Making progress depends on understanding what phase of your training you’re in. When people first start out, they imagine that by working out consistently and attacking their goals, they will slowly but surely achieve what they set out to achieve.
While consistency is your training is absolutely key, progress does not follow a linear path. There will be some phases of your training where you’ll make incredible progress over the span of a few weeks. Then, even though you’re still training, your body enters a different phase where it won’t shed fat or build muscle because it’s in an overreaching stage
These undulations are part of the training process. Training progress, in reality, is a set of short bursts combined with plateaus for recovery. Over time, with consistent training, the peaks and valleys of progress will average out to a straight line
But, this starts by understanding the 4 stages of training.
In any training state, we can either be in an optimal or maintenance stage, a functional overreaching stage, a nonfunctional overreaching stage, or a restorative state.
The Optimal or Maintenance Phase
This phase of your training cycle is what we would consider “normal.” We’re training consistently and effectively, but we’re not pushing ourselves to our limits or trying new forms of training. This maintenance phase is essential, but if you always stay in this phase, your body will eventually see no reason to continue to make progress. In other words, you will plateau.
In this phase, our HRV and resting heart rate hover in our normal range.
The Functional Overreaching Stage
In the functional overreaching stage, we’re pushing our training to challenge our bodies more, adding additional stress. To make progress, this extra push is vital. Here, you won’t yet see or feel the fruits of all your labor. In fact, you’ll start to see some of the opposite at first: slight decreases in HRV and increases in resting heart rate.
As we’ve talked about before, the HRV score taken from our wearable device while we sleep measures the internal strain on the body. The more strain we’re putting on externally — in the form of increased workout load — the more we’re going to see the HRV gradually go down.
But if we’re balancing our workouts, other everyday stresses, , and recovery, we’re going to see HRV go up and down. Your HRV curve will decrease from the added workout stress, then increase back up. When your HRV is slightly undulating like this, you’re in a functional overreaching stage.
The Nonfunctional Overreaching Stage
This is synonymous with overtraining. And it’s the one stage you don’t want to get to. This is where we overreach too much in our training, and we’re not giving our bodies enough rest and recovery to bounce back form the strain we’re placing on it. Here we start to see a chronic decrease in HRV and a chronic increase in resting heart rate. We’re going to be more irritable, our sleep will start to suffer, we’ll have more body soreness than usual. Those are all signs that you’re in a nonfunctional overreaching stage.
The Restorative State
The restorative state comes after the overreaching stage. It’s where you’re placing less strain on the body than normal. Paradoxically, even though in this stage you’ll be training less, it’s when you’ll actually see the progress. Only as we recover can our body actually gather the resources to build muscle, burn fat, and increase performance. This is what performance coaches often call the “deload.”
HRV And The 4 Stages of Training
If you’re using any type of wearable (Whoop Band, Fitbit, Oura Ring, and more), monitor your HRV. Make sure you don’t have four or five days in a row of a decreasing HRV. That’s a sign you’re in the only stage you don’t want to enter: the nonfunctional overreaching stage. If you are, you need to have some type of intervention, such as extra sleep or a decrease in your exercise level.
Now, the other aspect is resting heart rate. If it increases 4 days in a row, you need to intervene.
Keep in mind, increased training load is not the only variable that causes a decrease in HRV and an increase in resting heart rate. Stress, sleep, nutrition, immune systems function, all play a role. But if we’re just talking about exercise, be sure to understand those four stages: maintenance phase, functional overreaching, nonfunctional overreaching, and restorative.
By looking at your HRV trends, you can know what stage you’re in and use that information to adjust your training and recovery.