I’ve been using HRV4Training for a while personally, and am now using it with the athletes who I coach.
It gives me some useful insights, and I often coach age group athletes who work shift patterns, so it can help us to see how well they recover from their overall daily stress.
Training stress is not the only stress in life, and age groupers trying to fit triathlon training in with their work patterns often underestimate the amount of stress life throws at them!
Seeing a recovery score can help them, and me, to make decisions about their training, and with the recent paper showing VO2 improvements in groups who used HRV guided training, it makes sense to track and learn more about how our bodies respond to stresses.
The paper is interesting, as it does mention sex differences, and the need for more research. I think as women start to approach menopause, heart rate variability, along with tracking fatigue and other symptoms will really help them to adapt to the changes that are happening in the body.
Case study – mid 30’s female athlete
I have been working with an athlete who works 12 hour shifts for the NHS, so we are using HRV4Training to track stress and recovery. She seemed to be coping with the training stress, and had entered a virtual race.
But…..the week before the event the athlete started to complain of sore joints and fatigue, she had been working a shift that day, so she had a couple of easier days after that.
I recommended more rest in the week leading up to the event, as her readings were low, and she was giving some negative subjective feedback, but she continued to train up to the event. The day of the event she felt bad, and raced anyway, then tested positive for COVID-19 the week after. You can see her recovery below, after the event.
Luckily she seemed to bounce back quite quickly, but this shows how her HRV was impacted by COVID-19.
You can see how her score reflected the illness, but she didn’t record after the race, so you can only see when her score began to pick up again around 10 days later.
It’s always a challenge to get consistent readings with athletes, but when you can see the data it helps us to understand what happens to our bodies when we get ill, and we can then make better decisions around training.
So I wanted to give a bit of guidance to athletes who are trying to make sense of how to train right now. If you are being coached then your first port of call should be your coach, but if you don’t have a coach, then I’m here to help.
Find good information and support
Everyone is going to have a different take on this, as honestly none of us have ever had to cope with a world event on this scale, but one thing that we will all agree on is that this is a time of major life stress for everyone, and we need to get through it in the best way that we can in our own way. First of all I would look for trusted news sources at this time, look for good information and use that as your guidance, and limit your exposure to things that make you feel anxious, you may need to cut your social media use if it is harming you right now, reach out to people who can support you, and also when we are on social media think about, what you post, is it kind? Is it helpful?
Adjust your mindset
Don’t forget that training is its own stress and if you overdo it at this time you are setting yourself up for feeling bad, stressed, out and not coping. Mental health, and overall health, must be a priority at this time. We can do this through exercise, nutrition, and hydration. We need to look at what feels good. If any of you follow Yoga with Adriene, her community is called find what feels good, and this is an ideal time for you to find out what feels good to you, you’ll soon find out what works for you and what doesn’t.
Check your situation
Lets look at work situations, you may be working more, and have more work related stress. You may be working from home so have a bit more free time on your hands, you may be unable to work and have no income. These are all situations that you may be in at the moment. Then you have your training. Some of you will have had your main races cancelled, some of you will be unsure if your race will be going ahead or not, so what do you do?
Find your why?
First of all I would ask yourself why you do the sport? Is it for fitness, community, health, to lose weight, to perform, all reasons are valid and all are individual. For me it’s fitness, health and performance.
Then you need to look at your goal race, has it been postponed? Cancelled? Deferred? Still may be on? Your goal in training will then align with that. If your race is cancelled for this year, then look at your why. Mine is to maintain fitness, as I want to be able to compete if a race does comes up that I feel like I want to do, I want to be able to perform as best as I can in these times.
For some of you it may be a sense of community, in which case you can organise virtual meet ups, like many of you are doing, if you are doing triathlon for health reasons, then exercising up to a point is going to keep you healthy. I say up to a point because if you go too deep into training then you can compromise your immune system, and add to stress that is already there. This is an opportunity to add in strength and conditioning, practise recovery, eg yoga, just breathing and being aware of how you are feeling and what you need.
Adapt your training
If your goal race is a way off, I’m thinking about IM Wales or any late season races, then you may be stressing about losing fitness, swim fitness in particular. Just remember everyone is in the same situation, do what you can, maintain core strength, do some swim specific exercises, maintain your fitness but now is not the time to be building fitness. Remember you don’t want to get yourself into a training “hole” A lot of people follow the Don Fink IM plan which increases distance every week, you will want to back off and maintain the level that you are at now, then when you have less life stress you can start building again. The rule of thumb is to increase training load across the board at around 10%. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, look at what you CAN do and implement it
Think about your why, and align your goals with that. Find what feels good for you, and adapt as you need to.
