The lowdown on the simple smartphone apps that are designed to optimise your training and recovery. By Phil Mosley
Have you ever noticed how training feels easy on some days and nigh on impossible on others? Don’t panic, its normal and there are all sorts of reasons. Often it's due to the after-effects of a hard workout or the accumulation of fatigue over several days. It can also be caused by everyday life-stress such as work problems, emotional trauma and lack of sleep. Other days, it simply happens for no discernible reason whatsoever.
These daily ups and downs are all part and parcel of being a triathlete - you train hard, you take some recovery time and hopefully your body adapts. That's how you get faster. The tricky part is knowing when to train and when to rest. For a motivated individual, convincing yourself to take a day off can be tough. Are you really tired or just being lazy? Getting it wrong consistently can lead to staleness, injury and even illness. Thankfully a fairly recent concept called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can help make these choices clearer.
HRV is measured as the time gap between your heart beats, which varies as you breathe in and out. Research evidence links high HRV to good health and a high level of fitness, while decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue and even burnout. Studies also show that HRV is much lower in overtrained athletes compared to healthy ones.
Daily measurement of HRV can help you gauge your own levels of psychological and physiological stress. It can also indicate the impact of your hydration levels and even the effects of performance anxiety and nervousness. Generally speaking the more relaxed and free from fatigue your body is, the more variable the time-gap between your heartbeats.
It may all sound a bit complex, but thankfully there are an increasing number of smart phone apps that can measure HRV in a simple way. The most established is iThlete (£6.99, myithlete.com) which was released in 2009. Using a smart phone and a Bluetooth heart-rate belt or finger-pulse sensor, it asks you to perform a one-minute test every morning before getting up. You simply sit in bed and follow directions to breathe in and out.
The iThlete app then gives you a score out of 100, with higher scores indicating lower levels of stress and fatigue. It also gives you a green, amber or red light, based on your most recent score compared to previous scores. This traffic light system helps you decide whether to train hard, easy or not all all. A green light indicates that your body is ready and raring to go. An amber light signifies a slight downturn in your fatigue levels, while a red light comes on after successive downturns in HRV - signalling it’s time for a couple of days off.
The app also allows you to manually enter metrics for sleep hours, training intensity and muscle soreness. These scores can then be viewed on a graph versus your HRV, so you can see how they contribute to your fatigue.
On the whole these smartphone apps are a great addition to your training armoury. Occasionally they give you scores that seem counterintuitive, so it's still important to listen to your body too. However, if used consistently over time they can help you find a better blend of training and recovery.
For sixty seconds per day it seems like a worthwhile investment of time.
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.