Your Coach as a Stress Manager

by | Aug 12, 2016 | application, health, performance

Physical training is one of the most potent stressors that draws many people to learning about Heart Rate Variability.

The stress of physical exercise and athletic training have a strong impact on the body, but they don’t exist in a void. In this post, we cover how physical training fits into the big picture of a trainee’s life and give you a template for how to get the best results from your training.

We will also frame this from the point of view of a coach-client relationship. Because let’s face it, if you’re serious about improving your health and performance, you are working with a coach – at least periodically.

 

Coach-Client Success

For most people, getting “a little more fit” is easy – at least temporarily. All of the information you need to do is available for free on the internet (though for many it basically would start with spending less time on the internet).

When it comes to actually making big, targeted gains in performance and fitness in the shortest amount of time and with the least chance of failure, nothing gets you better results than working with a quality coach or trainer. There is no app, genetic giftedness, or stroke of luck that can replace the combination of hard work, an effective training plan, and the right guidance and support.

Training and Everything Else

The original reason someone begins to work with a coach is often very specific. Maybe the client is training for a triathlon, wants to increase his/her explosiveness, or is recovering from an injury. The first job of a coach is to come up with a targeted plan to tackle those specific performance goals.

But it doesn’t stop there. A coach also has to, and in some cases is expected to, address a wide variety of baggage that each client brings with them. Nutrition, sleep, work, school, relationships, the environment, etc. are all sources of stress. Cumulatively, they can have a significant impact on the client’s ability to recover from and adapt to training.

In order to be get the best results for a client, as Dr. Mike T. Nelson puts it, “the coach has to become a stress manager.” It is a very difficult job to keep track of so many variables that can affect each client or trainee, but taking a cookie cutter approach or ignoring these other factors leads to mediocre results at best. Fortunately, there are tools and processes that can make it much easier.

In order to be get the best results for a client a “coach has to become a stress manager.”

 

Measuring Cumulative Training and Stress Load

Since training load and life stress load have a similar impact on the body’s resources, having an objective measure of the total picture can be very useful.

This is of course where Heart Rate Variability comes in.

Whether the body is overloaded with life stress or is experiencing the desired training stress, Heart Rate Variability will indicate when total stress load increases and decreases.

By measuring HRV alongside basic subjective or contextual information, you can determine whether training is the largest impact on the trainee’s body and/or whether lifestyle factors might be taxing the trainee’s system.

 

Non-Training Training Factors

Physical training does not happen in a void. For all trainees, the targeted stress of training is just one stress on the system that is competing for the same resources as all other stressors.

A big challenge is that even if an athlete is training 15 hours a week, there are still 153 other hours in the week that are not part of the structured training plan but still demand resources from the body.

A big challenge is that even if an athlete is training 15 hours a week, there are still 153 other hours in the week that are not part of the structured training plan but still demand resources from the body.

Let’s take a look at a few potent stressors and how they might affect training.

School and Work. School and work often require a great deal of mental exertion. An exam or stressful meeting can trigger the Sympathetic branch of the nervous system the same way that a workout can. Aside from sapping energy and motivation, the body also mobilizes the fight or flight resources needed for physical performance at a time when they aren’t necessary. This can lead to unnecessary body fat storage, changes in insulin sensitivity, and other deleterious side effects.

These situations are often unavoidable, but it is detectable with HRV if they are impacting the body significantly. If discovered, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the damage or compensate for it in the recovery phase.

Environmental Stress. Air quality, water quality, noise pollution, and artificial lighting at night can all have cumulative effects on the body. For an athlete, these can be like wearing a weighted vest all the time without any of the benefits.

Drinking high quality water and avoiding artificial light at night are two environmental factors that are controllable and can make a significant difference in both recovery and total stress load.

Social and Psychological Stress. Social stress is huge. Relationships and social situations can impact mindset, motivation, focus and energy levels. Not only that, but the demands of training, nutrition, and other recovery needs can often conflict with the social goals of an individual trainee.

These and other psychological stressors can be tricky to handle. But as we covered in our case study on pain and anxiety (https://hrvcourse.com/hrv-chronic-pain-anxiety/), HRV can be an objective measure as to whether these factors are holding back the progress of a trainee.