I’ll finish with a quote from a book that I read recently, called “The way the world thinks” by Julian Baggini. The quote is “What is yin yang? Yin Yang is timing. In other words yin yang responds appropriately to the precise situation as it is now, not as it was or will be. A wise action today could be a foolish one tomorrow.”
So take each day as it comes, and make the best decisions that you can, in the situation that you are in. Be grateful for the small things and we will get through this unusual time.
Getting older happens to us all, and if you are a competitive athlete the thought of slowing down can be scary, and also hard to deal with. Recently I have had a couple of emails from women who are concerned with ageing and how it is affecting them. From slowing down, getting more injuries, and putting on weight.
There are things that we can do to help, and taking a pro-active stance is positive for your mental well-being. But what happens when you are really struggling and nothing you do seems to help. This is the reply I gave to someone who wrote to me about her swimming declining.
Thanks for your message it sounds like you’re having a hard time at the moment.I’m assuming you contacted me, as I’m a coach, but I’ll just say, I definitely don’t have all the answers. It seems like a really hard time in our lives, and it sounds like you are giving yourself a hard time on top of that! All I can tell you is what I’ve found has helped me.
Try and think what it is you love about swimming, is it getting fast times, or are there other things that keep you going back to it? Sometimes a change of focus can help, or even a total break, if its making you miserable.
If you did break from swimming, is there anything else that can help you to get that feeling of what you love from swimming?
You may need to think about your training differently as we inevitably lose muscle mass as we get older. It will happen, and we can try and minimise it by doing weights and replacing protein after sessions. Nutrition info here
There is research to show that HIIT training is effective as you age, but again its harder to recover from these sessions as we get older. You may need to do a bit less volume, depending on what your training week looks like.
Sounds like you’re doing a lot of this already, though and it may be more the mental side of things that are troubling you.
When I was feeling really low I listened to podcasts, talked with friends, and also found making a list of my core values helped.
It made me realise that I was more than my times or achievements, but I also appreciate its very hard to do these things when you don’t even want to get out of bed, as I have felt some times.
I also know now that it will pass, and I’ll feel better again eventually!
I hope some of this helps, but if you are getting very low, I would see your GP, or someone you can talk to about these feelings, as it will really help if you express your fears and concerns.
Show yourself some self compassion at this time, you are not only a swimmer, you are so much more. Take Care
Of course men can feel the pressure of slowing down too, but they don’t have the same hormonal issues as women. Matt Dixon did a great podcast here with some mature athletes. The takeaway is to be flexible and don’t be afraid to try something new. Its easy to compare yourself to how fast you were when you were younger, but that doesn’t help you to feel good about yourself. Remember that you are more than your accomplishments, be an amazing human.
Here is a bit of inspiration for you, stay positive, and if you can’t, then get help!
For research purpose I was taking a look at this short BBC clip I did with @eddiebrocklesby 6 years ago where I was asked how long Eddie would go on racing for – well I can answer that she’s signed up for @ironmanaustria 2020 and she’ll be 77 next yearhttps://t.co/XasPMDi3bN
This year so far has been different. Different in lots of ways, kids growing up, and developing new interests. Me wanting to spend more time with them, and also needing to keep my endurance training going, as something purely for me. Life seems in a state of flux, and in some ways, I suppose that is what living with children is like, especially when they start changing so quickly. But I have also noticed a change in me, I don’t feel like I’m recovering as well from training, and I sometimes get depressed when I shouldn’t have PMS. A few months ago I had some pretty bad depression creeping in and just didn’t know what was wrong. I went to see my GP, and explained that I thought my hormones may be playing up, and also that I thought I may have low iron, (I did a home test and it was abnormal) Peri-menopause was dismissed, due to my age (I’m 43) but I still feel like my hormones have got something to do with what’s going on. The blood tests that I had confirmed that I was anaemic, but I’m still not feeling quite right after the course of tablets, I’ve been sweating at night and early morning, and have had heavy bleeding some months.
What is Perimenopause?
Because it is difficult to diagnose peri-menopause (hormones fluctuate too much to get accurate test results) I still don’t know for sure, and that is what Peri-menopause is like. I’m 43, which puts me on the lower age for Peri-menopause, but I know that I feel different, and trying to persuade myself that I’m imagining it won’t help. The facts are, that your oestrogen starts to decline as you get older, and this causes symptoms, symptoms that may be impacted by the demands of endurance training.
