic reactivation post-exercise in athletes after supra-maximal cycling exercise (Buchheit et al 2009). The psychological effects of this shouldn’t be ignored either. Does it matter if something like this actually helps if the athletes wholeheartedly believe it does? When I played football during my undergrad the cold tubs were a MUST during training camp. None of us questioned this. If we sat in the cold tub we thought we helped our recovery. If we didn’t we would expect to be more sore the next day. Placebo effect?

Active Recovery: From personal experience I’ve seen a noticeable difference in perceived recovery, also reflected in my HRV scores with active recovery work. However, incorporating active recovery at certain periods and removing it from others may enhance its effects.

To reiterate, the above modalities may or may not be the answer to continued progress. However, their strategic planning and application throughout training may allow you to better handle the higher training loads necessary to stimulate further progress. We periodize the amount of stress we apply to our body’s, why not also periodize modalities that theoretically may enhance our ability to tolerate that stress at the appropriate times?

For the strength coaches reading this, I’d be curious to know how much thought and planning goes into this aspect of your training with your athletes. Do you have your athletes use different recovery interventions? When and why? Do you monitor this?

I am still young and relatively inexperienced compared to many of you that may be reading this. I can say that from my experience coaching strength and conditioning at the collegiate level that monitoring can be an extremely arduous task given the limited amount of time available with the athletes. Not to mention, the process of monitoring is time consuming in and of itself, making it difficult to do when you’re responsible for several teams.

Leave me a comment or send me an e-mail to continue the discussion.


Arroyo-Morrales, M. (2008) Effects of myofascial release after high-intensity exercise: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 31(3): 217-223.

Buchheit, M. (2009) Effect of cold water immersion on postexercise parasympathetic reactivation. American Journal of Physiology, 296(2): 421-427 Full-Text

Delaney, J. (2002) The short-term effects of myofascial trigger point massage therapy on cardiac autonomic tone. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 37(4): 364-371

Farinatti, P. et al (2011) Actue effects of stretching exercise on the heart rate variability in subjects with low flexibility levels. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(6): 1579-1585

Mueck-Weymann, MG., et al (2004) Stretching increase heart rate variability in healthy athletes complaining about limited muscular flexibility. Clinical Autonomic Research, 14(1): 15-18

Myllymaki, T. et al (2011) Effects of vigorous late-night exercise on sleep quality and cardiac autonomic activity. Journal of Sleep Research, 20(1): 146-153

Managing Training for Strength

In my last post I discussed some of the shortcomings of pre-planned training. This inspired a conversation between myself and a friend about percentage based training. Today I’d like to talk about some thoughts I have on this topic. Additionally, I will offer some potentially better strategies to help manage and adapt your training on a day to day basis.

To be clear, percentage based training (in the context of this discussion) refers to planning training loads based on a percentage of your 1 rep max in a given lift.

For example, if your 1 rep max in the Bench Press is 300, you know that 50% of this is 150. Strength is generally believed to best be built by working over 85% of your 1 rep max. From our example, 300x.85=255 and therefore 255 is 85% of our 1 rep max of 300. The purpose of using percentages is to control the level of intensity, effort and fatigue placed on the body to create a desired effect. Generally, you can perform only 1 rep with 100%, 2 reps with 95%, 3 reps with 90% and so on.

% 1RM










I think that percentage based training is most effective for novice to intermediate level lifters. This is because they are nowhere near their strength potential. Progressing from workout to workout is much more feasible for them. They can adapt better and faster to the loads because the loads simply aren’t that great yet.

Now for a more advanced trainee, percentage based programs can be less beneficial for several reasons.

  • Percentages are based off a 1rm (or a calculation of a 2-5rm) that were taken on a given day. Your strength levels can and will vary day to day based on recovery status, stress levels, nutrition and several other factors. Therefore a percentage based off the 1rm recorded on a previous day will unlikely be a true reflection of present strength levels.
    90% of your 1rm can easily be 100% on an off day. We’ve all had workouts where the weights felt heavy. We’ve also had days where the weights felt light. If you grinded out 85% for 3 hard, sloppy reps, was it really 85%? In reality it was more like 90%. This can create problems in the program because 85% x3 should generally be a very manageable lift and therefore not tax the body too much. However, since the weight was actually much heavier than 85% on that given day, we’ve created more stress and fatigue then was called for. This is how we set ourselves up for missing lifts in subsequent workouts and nothing is more frustrating than missing lifts.
  • Pre-planned percentage based training is basically telling your body that it must adapt to the training rather than allowing your training to adapt to you. Unfortunately, we do not have conscious control over how we adapt or when. Therefore, it would be much wiser to plan according to the current strength and adaptability levels of our body. We can’t force our body to get stronger.. often times when we try and do this our body tells us to suck it and we regress, or worse, we get hurt. I’ve been down that road.

