Stress, Recovery, and Readiness to Train
Our ability to perform optimally and adapt optimally to a given training session varies day to day. Stress, sleep, nutrition, and recovery modalities all interact to determine our “readiness to train”. In order to optimize training, there needs to be monitoring to predict and athlete's readiness based on training load. In an ideal world, the athlete’s level of fatigue, recovery and mental state would determine the intensity, volume, and content of their training program. In a group setting modulating training in this manner is extremely difficult, however, with individualized training it becomes possible to match training with recovery. For most coaches and athletes the decision to rest or train is far too subjective and the warning signs of extreme stress or fatigue are often ignored.
Stress & Performance
Recent research shows that stress levels, indicated by a simple psychological state questionnaire known as the Perceived Stress Scale given to athletes prior to training can predict their performance level during training (1) the resulting hormonal response to training (2) and the rate of recovery from training (3). High levels of life stress before training resulted in significantly impaired performance, elevated post-training cortisol, reduced testosterone levels and delayed recovery times before subsequent training sessions.
This research goes against what most athletes traditionally think about exercise and stress: that exercise is a great form of stress relief (“man I’m having a tough day, I can’t wait to crush a tough workout tonight”). Using a hard training session in order to “relieve stress” may actually have the opposite effect and will hinder every aspect of your training adaptation. From an athlete’s perspective, coping with this can be difficult. Athletes are notorious for training through significant life-events and while it may seem worse to miss a training session due to stress it will likely benefit you long term.
It is important to understand that training while experiencing high levels of stress negatively impacts your readiness to train. However, it begs the question: what can you do on high-stress days in place of training? Researchers have looked at two primary methods for managing stress in athletes: Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) and Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management (CBT). Both techniques have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in athletes, one of the primary hormones elevated in response to stress (4)(5). These can be used in place of a scheduled training session when stress levels are extremely high, or alternatively PMR could be performed 1-2hrs before a training session to manage pre-training stress.
Additional research shows that low-volume, low intensity strength training sessions do not result in an increase in salivary cortisol levels relative to high volume, high intensity strength training sessions (6). This means that light technical work can replace a heavy training session when your stress levels are elevated without compromising your training adaptations or recovery. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that low-intensity cyclical aerobic training, mobility work, and massage can all be implemented to reduce stress levels and hasten a return to training.
Sport science researchers have developed a number of tools designed to provide insights into assessing an athlete’s recovery-state. These range from simple assessment tools and questionnaires like the Profile of Mood States (overtraining), the Anderson test (daily readiness), and the Total Quality of Recovery assessment (recovery behaviors) to the OmegaWave and HRV training-readiness monitoring systems. Each of these systems measure different aspects of recovery and need to be integrated with subjective feedback from the athlete regarding physical and emotional states.
These tests should not be used as a standalone measurement of training readiness, but rather be used to increase athlete’s awareness of their day-to-day emotional and physical readiness to train. In my experience, athletes with high emotional intelligence (EQ) tend to match their training-intensity to their training-readiness better than athletes with lower EQ. One of the systems we’ve implemented at Training Think Tank is to have our athletes report their daily results using a blog. In addition to their results, we ask them to provide us with as much subjective feedback as possible regarding how they felt leading into the training session, what they were thinking during their training sessions, and how they felt after the training session. Just performing this simple daily exercise (recording your thoughts/feelings about training) goes a long way in improving EQ.
Ultimately in both a group and remote coaching setting, the decision regarding day-to-day training is up to the athlete. As Training Think Tank owner Max El-Hag laid out in his blog post last week, developing emotional intelligence is critical to optimizing performance. Until we are able to implement the OmegaWave, POMS, Anderson, and Perceived Stress Scales with a wider audience and integrate the data with performance and recovery data there will always be a subjective component to training decisions. Over time, using these assessments to correlate how you feel with a particular score can go a long way in improving your EQ.
Psychology research has shown time and again that narrowing down complex phenomena like determining readiness to train to a simple question is often as effective as a 100 item questionnaire. In this situation, I think you need to ask yourself a simple question: SHOULD I TRAIN TODAY? As long as you answer it truthfully and don’t question your gut response my experience tells me that your answer will inevitably be right.