Beyond Bodies

Smarter resting leads to better training

New software helps determine the necessary recovery for optimal sports performance

November 4, 2011

With the 2012 Olympics coming up next summer, I’m sure many athletes are asking themselves, “Am I training enough? Or am I training too much?” Ask any athlete: Finding the perfect balance between work and rest is practically an Olympic sport itself, which is why some of the most common injuries are due to overtraining, especially in running.
On a recent return trip to Stanford, where I spent thousands of hours training (and sometimes overtraining!) for the soccer team, I had the chance to sit down with Phil Cutti, the director of the university’s Human Performance Lab (HPL). The HPL is a research center that works with both student-athletes and the School of Medicine (where a few years ago I had the pleasure of participating in several studies, such as the excruciatingly painful VO2 max test.)

Cutti was an integral part of the development of Restwise, an innovative software that aims to help athletes find their optimal balance of training and recovery. Using a series of fatigue indicators, Restwise quantifies one’s state of recovery, allowing athletes to better understand how much they should be pushing or resting their bodies.

Though I’m not training quite as hard as I used to, I’m still an avid soccer player and runner, so I figured I’d try out Restwise myself. Restwise let me demo the software for free, but normally a six month subscription costs around $120 and includes a pulse oximeter, a device used to measure blood oxygen saturation levels, two of several Restwise markers used to quantify overtraining.

Although there are alternative methods to monitor recovery, such as blood tests or saliva samples, Restwise is a simpler and less invasive tool. Omega Wave is a similar tool to monitor recovery, but its cost is “well into five figures” and requires a more significant time commitment, according to Restwise executive Jeff Hunt. The Omega Wave, however, does have the option of specialized reports for specific sports.

“It turns out there are a lot of simple markers that have been studied alongside more invasive testing like blood tests, hormone level analysis, et cetera,” said Hunt in an email exchange. “We compiled these into an algorithm that weighs each marker according to the strength of the science behind it.”

The algorithm uses markers such as hours of sleep, urine color and muscle soreness to generate a daily recovery score. Elite athletes (or even wannabes like myself) can use Restwise to track their recovery levels, as well as their performance, during periods of “good” or “bad” recovery.

So what exactly do you have to do? It’s pretty simple, actually. Every morning before I get out of bed I use the pulse oximeter to determine my oxygen saturation level as well as resting heart rate. I do one of my usual workouts, varying in intensity, and make mental notes about my energy level. At the end of the day I input all of the data into the algorithm and get a recovery score along with a brief interpretation of what this score means.

Restwise's pulse oximeter measures your blood's oxygen levels as a way to gauge fatigue.

This is typically a pretty general statement, such as “you are showing minor signs of reduced recovery, but you seem to be absorbing the work load well and should feel confident in continuing to train.” Thus far I’ve found the software to be pretty accurate – after I flew back on a red-eye flight my next few days of training were much harder and my recovery score fluctuated around 60. After two weeks of using the software, my recovery score is usually in the 80-90 range.

Below the score each day is a graph, which I’ve found to be the most beneficial part of the software. The graph shows my recovery score plotted over time, so I can see that after a few hard days of training my score will dip down and I need to recover longer. More importantly, it also shows me the individual components that made up the score, allowing me to see which areas need improvement or reasons why I might have increased fatigue (like the first day of a menstrual cycle, which is one of the parameters.) Definitely the biggest factor in my recovery score has been sleep, which is always the most variable for me.

Restwise is a bit counter-intuitive at times, especially for endorphin-craving people like myself. It’s weird to see that I might actually need to rest for longer than I want. However, I think this software would have been particularly helpful during soccer pre-season training when rest days were given arbitrarily; instead my coaches could’ve known exactly the right times to let us recover. Understanding when, and why, the body needs rest is largely overlooked as a critical aspect of sports performance.

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Allison T. McCann has a B.S. in science, technology and society from Stanford University, an interdisciplinary major that sparked an interest in all things that swipe, zoom, beep, fly or otherwise involve cool technology. How does that work? is the eternal question that lingers in her thoughts during long runs along the Hudson. A born and raised California girl, she’s a bit nervous about the New York winters, but is very excited to continue writing about science and technology at SHERP. Follow her on Twitter.

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