In the sports performance world, hard work is glorified and celebrated more than almost anything else. Hard work is table stakes. It’s a prerequisite at the highest levels.
For athletes who’ve been brought up in a culture that glorifies hard work and a “more is better” attitude, what they really need to reach their potential is to slow down. Counterintuitive, right?
Top performing athletes and their trainers recognize the future of performance lies in the ability to train smarter and recover faster, in perfect balance between the two.
Heart Rate Variability (‘HRV’): The Overall Indicator for Recovery
After a decade of research and working with the industry’s top experts, I believe finding this balance all comes back to Heart Rate Variability (‘HRV’).
HRV is a measure of the time difference between each heartbeat. A high HRV indicates that your heart responds effectively to physiological changes, and vice-versa. It’s controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS is divided into two large components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response.
The sympathetic ANS controls the “fight-or-flight” response. The parasympathetic ANS controls the “rest-and-digest” response.
Tracking HRV effectively gives us direct insight into the activation of the ANS. When HRV is high, that shows the two parts of the system are in-sync, and that athletes are well-recovered.
When athletes make changes, whether around nutrition, sleep, or more, you’ll see a direct connection to HRV.
It’s the simplest metric that shows how the nervous system is reacting to all our life’s stresses, with physical or emotion.
HRV will decrease not only in response to a poor night of sleep, but also to the stress from a sour interaction with a coach, to the excitement of scoring a big goal, and to the extra steps to stay hydrated.
It reads all of our stimuli.
When athletes have consistent stresses from bad habits, like sleep routines, an unhealthy diet, a problematic relationship, or poor work habits, then the balance gets thrown off.
The instinct when hearing this may be to ease back on the workload in training and practice.
However, peak performance does not involve putting in less work, but being able to recover so you can go even harder. The reality is that most athletes aren’t over-trained, they’re under-recovered.
The 360-Degree Approach to Unlock Performance
Like stated above, unlocking peak performance requires focus on both parts of the equation: stress and the body’s ability to adapt.
Throughout my experience working with 100’s of elite athletes in the NCAA, NFL, NHL, and more, I’ve found that coaches almost always stray from the equally crucial “recovery” end of the spectrum.
When looking at HRV data, on a device like a WHOOP Strap, I consistently find that when athletes incorporate routines and practices into their daily protocols to manage their stress in all major areas outside of training, their HRV increases. Whether it was sleep routines, good eating habits, or practices to manage stress, their recovery, and performance skyrocketed.
Over time, that’s how the “8 Controllables Framework” developed. It started by thinking about the foundational pillars that athletes can control and leverage, like nutrition and sleep. From there, it evolved into a comprehensive framework that could be applied to all athletes.
The 8 Controllables: A Framework to Unlock Recovery & Improve Your HRV
- Stress Management
- Immune Function
The reason they’re called “Controllables” is simple: they’re variables that athletes can control and implement into their protocol to have real, tangible effects on their bodies’ ability to recover and adaptability to stress, measured by Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
As this framework developed, it started with the obvious factors: nutrition, sleep, and hydration. But as I tested and tweaked with athletes, I found that it was about so much more. Athletes could be doing “everything right,” but if they were stressed with school, or were in the wrong environment, or had the wrong mindset, that showed up in the HRV scores.
Eventually, it developed to encompass these 8 categories athletes can draw from to influence their recovery.
The 8 Controllables Provide a Framework for Recovery
Athletes who don’t fuel their body well have little chance of recovering from training and competition at the collegiate level.
In the spirit of giving athletes actionable steps, you’ll actually want to avoid complex macronutrient equations. The foundation of habits haven’t been created. You want your athletes to act first, then supplement with more structure and knowledge. So start with the “3-2-1 Rule.”
- 3 daily meals
- 2 pieces of fruit per day
- 1 big salad per day with a lean protein source
If they can form these habits, they’re already ahead of the average collegiate athlete. Now they can get into more complexities, like specific food sources, meal timing, and nutrition around training.