Alcohol. This will be short but deserves its own section. Alcohol consumption can be a huge stress on the system. Some individuals handle a moderate quantity of alcohol fine, others don’t understand moderation, and many others can’t handle it in any quantity. Heart Rate Variability is very sensitive to alcohol consumption in individuals that overdo it or do not tolerate it well.

There are many other factors, but these are a few common factors that impact training, stress load, and recovery.

 

Recovery

We’ve hammered the concept that training is designed to elicit specific adaptations in the body to ultimately increase performance. But it is actually the recovery from that training that produces the supercompensation and adaptation that a trainee needs to improve and make progress. Not getting adequate recovery is like hitting the gas pedal and the breaks at the same time.

It is actually the recovery from that training that produces the supercompensation and adaptation that a trainee needs to improve and make progress.

So it’s no surprise that a coach must be aware of the recovery parameters of a trainee in order to get them the best results.

Recovery Factors and Heart Rate Variability

The cumulative quality and quantity of recovery that a trainee gets will have a huge impact on their body’s total stress load. If HRV Coefficient of Variation (the amount of HRV fluctuation from day-to-day) is high and/or total HRV is decreasing then that means that stress load is high and recovery might need to be boosted. Let’s look at how HRV is typically impacted by various recovery factors.

If HRV Coefficient of Variation (the amount of HRV fluctuation from day-to-day) is high and/or total HRV is decreasing then that means that stress load is high and recovery might need to be boosted.

Sleep Quality. When the quality of sleep is down, but the quantity is the same, HRV will often decrease the following morning. If the trainee regularly experiences poor sleep quality, they will not be able to recover adequately from an increased training load which would generally be indicated by decreasing HRV scores over the long term.

Along with erratic or dropping HRV values, poor sleep quality is associated with swings in motivation, focus, and mood.

Along with erratic or dropping HRV values, poor sleep quality is associated with swings in motivation, focus, and mood.

Sleep Quantity. Similar to low sleep quality, HRV will decrease over time if the trainee is regularly not getting enough sleep.

One night of abnormally low or high sleep quantity can often be compensated for, and may register as a drop or increase in HRV the following morning depending on what phase of sleep the athlete awoke from and current levels of Parasympathetic activation.

Nutrition. Dietary choices can be very restorative or very toxic (and of course somewhere in between).

Individuals vary widely in their nutritional needs for meeting the demands of training. In general, there are 3 key points for nutrition:

  1. Deficiencies – A trainee must consume enough micro and macro nutrients to meet their training demands.
  2. Toxicity – A trainee can overeat micro or macro nutrients which causes an additional burden on the system in order to process or expel the excess nutrients.
  3. Allergens and intolerances – If an athlete is consuming foods that their body doesn’t tolerate, the body takes defensive measures against those foods. Not only can this waste resources better spent on training recovery, but it can also decrease the efficiency of nutrient uptake for the other, nutritious, foods that they consume. This can cause the athlete to need to eat more than necessary to obtain the needed nutrients or lead to deficiencies from malabsorption.

If an athlete is not eating or absorbing the building blocks needed to recover from training, long term results will stall or backslide and long term HRV can decrease.

If an athlete is not eating or absorbing the building blocks needed to recover from training, long term results will stall or backslide and long term HRV can decrease.

Active Recovery. Active recovery techniques are techniques that stimulate circulation, waste removal, and nutrient delivery and activate the nervous system without excessively taxing the system. Some examples include light, concentric exercise, various therapies, and meditation or breathing practice.

Active recovery techniques can increase or decrease HRV depending on the desired affect and goal. For example, warm water therapy is good for addressing low HRV while cold water therapy is useful when dealing with an abnormally high HRV. Meditation and breathing practice are proven to activate the Parasympathetic branch, increase vagal tone, and increase HRV.

Active recovery techniques are techniques that stimulate circulation, waste removal, and nutrient delivery and activate the nervous system without excessively taxing the system.

Recovery Mistakes

Significant changes in Heart Rate Variability can indicate when a trainee needs to prioritize recovery in order to keep up with the demands of training and life. But this does not necessarily mean the training plan needs to be altered…

Recovery Mistake #1 – Altering The Training Plan

The first reaction to signs of overreaching is often to reduce the volume, intensity or overall training load.

