Every week I set recovery goals for my athletes, and then at the end of the week I ask them to assess how successful they were at accomplishing those goals.
The role of recovery
Training damages the body and temporarily makes it weaker. It’s recovery that allows the body to rebuild and become stronger. A good training plan ensures that an athlete first produces sufficient stress and damage to cause an overload and produce a physiological response. Then recovery allows the body to adapt. The trick is making sure the athlete does just the right amount of each one.
It sounds simple enough, however, when it comes to the body’s ability to recover, “stress is stress.” Hard training puts the body in a catabolic state where it breaks down fuel, tissues, and protein. But other stress—school, work, and family—can also lead to a catabolic state, tearing the body down almost as much as training does. And this stress doesn’t have the benefits of training.
So, depending on the other stressors in an athlete’s life, a 15-hour week of training could be relatively easy, or it could push them to overreach. This means that, as a coach, you can’t simply plan a certain number of hours each week and assume that it’s going to produce just the right amount of stress. Fifteen hours in a week may be just right, too much, or too little depending on the week. Training based purely on target hours or even a target training stress score can often lead to less than optimal results. A plan based on an athlete’s level of recovery or fatigue is more flexible and helps ensure better adaptation.
However, this approach does have one issue that several of my athletes have pointed out. If “life stress” is very high, then in order to hit the overall recovery goal, their actual training stress may not be high enough to produce gains. The solution is not for them to ignore the other stresses in their lives. Instead, to be successful or improve their performance, they need to either enhance their recovery techniques or reduce the life stress to allow them to train harder.
A training plan based on recovery
In the training plans that I build, every week I give my athletes target hours, TSS®, and a target recovery score. But of the three, the recovery goal is the most important. I tell my athletes that if they miss the volume goal for the week, don’t get in all of the target workouts, but still hit the recovery goal, it was a relatively successful week. However, if they hit the volume goal, do all of the workouts, but come in below the recovery target, then the week was a failure. Recovery trumps everything.
The recovery goal is on a 0 to 5 scale. The athletes have to assess the week for themselves—much like an RPE score. I want it to be a self-assessment because, even with recent tools like WHOOP and Oura Rings, which certainly help, I still don’t believe there is a single metric that fully accounts for recovery. More importantly, I want my athletes to be aware of their sensations and overall mental and physical state. That self-assessment is an important part of developing as an athlete. They need to be able to assess themselves.
I do not give my athletes the same recovery goal every week. There are some weeks where they need to be fatigued and produce an overload. Conversely, they also need weeks that are much easier than normal so they can recover and adapt. The biggest mistake I see athletes make is to try to hit the same recovery or training level every week. I set the recovery goal for each week and I ask the athlete to score their recovery accordingly:
5 FULLY RECOVERED
- Life and training stress are minimal.
- Sleep is restful and you wake feeling refreshed.
- Waking heart rate or heart rate variability reflect fully rested values.*
- Not fully recovered (e.g., following a week off), but fresh and ready.
- You are not training to fatigue nor heading toward recovery.
- Training is tiring, but at a level you could sustain week after week indefinitely.
- Resting heart rate is no more than 2–3 beats above fully rested value.
2 HEADING TOWARD FATIGUE
- You could repeat a week like this for 2–3 weeks at most.
- You do not feel recovered, even after a full night of sleep.
- You are ready for a week off.
- Resting heart rate is 5–6 beats above normal.
Be careful—hit this level only a few times per year.
- You cannot continue training.
I never give my athletes a recovery goal of zero.
* Note: Athletes need to do benchmark tests of resting heart rate and HRV during the off-season or a period of low training to know what fully rested values look like.
Adjusting training to hit the recovery goal
As I mentioned above, the most important thing each week is for my athletes to hit the recovery goal. If they feel they are off course, then something has to adjust—that’s usually either reducing volume, removing one of the high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, or reducing total training stress. Here are some guidelines I provide my athletes:
1. During the big base phase weeks (in January and February), cut back on intensity if necessary, but try to get the recommended volume to ensure aerobic endurance is adequately trained.
2. During the rest of the season, it is better to cut back on volume before eliminating a HIIT session. For example, shorten longer rides or take a full day off in place of a planned recovery ride. Cut interval work only if it can’t be performed at the prescribed intensity.
If the athlete’s effort to achieve the recovery goal causes them to be consistently (week after week) either under or over volume and intensity goals, we will explore a few possibilities:
- Revisit the training plan to explore whether the recovery goal is appropriate for their current level.
- Focus on off-the-bike recovery work. Often this is the source of the issue.
- Look for ways to reduce life stress.
Approach recovery as training
There are two sides to the adaptation coin—stress and recovery. As athletes we are all good at the training stress side. It’s the other side, training recovery, where many of us struggle. As a result, I constantly remind my athletes of one thing: Be as intense about recovery as you are about training.