“If you’re not testing, you’re guessing” is a revolving yet relevant saying within the world of sport. This isn’t to say that basing training on feel is over, far from it. Perception and ‘sensory data’ of how your body is responding is the most critical and influential piece of the athletic-puzzle. However, in the midst of heavy training it becomes natural to associate tiredness as the new everyday norm, which often makes it difficult to determine when that thin red line has been crossed… until it’s too late.
For decades physiological testing and monitoring was reserved for the few, given its cost and invasiveness. The bio-tech revolution has changed that, putting physiological tools into our hands in the shape of smart-phones and watches. With a few apps, metrics can now be monitored to allow any level of athlete to get closer than ever before to reaching their potential.
Unfortunately your phone cannot (at least yet) draw and analyse your blood or provide physiological testing, so the lab maintains a pivotal place. Still, in terms of day-to-day monitoring there are several key performance indicators which can be tracked, as explained by Dr. Kevin Sprouse of Podium Sports Medicine, who is also the team physician and Medical Director of the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team.
I recommend that you track some metrics every day. For some, this seems onerous. If you are one of those who are not inclined to delve into daily metrics, I’d suggest you start with some very basic ones. Here’s a list that starts with the most basic and moves toward the more involved. Every active person with a goal-driven training plan should be following one or more of these metrics daily! If you use software like Training Peaks, you can even journal your data for the purposes of trending.
Resting Heart Rate – Simply a measure of your heart rate when you first wake up, before leaving bed. Can give you information on your overnight recovery and whether you may need to alter your training plan to avoid illness or injury. You can even get free smartphone apps that will measure your heart rate with the camera! No excuses!
Subjective Evaluation – What does that mean? Basically, it’s listening to your body. Easy, right? Too many of us start the day by looking at our email inbox and text message stream before even getting out of bed! By that time, who knows how you are really feeling!?! Take the first 30 minutes of every day (at a minimum) to ease into the day and get in touch with yourself and your body. (Sounds like crazy hippy talk!) Seriously, sports science research shows that your subjective evaluation is very predictive of your current readiness for training. How did you sleep? Are you sore from yesterday? Starting to feel a little sick? Ready to tackle Mt. Everest? Those feelings are important. Even sophisticated software for gauging recovery (like RestWise) puts significant emphasis on this data. You should too.
Sleep – Many fitness trackers will now also track your sleep patterns, some with much greater accuracy than others. This is a simple metric which can be collected, quite literally, while you sleep!
Heart Rate Variability – Without going into a long explanation, HRV is a measure of the time difference between heart beats. A high level of variability generally indicates a high level of recovery. Measuring HRV is a bit more involved and “scientific” than some athletes care to bother with. But for those who spend the extra 3-5 minutes each morning, this can be something that can truly help to guide training. You can now get smartphone apps that do this in a rather inexpensive but accurate manner. If you are not interested in manually taking the time to collect this data each day, some advanced fitness trackers are now doing this while you sleep. I’ve been using a WHOOP band which measures sleep, HRV, temperature, physiologic strain throughout the day, and more. It’s pricier than a smartphone app, but it does all the work for you. There are other devices that will do this as well (the OURA Ring is one which is less expensive but that I found less reliable when measuring sleep), and many of the more advanced sports watches are starting to implement some of this technology.
Weekly / Monthly Measures
Body Weight – I don’t see much utility in measuring your weight daily, but it can be a useful metric when collected at the same time each week. If your sole goal is weight loss, you may not want to even check it that often. But for those athletes who are following a performance-oriented training plan, you’ll want to see that you are not gaining or losing weight too quickly. Weight gain could indicate water retention and inflammation. Excessive weight loss could be due to inappropriate nutritional fueling. Both are undesirable.
Body Composition – With the advent of technology that makes body composition measurement simple and accurate, many athletes will want to follow this monthly. Most people want to decrease fat mass in increase muscle. Using something like an inexpensive ultrasound measurement of body fat (MuscleSound) can give you regular data to assess whether your training plan is working. If you are loosing weight but much of that is muscle, you are setting yourself up for failure. Take a look to see how you are responding to your training.
Training Load / Training Stress – Most of the metrics I’ve mentioned look at how your body responds to training. In order to know how to modify that training load, you must have some objective measure of it. The most ubiquitous measure is TSS (or “Training Stress Score”). I’d guess that most training software and online training diaries now use this metric, or some variation of it. We won’t delve into its meaning here, but you can read about it on Training Peaks’ website if you are unfamiliar or need a refresher. Whatever you follow, you need to know the intensity and duration of your training. Without these metrics, you’re just making blind adaptations, which probably won’t go well.
Quarterly / Semi-annually
Body Composition – This deserves a place here as well. If you are not tracking this metric every 4-6 weeks, then you’ll definitely want to check it a few times per year!
Blood Tests – After your initial blood work at the beginning of the season, you’ll surely have some things you need to reassess. If your iron levels were low and you’ve been supplementing, you’ll want to recheck that. Likewise, athletes need to ensure that an increased training load has not led to any problems. A quick test every 4-6 months is warranted for any active individual with a goal of health and athletic performance.
Strength and Movement Assessment – You underwent this assessment at the beginning of the year, were prescribed some personalized corrective exercises, and have been diligent in doing them regularly. But increased training load and the rigors of competition (and of life in general) can often lead to changing mechanical stressors. A mid-year checkup is often well worth it!
Physiologic Testing – Your goal is to get fitter. You’ve spent months strictly following a training plan with the aim of increasing your aerobic capacity and the speed at which you can compete. How do you know you’ve been optimally successful? You need to retest! A repeat lactate threshold test, +/- VO2max, at mid-season is crucial to ensuring your training plan is responsive and continues to stress you appropriately.