There is very little information about training through this period of your life, possibly because women experience it so differently, but there are a few things to bear in mind.
Tips to take away
Any training causes stress in the body, which causes the hormone cortisol to rise. Cortisol is an essential hormone, with many functions in the body, one of which is regulating hormones. I’m not a health practitioner but it seems to me that if cortisol is raised regularly then this will also impact on symptoms of perimenopause. Therefore it is essential to ensure you recover properly from sessions, eg doing Yoga, stretching, 5 minutes of meditation all help with reducing stress and kick-starting the recovery process.
Recovery may be impaired by poor sleep. If you are waking up feeling hot and bothered then that will impact on your recovery. There is some evidence to show that drinking Tart Cherry juice before bed can help with sleep, as it contains melatonin. Drinking it cooled may help to lower your core body temperature before bed and help with night sweats.
As estradiol declines, recovery can be reduced (spotting a pattern!) as estradiol has anti-inflammatory properties. So eating a healthy and diverse diet to reduce inflammation may help. Avoiding refined, fried, and processed foods will help.
Stay on top of post-recovery protein intake. Your body uses protein less efficiently, so you can increase your protein intake over the day, and consider eating a small amount of protein before bed to help with recovery.
Bone mass starts to decline, so doing some plyometric and strength work helps to counter this. It doesn’t have to be much to get a benefit, a few minutes of jumping, loading your bones in a way that they are not used to, helps to stimulate bone growth. Regular strength work also translates toperformance benefits, so it’s worth incorporating this into your training if you don’t already.
Knowing what to do is helpful, for an athlete who is used to a certain lifestyle and way of training. Making some adjustments, to your routines will probably be necessary, and accepting that it is a normal part of life and embracing the change is essential.
But coming to terms with the unpredictability of this period (symptoms can last up to 10 years, whereas other people have no symptoms) will be a challenge. I’m aiming to have a supportive network around, along with seeking inspiration from older female role models.
Remember that you are not broken, that you don’t need fixing, and be open to talking about it.
When someone says “I need to go on a diet”, my heart sinks. Why? Because going on a diet implies a short term, quick fix. Think about the new year magazine articles promoting detoxing, and going alcohol free. How often have you tried one of these diets or detoxes and then gone back to old habits, sometimes making your habits even worse!
Why does this happen? Because eating is a habit, and habits are hard to change. If you make extreme changes, for example by going on a “detox” or diet, then you will be able to stick to it for a short time (for the length of the diet/detox) then you will inevitably go back to what worked for you in the past. What you eat is determined by so many factors that it needs a bit more thought than just blindly following a plan.
How can I improve my diet?
Instead of going on a diet. I would encourage you to think about what you are eating, and ask yourself some questions
Why am I eating? bored, hungry, upset?
Am I really hungry?
Is it a good choice of food for me right now?
Is this going to make me feel better or worse?
This is just a start, your diet is a complex thing and everyone has different priorities and feelings about food. There are no bad/unclean foods. The “clean eating” trend encourages obsession about certain types of foods, and in my opinion, encourages eating disorders.
If you truly want to see change in your diet then be more aware of your eating habits, and realise that there is no quick fix. Change happens gradually, start with one sustainable change and then others will follow, and remember that small changes add up to big changes in the long term.
If you are interested in nutrition advice, then have a look at my packages here
With the early race season getting underway, what are your priorities for some of these races? Its been a while since you’ve worn your race kit, and used your race gear, so you may be a bit rusty going in to your first few races. Its a great idea to do a few low key events to get yourself back in to the practicalities of racing.
This will be a reminder of how it feels to get up early, and make sure you are adequately fuelled for the days event. Most early season events are on the shorter side, so its a gentle introduction, and there shouldn’t be dire consequences if you don’t get this right. However it is an opportunity to start practising your race morning routine. If there’s anything that didn’t go so well in the past, then now is a good time to change what you do. If you always leave certain jobs until the last minute, resolve to make time to get organised sooner. Remember what goes well and what doesn’t go so well so that you can learn and adapt next time.
It will probably have been a while since you have competed and felt those race morning nerves. Even if the race is not a priority for you, you will still produce adrenaline, and be in competition mode. You may think about your race tactics, and put these into practice. In my first race last year I realised that I backed off when it mattered, I took that in to my next race, and made sure that I pushed when I needed to.
