How to manage training fatigue and recovery: Part 1

You spend a lot of time thinking about your training; the best coach, the best programme, how many sets/reps, how heavy, how fast, how often. But do we pay as much attention to our recovery? I’m going to say that it’s a definite “no”. 

There is an old saying, “train hard, recover harder”. Whilst sounding cliché, this statement holds a lot of truth. Training hard without focusing on recovery would be like rubbing the palm of your hand with sandpaper until it became bloody, leaving it and then coming back later whilst it was still bloody and continuing. In this example, your hand doesn’t get the attention it needs to heal before you return to rubbing it with sandpaper. This results in your hand becoming extremely sore and you being able to handle less and less rubbing each time.

Training is intended to be damaging and fatiguing to the body. Recovering from this fatigue allows adaptation to occur that in turn leads to gains in strength/fitness. However, you do not live inside a perfect world where training is the only stress placed on our body. Many other factors can contribute to fatigue and can make recovery and adaptation harder to achieve.

Another analogy I like to use is ‘the cup’. Imagine a cup (that’s you), now imagine a tap pouring water into the cup (stressors) and finally picture a small drain at the bottom of the cup (recovery). In this analogy, the water being added to the cup are stressors; these can be training related but can also be personal stressors. If you are not careful, these stressors combined can cause your cup to overflow. This is not a good situation to be in and talking from a purely training standpoint, this will lead to a state of over-training. But what exactly is fatigue and how can you tell if it is accumulating and having a negative impact on your training?  

Fatigue is described as “the disruption of physiological systems that leads to a decrement in athletic performance”. There are two types of fatigue: acute and chronic. Acute fatigu4e is the short-term disruption to our physiology that results in a decrease in your performance within the same training session. Chronic fatigue is the disruption of systems that affect future training sessions.

Fatigue is not only caused by training variables (volume, intensity, frequency, density) but also by lifestyle stressors such as daily physical tasks, poor sleep, poor nutrition, work/personal life stressors, illness and drugs/alcohol. If you do not pay attention to improving all of these factors then your fatigue management and recovery efforts need to be addressed. 

Being able to identify fatigue before or as it arises and manage it properly is crucial for the efficacy of any training programme. Most of the methods many of you are familiar with actually detect fatigue once it has already accumulated and is having a negative affect on your performance; these are known as lagging indicators. These lagging indicators include:

  • Heart rate variability
  • Reduced desire to train
  • Bad mood
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Illness
  • Wear and tear

 If you only focus on these indicators it is going to be difficult to recover from as fatigue will already have been high for more than 2 weeks. It will also disrupt your training as you will have to improvise and take un-planned measures to be able to resume normal training.

However, there are methods of detecting fatigue before it appears (leading indicators) and as it begins to accumulate (concurrent indicators). These indicators should not be used exclusively; rather a combination of all of them will give you a better picture of your fatigue levels.

 Leading indicators:

  • Recent nutrition
  • Recent psychological state
  • Recent physical task level
  • Recent training load
  • Technical co-ordination
  • Learning proficiency
  • Jump height/distance

Concurrent indicators:

  • Movement velocity (bar speeds)
  • Perception of effort (how hard an exercise/training session felt)
  • Relative performance (were you able to hit the percentages you normally hit?)
  • Strength (grip strength for example)

Using these methods will allow you to predict and/or determine whether you are in a fatigued state. How you manage and deal with this fatigue will come down to the recovery strategies that you and your coach employ throughout your training programme. In my next article I will talk about the most effective ways to recover and what could be damaging your recovery efforts.

Back to blog