This is a valid method of allowing an athlete to recover and is definitely necessary sometimes, especially in cases of true over-training or when there is a potential for injury. The mistake is when this is the first course of action.

The training plan was designed to get the athlete the best results from the start, assuming the program properly considered the trainee’s individual starting point and condition. If the trainee is not able to keep up with the plan, the first step should be to address recovery parameters and life stressors where possible. This of course assumes that increases in physical performance are one of the top goals of the trainee.

Effectively adjusting life stressors and recovery parameters first allows the trainee to stick to the original training plan and continue achieving the best results.

Recovery Mistake #2 – Increasing Recovery Quantity Before Quality

Recovery is often treated as a black and white topic. Some think that to prioritize recovery is just to train less or rest more. You’re either recovering, or you aren’t. This approach is oversimplified and leaves a lot on the table.

As a coach, it is difficult to tell your trainee that they will need to cut back on training in order to recover more effectively. Cutting back on training feels as if you may not reach the original goals you had anticipated. Rather than focusing first on increasing the time spent recovering, the first step should be to increase the quality of existing recovery time.

Rather than focusing first on increasing the time spent recovering, the first step should be to increase the quality of existing recovery time.

This means filling micronutrient and macronutrient gaps, teaching the client how to increase the quality of their sleep, or having them perform deep breathing techniques on their daily commute.

Recovery Mistake #3 – Recovery Takes A Lot Of Time

When it comes to performing under time and pressure constraints, the military and special forces are elite performers. The MAGIS Group teaches these elite and time constrained performers that recovery does not have to be a large, time consuming event.

Yes – getting adequate sleep and taking time off from training are important. But there are also, small techniques you can do throughout the day to boost your body’s ability to recover. The MAGIS Group calls these “micro recovery” techniques.

Every trainee has time to perform deep, Parasympathetic activation breathing for 60 seconds between appointments in the day – even in the restroom or car. Similarly, two or more minutes of light stretching in the morning and evening can help the lymphatic system remove waste and promote blood flow, nutrient delivery, and tissue repair.

All these “micro-recoveries” built into a day can add up. By simply promoting Parasympathetic activation in small amounts throughout a busy day, it has been anecdotally found that it is easier to decompress and activate the Parasympathetic recovery systems during more dedicated rest periods.

 

Conclusion

Training is one of many stressors competing for the body’s resources. To get the best results a good coach must be aware of and, in many cases, help manage and mitigate the other life stressors that a trainee experiences.

First, by increasing the quality of a trainee’s existing recovery factors, a coach can boost the trainee’s trainability without having to reduce training load. In cases of high life stress, training may suffer and additional emphasis on recovery may be necessary.

It can seem difficult to manage stress from so many sources, but tools like Heart Rate Variability can help guide the coach and the trainee towards finding which factors affect the trainee’s progress the most.

Interested in learning more about the science behind HRV and how monitoring it can help improve your health and performance? Get access to the “Foundations of Heart Rate Variability” course in August!

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2017 enrollment is currently closed

The Foundations of Heart Rate Variability Course will open again later this year.

Feedback from participants has been so positive, that we will continue offering periodic short enrollment periods to keep the quality of the experience as high as possible. Since enrollment will be limited, we will be announcing first to those who have registered interest here.

Thank you! You will be the first to know when the course enrollment opens.

2017 enrollment is currently closed

 

The Foundations of Heart Rate Variability Course will open again later this year.

Feedback from participants has been so positive, that we will continue offering periodic short enrollment periods to keep the quality of the experience as high as possible. Since enrollment will be limited, we will be announcing first to those who have registered interest here.

Thank you! You will be one of the first to be notified when the course next opens enrollment.

2017 enrollment is currently closed

 

The Foundations of Heart Rate Variability Course will open again later this year.

Feedback from participants has been so positive, that we will continue offering periodic short enrollment periods to keep the quality of the experience as high as possible. Since enrollment will be limited, we will be announcing first to those who have registered interest here.

Thank you! You will be one of the first to be notified when the course next opens enrollment.