Here is your opportunity to learn from the race. I ask my athletes to think about 3 things that went well, and 3 that they can improve on. Be thorough in your analysis, but don’t punish yourself, its your first race after all. Questions that I may ask are; did you feel fatigued going in to the race? How did you feel after? Did you push hard enough? Did you fuel properly? What were transitions like? How were your equipment choices? These are things that can be taken forward to the next event, and worked on in training. They all add up to better performance.
If you want to read what other coaches say there is a link to another article here
We all have habits and routines in our lives. Some of them are helpful, and some of them, are not so helpful. Becoming more aware of your actions can help you to identify which habits are helping or harming you. As an athlete you will have habits to make sure that you get your training done.
If you need to get up early for a swim you may get your equipment ready the night before, and then set an alarm to wake you up. You then complete your swim session, and may reward yourself with a cup of coffee, or similar.
All habits follow this pattern. First of all there is a trigger, in this case your alarm going off, and seeing your swim kit prepared. then your routine, which is completing the swim session, then your reward which is a cup of coffee. If we take a closer look at the “habit loop” you can see how to implement good habits in your life.
This is something that reminds you to do something. It may be something that you are not aware of, for example every time you open the fridge at a certain time of day you snack. Examples of triggers are; time, a visual reminder, an alarm, or it could be a feeling. Once you identify your trigger then you can change or add on to your habit. You can also create triggers to start a new habit, for example when you put your running kit on you do some core exercises before your run.
This is what you do after the trigger. It could be going to the pool, having a second helping of dinner, drinking a glass of wine, doing strength exercises. This is the bit that you can change, once you identify your trigger.
If you know, that when you finish your dinner you always go for a second helping, even though you are not hungry then you could replace this routine with making a cup of tea. If you want to fit some strength exercise in to your day then you can add this on to an existing routine.
This is your way of giving yourself a pat on the back, and can vary depending on what your habit is. If its getting out training, then the reward can be knowing that you are one step closer to your goal. Sometimes you may need a bit more than that, and the reward may be a chat with friends and cup of coffee after a group training session. If you substitute your habit for a healthier alternative then you know that it is creating a healthier you, for example substituting your second helping of food for a hot drink.
Putting it all together
So to create helpful habits, first you need to actually want to create that habit. No amount of positive talk is going to help you if you don’t really want to change! Think about if there are any barriers to creating the habit. For example, when I wanted to add core work to my day, I realised that I sometimes wasn’t wearing the right clothing for it. By doing the core work before a workout then I was already dressed in comfortable clothing. Next identify your trigger. If you have a good habit in place already, then you can add on to it, as with the core work example above. It can be helpful to write down what you want to do and how you’re going to make sure that you do it!
If you want to find out more about habits then click here
You’ve heard it before, but recovery is a critical part of your training. If you are aiming to improve in triathlon, then you need to make recovery a focus. If you don’t, then training will be, stop start, frustrating, and can make you ill.
There are many ways of recovering, but one which often goes by the wayside when people are trying to fit in training, and a full time job, is sleep. You may try and cram in a session late in the day, and this can affect your sleep for the night, then you may want to get up early to “fit in” a swim, already you are compromising your recovery for these sessions.
So what actually happens when you sleep?
Your body releases growth hormones.
These hormones help your body to increase muscle growth, you need to get sufficient sleep for this to happen. If you are sleep deprived your body also produces the hormone cortisol, which can break muscle down.
Your body repairs itself.
When you do a training session your muscles get damaged and get micro tears in them. When you are sleeping your body can repair the damage, this is how muscle grows and rebuilds, making you stronger.
Your metabolism stabilises
If you are sleep deprived, then your blood sugar levels are not regulated as well, and this can cause weight gain, as your body fails to respond to carbohydrate ingestion. You may still feel hungry, even when you have eaten a normal meal.
What can I do?
So, what can you do about it? It’s important to go through all the stages of sleep for adaptations to happen. If you are not getting enough regular sleep (around 7-8 hours, maybe more!) then you need to identify why this is happening. Is it because you are trying to do too much? You may be better off scaling some sessions back, or looking to re-prioritise a few things. Think about what is essential, desirable, or could be removed from your daily routine. It may be that you are spending too much time in front of a screen or bright light before bed, there are many studies to show that this impacts the quality of your sleep and your ability to get to sleep. More on this here
Addressing these things, can help you to create habits which are not only beneficial for your training adaptation, but also for your overall wellbeing.