How do we adapt our training to our body?


I’ve become a big advocate of using RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) to manage training loads. I first learned about RPE when studying for the CSCS exam several years ago. However, it wasn’t until I read Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Systems Manual that I really started to incorporate them into my training. Essentially, with an RPE system we plan to work up to a given RPE for a given amount of reps and sets as opposed to using a percentage of a 1rm. This allows us to “pre-plan” our training in accordance with our most current strength level. The following chart shows how a RPE score corresponds to effort level.


Reps left in the tank







10 is an all out effort. It can be a 1 rep max, a 5 rep max or any number really. As long as it was an all out effort where you are unable to perform another rep. An RPE of 9 means you had 1 rep left in the tank. There is a huge difference between an RPE of 9 and 10 due to its effect on the CNS. It takes much longer to recover from a 10 than a 9. This is what makes RPE’s more accurate than percentages.

This system eliminates missed reps at a given percentage because the selected weight is now much more accurate and fits your present strength levels for that day. For more info on RPE’s check out Mike’s book and free articles on his site.


Pay attention to indicators. Things such as sleep, stress, nutrition and restoration work can all have a pretty drastic effect on your strength levels and adaptability. The following is a list of different indicators you can start to monitor if you don’t already.

  • Sleep: I rate my sleep on a scale of 1-5.
    5 = 7-8 hours of sleep, no wakes or disturbances, morning wood, etc
    4= 1 disturbance or wake up during the night
    3= less than 7 hours of sleep, and/or multiple wake ups
    2=Usually if I’m sick and can’t fall asleep
    1=no sleep
    Supplementing with ZMA really helps improve the quality of my sleep.
  • Stress: Primarily for this I use HRV measurements. I’m not going to elaborate on this since I’ve written about it extensively in previous posts. If you’re unfamiliar with HRV then I highly recommend you click here and start with “HRV Explained Part 1″.

    If HRV isn’t an option for you there are other way’s to monitor your stress. I have to thank Simon Wegerif (creator of iThlete) for introducing me to this method in a conversation we had over Skype. Stress can be classified as; physical, mental or chemical.

    Physical Stress = training, labour, etc.

    Mental Stress = financial problems, fighting with a significant other or parent, travel, death in the family, etc.

    Chemical Stress = Alcohol intake, poor or inadequate nutrition, etc.

    You may not perceive things like poor nutrition or mental stressors as significant stress, but I assure you, they play a big role in how strong you’ll be on a given day and how much further training stress you can handle.

    Rate each one of these on a scale of 1-5. You’d be surprised what you discover by monitoring stress and how it relates to and effects your strength levels

    I love the HRV app because it plots your stress levels on a chart so you can see trends over time. Looking back over the trends with your training log and indicators tell you a lot about what’s working and what’s not.

  • Restoration Work: Foam rolling, stretching and moderate aerobic work can have a huge impact on your recovery and fitness levels. I will reserve writing about the benefits of aerobic work for strength athletes now since I plan to write an entire post on it in the future, but understand that a little cardio (in the form of jogging, sled dragging, etc) goes a long way in contributing (indirectly) to strength gains. I simply keep a log of what type of aerobic work I do, for how long and if I use a sled I track the weight.
  • CNS Test: Finally, I like to perform a quick CNS test after my warm-ups but before I start lifting. This can be in the form of a vertical jump, broad jump, grip test or whatever else you can think of. It’s important to be consistent. Compare your daily result to your baseline or average and that will usually indicate how your workout will go. I’ve actually found that skipping (yes, jumping rope) is a good indicator for me. Some days I can skip like a 3rd grade school girl with flawless technique. Other days I can’t get into a rhythm and stomp the rope every ten jumps. I’ve found that this has a correlation to my strength performance that day.

The longer you train and more advanced you get, the harder it is to make progress. If you haven’t adopted any of the above strategies to help monitor your training I encourage you to consider some. You have nothing to lose and only strength to gain.

Thanks for reading.