The negative impact of sleep is often underappreciated. From pre-bed routines, to morning routines, to setting up a “sleep sanctuary,” improving sleep habits is one of the most fruitful interventions for enhancing recovery and performance. We also have a 3-2-1 Rule for sleep that covers a lot of common sleep hygiene problems:
- 3 hours before bed — no exercise
- 2 hours before bed — no screens
- 1 hour before bed — a relaxing activity
Within this, there’s a ton of flexibility and autonomy for athletes to find a routine that they want to form. For example, that relaxing activity can vary from yoga to journaling to card games.
Athletes that hydrate poorly often drink a ton of water around training, but then forget to drink enough fluids and electrolytes apart from the training facility. One simple intervention we encourage for athletes is to drink 24 ounces of water within a few minutes of waking up, ideally with electrolytes like sea salt added.
Another habit that well-recovered athletes build is to drink half of their bodyweight in ounces throughout the day, not counting what they drink around and during training.
You’ve already created the training programs you want your athletes completing, so let’s move our attention from exercise that improves performance, to exercise that improves recovery.
Recovery-centric movement plays a huge role in recovery. Whether it’s a foam roller or yoga routine before bed, or a regular afternoon walk in the sunlight to support mental health, recovery-centric movement should find a place in every athlete’s routine.
All of the previous controllables constitute varying forms of stress, but self-care specifically addresses the life stressors we think about. Remember, recovery is about a holistic approach. If athletes are stressed about classes or their social life, that will affect their performance.
Self-care is about just that: encouraging athletes to do what’s needed so they can remove or pacify stressors that reduce recovery.
One self-care habit example is starting the day with 20 minutes of working on the most pressing activity. For college athletes who often put off their most stressful assignment, this nudge can help them get ahead of schoolwork.
Even if all of an athlete’s habits are dialed in, a 3-day decrease in HRV tells them that their body isn’t adapting to stress. In this circumstance, they’re like a castle with its armed guards missing.
Knowing their capacity is lower, you can use HRV data to determine when to hand out extra zinc, Vitamin D, and other supplements that stop illnesses proactively, and reboot their recovery.
In the Own It App, a three-day decrease in HRV alerts an athlete to the decrease, and then suggests strategies to get ahead, like Vitamin D supplementation.
Environment is about a longer-term approach to encourage an athlete to think about everything they surround themselves with. We know that we become who we surround ourselves with, and that concept extends towards the rest of our surroundings. That includes everything from the music we hear, the streets we walk in, the workspace we choose, to the scents in our home.
Lastly, you can use mindset as a Controllable to improve recovery. We know many of the world’s best athletes hial the importance of their mindset on their performance. At the highest levels, this is where athletes can be proactive about seeking out sports psychologists or other mindset professionals (which is a part of the “inner energy” framework in Own It Coaching).
How to Apply The 8 Controllables
Reading all 8 of these, and the possible interventions, should be overwhelming if you’re planning to apply this all at once.
That’s not the goal.
The goal is to leverage data, like HRV, and the above variables to see which habits can have the biggest impact on recovery and readiness.
Behavioral psychology has proved over and over that trying to make too many behavior changes at once more often leads to abandoning all of them. Installing each new habit takes time and attention, however, as James Clear writes in his mega-bestseller Atomic Habits, small habits work like compounding interest.
The ‘8 Controllable’s’ framework along with tracking and measuring outcomes through HRV empowers athletes to develop sustainable habits over a longer period of time, and helps athletes pinpoint which variables have the biggest impact on their recovery. Once that first habit becomes part of their routine, they can move on to the next habit that will continue to support their recovery each and every day.
Start Putting HRV and Recovery at The Forefront of Your Program
This whole process begins and ends with putting HRV and recovery at the forefront of your program. In the OWN IT Coaching System, powered by WHOOP, our mission is to help coaches and athletes get there faster.
Our team of certified sports scientists and HRV data interpretation experts have worked with 100’s of athletes to empower them to train smarter and build programs that balance training load with optimal recovery, and put sustainable habit change at the center of their development.
For more information and to get in touch, you can talk to us directly and book a demo today.