It’s a busy and sometimes stressful time of year. Everyone wants something done before Christmas, you may have more family/social commitments, and it can be tricky to balance everything. Keeping consistent in your training can be hard work, but if you know how to scale a workout down, then things can become more manageable.
First you need to know if your workout is a key session or not. If you are only doing 2 sessions in each triathlon discipline, then its safe to say that both sessions are key sessions. If you have more sessions then it may be worth checking which ones are key.
If you can only fit in key sessions then you may need to scale them down. This is how I would recommend doing it.
Scaling workouts to fit in with busy lives
Hopefully, you can keep the whole warm up in. It’s an important part of your session, which prepares your body and mind for training. If you are going to be working at threshold, then add some work building up to the level you will be working at. Don’t expect your body to just kick in to threshold work, you need to prepare a bit. If you need to do any activation work, to get your body used to the movement patterns, then now is the time. If you do have to shorten your warm up, then make sure it is still at least 10 minutes long, and if you skip the build work, then expect your first few intervals to be a bit off.
Lets say the main part of your session is intervals and you didn’t build to the interval intensity in the warm up then use the first few intervals to build up to that level. If you did warm up thoroughly, then complete as much of the main session as you can. This is the key bit of your workout. When your session is an endurance session e.g. all at one pace, then you may just need to cut the session short.
If you have time for a short 5 minute cool down, then great. If you don’t, then don’t worry about it, but avoid spending the rest of the day in one position. For example, seated at a desk. However if you do find yourself in this position then try to get up and move around every 20 minutes or so, and try to find time to stretch at some point in the day.
Below I have an example of how you could scale down the swim session shown, in order of priority.
Remove cool down
Shorten or remove build set
Shorten warm up
Shorten main set
This advice will help you to gain the most from your training sessions at this busy time. Enjoy the holiday season, and stay healthy!
Yoga and an Ironman race may sound like 2 complete opposites, but there can be many similarities in the way we practice in both areas. As well as the physical benefits of practising yoga, there are many psychological benefits too.
Imagine you are getting ready to race an event, you feel nervous and scared. Practising yoga will help you to alleviate these fears, here are some examples in how you can transfer your skills.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present. At the beginning of a yoga class you may sit and ground yourself, by closing your eyes and focussing on your breathing, then letting go of what happened to you during the rest of the day and becoming present focussed. You can use this skill at the beginning of a race to clear your mind, and also throughout racing, if something goes wrong, for example you get a puncture, accept it, and calmly do what you need to do, to get going again. More importantly, let go of the feelings of upset, that you may have about having a problem, then you can continue to race at the best of your ability.
During a yoga practice the breath is often linked to movement, becoming aware of how you are breathing is an important part of yoga practice, and this can also be transferred to a triathlon. Before a race you may use breathing techniques to calm yourself down, and whilst racing you need to be aware of how you are breathing, as it is linked to how much effort you are making. Check in with your breathing every now and then, you could even visualise your blood being oxygenated by your breathing.
Mind over matter
Imagine you have been asked to hold a pose in yoga, your legs start to shake and you start wondering when you can release the pose. Your teacher tells you to breathe and relax into the posture, and you begin to feel better in that position. The same thing can happen in endurance racing/training. There will be times when you feel bad, and you don’t want to carry on, just relax into it and know that it will pass. You can’t fight against the feeling, just realise that it won’t last forever, make sure you are not holding tension anywhere in your body/face, and maybe use some positive affirmation.
One of the Yamas of Yoga is Ahimsa (non violence). This is the practice of compassion, and being kind to yourself. This may sound strange when you are asking your body to push itself beyond what it finds comfortable, but you can do it in a compassionate way. For example, you may be going through a bad time during a race. Instead of being unkind to yourself by telling yourself that you are not going fast enough or making enough effort, change the way you speak to yourself. You could have a phrase that you repeat for example “I am the best that I can be” “powerful and strong” This will override your negative thought patterns. Think about how you speak to yourself, are you being kind and compassionate? Would you say those things to someone else? Read more about the 5 Yamas of yoga here
Sometimes, if you are in a yoga class, the person next to you, or behind you, is able to do a pose with ease, and you are struggling. Sometimes what you did one week, feels impossible the next. It doesn’t matter, we are all different, instead of comparing yourself to others, accept yourself and your situation as it is. You may have had a bad training session/race, it happens, and in the grand scheme of things it isn’t that important. Learning to accept, and move on is a useful skill to develop.
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