One of the more common questions I get from clients is…
“Should I exercise today?”
This is not because they are being lazy, they usually have a reason for why they are asking this question.
Maybe it’s because they didn’t sleep well, they had a long day at work, their nutrition was off, they feel sore, their heart rate variability was low, or in the case of menstruating females, they entered a certain point in their cycle.
For the most part my answer is always the same…
Sorry, I know you were hoping for a definitive answer but the fact of the matter is only you can make that call.
While I can’t give you a definitive answer to the question of should you exercise, I can walk you through the same process I walk clients through in order to try to make the right decision.
Step 1: Assess Sleep
When it comes to recovery and being able to exercise, sleep is by far the biggest rock. Our sleep is critical for proper physiological and mental function. We have all tried to exercise after a rough night of sleep and felt the effects…IT SUCKS!
While sleep is one of the most important factors as to whether or not you should modify your exercise or not, it is not black and white.
What I mean is I don’t think if you have one poor night of sleep you should immediately scrap all plans to exercise and on the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t think that if you had an excellent night of sleep that you are free and clear and should proceed as planned.
In either case you need to assess other metrics which we will talk about below.
However long term patterns in either direction (good sleep or bad sleep) will warrant more and more caution.
For example, if I had a client who had a week of poor sleep and they have pushed through 2 exercise sessions already that week, I am more likely to have them modify or scrap an exercise session all together only because the total sleep burden is beginning to pile up and is not improving.
Similarly if I had a client who had a week of poor sleep but only 2 days of fairly good sleep, I still might have them modify their exercise to make sure we don’t backslide into another subsequent poor sleep pattern over the coming days.
How do you know if you slept well or not?
The easiest way to know is to wake up, sit down, and assess how your night of sleep went. Do this before doing anything else in your day. Give yourself a 1-10 score, 1 being the worst night sleep, 10 being the best nights sleep ever. If you have some kind of sleep tracker do this before looking at the data, YOUR SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE TRUMPS ANY KIND OF SLEEP TRACKER! You do not want a tracker with potentially inaccurate data to influence your rating.
Should you take into consideration what your sleep tracker says when assessing your sleep?
Potentially, but at the end of the day these things are better at assessing trends in your sleep over the long term than they are at determining how good your sleep was in an acute sense.
Step 2: Asses Energy Levels
The next step is to assess your energy levels.
This is pretty straightforward, do you have enough energy to do the exercise you have planned for the day?
This again is not a black or white answer.
Sometimes energy might be low going into the workout because you had a rough morning at work and it was just draining. However a good workout might give you the energetic boost you need to finish the day strong.
Then there are the days that from the moment you wake up you are “dragging ass”…there is no amount of caffeine that can break you out of the energy crisis you are in. You eat a solid meal and still don’t have it. On these days it is probably worthwhile modifying your exercise or scrapping it all together.
Step 3: Are You Recovered From Your Previous Workout?
Sometimes you do a workout and you overreach. You probably know it even before your day is done because you can feel the soreness setting in already. Then you wake up the next morning and it hurts to even think about getting out of bed. This is not OK.
A little soreness is fine, in fact I personally find that I tend to have better workouts when I am a little sore sometimes. However, if doing your daily tasks is an absolute grind and you are popping pain relievers like it is candy, it’s probably OK to give yourself an extra day or two to rest and recover.
Step 4: Assess Desire To Train
Some days you will have all the energy in the world to hit the gym. Other days you would rather have your teeth drilled than work out. This is natural, your desire to train is going to fluctuate on a variety of factors. Just like many of the other things we have talked about, acute changes in your desire to train are nothing to worry about. In fact on days where your desire to train is low, once you get into the workout things usually improve.
The thing to look out for is if you start to have several days in the row where your desire to train is low. This is a sign that you probably need a rest day or at the very least need to modify the workout you are planning to do.
Step 5: Asses Heart Rate Variability Data
Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the variability in between your heart beats. Most people think their heart beats in a constant rhythm, but in reality there is a slight difference in the time in between your heart beats. The more variability between your heart rate the more relaxed (parasympathetic) you are. The less variability between heart rates, the more stressed (sympathetic) you are. To learn more about heart rate variability and how you can measure it you can read my blog post here
Just like many of the other metrics we have talked about, acute changes in HRV are really nothing to worry about, they are expected. Similarly downward trends are a sign the body is excessively stressed and will almost always correlate with negative trends in the other metrics as well.
This brings me to the overarching theme of this post…
When deciding to modify your exercise or completely skipping a workout you need to look at all the variables, and listen to your body. If you can clear away all the noise, both internally and externally and tune into some of the things above you can develop an intuitive sense about how you should workout and what your body needs on that day. Ask any one of my clients and they will tell you that I almost always ask a number of very detailed questions when it comes to assessing how to modify a workout…you can do the same. Ask yourself how was your sleep, how is your stress, how is your motivation, etc. Look at the answers and you have your answer….don’t overthink it.
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