It’s March and spring is around the corner. That means no more turbo trainer and treadmill runs. The sun is out, it’s warm, and it’s time to get serious with training for that first triathlon of the season (or maybe even a spring marathon).
Spring’s a transitional time. No, I’m not talking about the flowers and the leaves on the trees, though they are nice. I’m talking about training. If you’re someone who got back into training at the beginning of the New Year, chances are you’re now putting in some serious miles. If you have an early season race, you may have even moved from your base phase to a build phase.
Whether you’re still building base fitness for the year, or starting to build towards a race, you might be putting in a 15-20 hours per week or even more. And if this is on top of a day job, that’s some serious stress your putting on your body.
So, when do you know it’s time to take a day off? Well, an easy and structured way to do it would be to take one complete rest day per week. This is what I do with many of the athletes I coach and what I personally do.
But having the same “rest day” each week (maybe it’s Monday), isn’t very flexible. It doesn’t accommodate when your body needs a bit more recovery time during a different part of the week. As endurance athletes, we love our schedules and routines. We get into the habit of doing a morning swim and evening run on Thursday just because it’s Thursday.
Instead, consider a more flexible approach to recovery to give your body a rest when it’s asking for it. Here are 3 ways to tell it’s time to take a day off.
1. A rough estimate: go by feel
This is the most basic approach, but despite seeming easy, listening to your body is a tough skill to develop. Did you struggle to get out of bed this morning? Did you hit snooze an extra time on your alarm clock? Did you need an extra cup of coffee this morning? Did you feel sluggish during your training session? Did your arms feel heavy in the pool or your legs feel heavy trying to run?
Sure, these are all pretty subjective questions, but listening to the feedback your body is giving is an important skill to master. Many athletes train and race by feel, instead of using a watch or heart rate monitor. They know what 5k at race pace feels like. The same can be said for recovery and training preparation. Before you even start the workout, does your body feel prepared? Yes, there are plenty of times when your body feels better as the workout progresses. There’s also something to be said about training in a fatigued state.
One way to track all this is in your training log or diary. Not only is it important to log your time, distance, pacing, heart rate (if applicable), power (again, if applicable), weather, and terrain. But, recording your physical and mental state can also be instructive. Then, when you look back at the past few days in your log and notice a string of “tired” days, take a day off and start again tomorrow.
2. A more quantified alternative: morning resting heart rate
Taking a slightly more quantified approach, your morning resting heart rate can be helpful in determining if you’re fatigued and need to rest. Now, there is some debate about if heart rate is a useful measurement for fatigue. But, I’ve found it’s a helpful additional data point, especially if you combine with the first approach.
The important thing to remember here is consistency. Because your heart rate varies throughout the day, you want to take the measurement at the same time and in the same position every day. First thing in the morning is easiest. After you wake up, slip on your heart rate monitor or use one of the smartphone apps that are out there (I like the Instant Heart Rate app by Azumio).
Now for the important part – log the number. If you use an app, chances are it will automatically log the measurement. But if you’re using a heart rate monitor (or even taking your pulse manually), be sure to record the measurement in your training log/diary. Track this number over a few days and see if/how it changes. Be sure to take measurements on recovery days as well. These will give a good reference.
3. The most precise: heart rate variability
Many athletes and coaches in endurance sports are now using heart rate variability (HRV) to track recovery. HRV is an indicator of nervous system function. Specifically, it gives a sense of how well the “rest and digest” component (called your parasympathetic nervous system) of your autonomic nervous system is functioning. The other component is the sympathetic, or your “fight or flight” system. So, your parasympathetic NS functions to counter the stimulation of the sympathetic NS. This is especially important for hard-charging athletes, who put a lot of stress on their bodies with training, activating the sympathetic NS.
One way to measure how well your body’s parasympathetic NS is working is with HRV; the greater variation in HRV, the better the parasympathetic NS activity. This is a good thing. A low HRV is indicative of higher stress, whether emotional or physical. This is not an ideal state to be training in. The stress from training will simply compound the already existing stress. The result will be diminishing performance and, over the long term, burnout. A high HRV, on the other hand, gives a good indication the body is prepared to absorb the stress of training.
Like measuring heart rate, there are a number of different smartphone apps that allow you to measure HRV. A simple one that uses the camera lens on your smartphone is called Stress Check, made by Azumio. There are a number of others out there, and more are coming on the market. A few you may want to check out are ones by ithlete and SweetBeat.
Whichever way you decide, tracking your fatigue can be an effective way of determining if you’re prepared to train. If you’re like me, you’d rather not waste an hour running if your body is already taxed and in need of rest. Consider one of these three ways to monitor your fatigue, and if you need to, take a day off!