Do you ever wonder if you should train on a day when you wake up tired, stressed and/or sore? For coaches and athletes, common questions perpetually include: Are you ready to train? How much should you train?
Endurance athletes excel when they are able to push through extreme discomfort, past the point most people would stop. Winners are typically those who ‘endure’ longer; they keep going past the point where most people would stop. While the ‘no-pain, no-gain’ mindset may be an asset when you need to finish a 100-mile race or attack on the final climb when your legs are burning, that same mindset of ignoring how you feel can actually work against your training and make it less effective.
With the proliferation of data in our GPS watches and power meters, you can be forgiven for thinking feelings and emotions just obscure the data these devices provide. The data can be a huge help in understanding how your training is going (e.g., Is your threshold power increasing?), but many of these ‘objective’ data sources are simply outputs. What happens if an athlete is very sore, unmotivated or experiencing life stress? Does the same training plan make sense? This is where noting your emotions and well-being comes into play.
A 2016 systematic review looked at how subjective measures, such as stress, fatigue, sleep quality, muscle soreness and mood reflected athlete well-being and changes in training load. The review found these ‘feelings’ helped indicate when training loads increased and also reflected a recovery in these feelings as training loads normalized. These measures of well-being can change before performance — and this early detection can help avoid illness, injury, poor results or overtraining.
These feelings of stress and fatigue can also be affected by non-training influences (e.g., work stress, sleep, other activity) so it makes sense to consider both. As the review says, “Athlete monitoring is not limited to either subjective or objective measures, instead, they can be used to complement each other.”
The problem with only training by the numbers is we don’t know how the athlete who produced that power data is doing. Have they been sleeping? Are they stressed? Are they enjoying training? These are all examples of subjective measures (or feelings) that can help add context to the objective data our gadgets give us and triangulate the different measures (objective and subjective) to make a good training decision.
To ease into tracking your training readiness, you can simply reflect daily in a journal or training log. The review paper suggests stress, fatigue, recovery, general well-being and feelings of ‘being in shape’ are good measures to use. I have athletes rate each as above average, normal or below average, and if I see more than one slipping, or several days in a row without normal feelings, it is worth reflecting on whether the athlete needs more recovery.
Another factor to assess is heart rate variability, which adds a more objective way for you to see how you are reacting to training and to life. Having this triangulation of data points makes decision making much more obvious.
Often you will see training readiness expressed as green, yellow or red lights:
Green Light: Train as Planned
If your workout went well the day prior, if you are motivated, feeling fit, not feeling stressed and your training numbers have been going well, there are no indications to not train as planned (or even a little harder).
Yellow Light: Proceed with Caution
Even if you are a bit tired or sore, a single ‘flag’ might not change your training plan for the day. These days are often expected after a hard training session, so your plan may have a light or recovery day already. If you have some unexpected low ratings you might take note and observe how you feel in the workout and the next day.
Red Light: Reduce Load or Rest
If you expect to feel recovered and ready to train hard, but you find your previous day’s training didn’t go well or any of your subjective measures are abnormal, then it might be a sign you need an extra rest day. These could happen after your hardest training days but shouldn’t occur very often to avoid needing extended periods of recovery or causing other workouts to suffer. Spin easy, go for a walk, and resume your training plan the next day.
Relying solely on training data or following a training plan regardless of how you feel is not the best way to train. Reflecting on your feelings, or ‘readiness to train,’ does not mean you never train hard, but rather you choose the days to push based on the feedback your physiology and psychology provides you. While objective training data should also be used to guide training decisions and targets, we can also use the simple, affordable and science-backed feedback our feelings give us about how we are coping with training and life.