How Stress Affects Recovery • Common Purpose

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How Stress Affects Recovery


Words by Tiago

Published 30th December 2020

Approximately 5 Minutes Reading Time

Brief Article Overview

  • Stress can be either beneficial or detrimental to our health and wellbeing. Acute stress in the right context can be positive but left in a chronic state, it can also be debilitating.

  • Managing stress requires identifying and reducing unnecessary, excessive or chronic exposure, whilst simultaneously using it to purposefully increase one’s stress resilience.

  • Stress resilience is built by achieving a balanced interaction between stress exposure and recovery. Repeated stress-recovery cycles produce the adaptation of stress-resilience over time.

  • It’s difficult to intuitively gauge adequate recovery from a given bout of stress.

  • We suggest, therefore, measuring recovery by using reliable proxies in real-time, which help guide future training considerations and recovery strategies.

  • We outline four simple measurements that can be used to track and monitor an individuals recovery; 1) Mindful check-in (self-assessed energy levels and mood). 2) Sleep performance (regularity, quality and quantity). 3) Resting heart rate. 4) Heart rate variability.

  • By using a Multitrait-multimethod approach, combining all four techniques will give the most reliable and accurate measurement of recovery.

Introduction – Two Ends of a Spectrum

Stress and recovery can be viewed as two ends of a spectrum. At one end we are in a state of “rest and digest”, and at the other, we are in a state of “fight, flight or freeze”. Most of our time spent fluctuating between these two modes of being. This is so in-built within our physiology that the nervous system which runs largely without conscious control, known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), can be divided into two distinct pathways

  1. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – mediates recovery processes.

  2. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – mediates the stress response.

Finding Balance 

Life is full of stressors. In the context of human health, we can simply define a stressor as something that puts the bodily system under strain or tension (physiological or psychological) and therefore elicits a stress response, which is mediated largely by the SNS. This stress-response is then perceived as a state of stress.

As much as stress is given a bad rap, it is not inherently good or bad. The body has evolved a stress response to survive. The right kind of stress in the right context can elicit a stress-response which we perceive to be positive (excitement or arousal for example) and provide the stimulus for beneficial adaptations. This is known as achieving a state of eustress. A good example of this is the use of physical exercise (which is a stressor) as a tool to elicit the beneficial adaptation of improved physical fitness.

When stress levels exceed an individuals tolerance (often perceived as feeling “out of control”), and especially if this stress state becomes chronic, it is sure to be detrimental to ones physical and mental health. This is known as distress. The goal, therefore, is not to get rid of stress entirely, but to identify and manage stress exposure, as well as increasing one’s stress resilience over time.

The ability to transition from a state of stress to a state of recovery allows for the optimal development of stress resilience. Monitoring stress and recovery will provide important insights, which can highlight any discrepancies in this regard, or identify underlying chronic conditions. Each of these should be taken into consideration when providing exercise training advice and recovery strategies. 

Averages and Baselines

When measuring and tracking any health parameter, it is good practice to first gather enough data to form a baseline. Although normative data (averages amongst large groups or whole populations) are useful for comparison and to form targets, don’t get hung up on specific numbers at first, just gauge what’s “normal” for you. Future measurements will be compared to your baseline to identify deviations from the norm and track trends over time.

Measuring Stress and Recovery 

Here are four techniques we like to use when monitoring stress and recovery;

1. Mindful Check-in

No fancy equipment needed here, just take a few minutes to check in with yourself. Life can get hectic sometimes, so the ability to pause and reflect can be hugely beneficial when trying to gauge your stress levels. Here are some example questions you can ask yourself when doing so;

    1. Am I feeling slow or lethargic? 
    2. Am I feeling demotivated? 
    3. Am I experiencing brain fog or forgetting things frequently? 
    4. Am I experiencing chronic or persistent aches and pains? 

Answering a strong yes to any of these is an indication that you may need to spend some time focusing on recovery and/or adjust your training program.

2. Sleep Performance

Sleep is vital when it comes to recovery, stress management and health in general. The regularity, quality and quantity of your sleep is the foundation on which all other recovery practices are built. Sleep requirements change from person to person and throughout different stages of life. To give you an idea of how much sleep you should be aiming for, the National Sleep Foundation has provided recommended sleep time amongst different age groups;

There are some great apps out there (Sleep Cycle and Sleep Score for example) that use movement and sound detection to measure your sleep performance. It’s difficult to know how accurate they are when it comes to measuring sleep quality, but we find them really useful at measuring general sleep patterns, sleep onset latency, regularity and quantity.

Note* – We think the topic of sleep is so important, that we’ve written two separate articles on the matter; The Importance of Getting Enough Sleep and How Does Sleep Affect Weight Loss?

3. Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

Resting heart rate is a good proxy for heart health, cardiovascular fitness and the state of your autonomic nervous system. A lot of smartwatches nowadays will automatically monitor your heart rate throughout the day, noting the lowest recorded number as your resting heart rate. Alternatively, you can buy a good Bluetooth chest strap (we like the Polar H10), which connects to your smartphone via an app, with which you can measure your heart rate when you’re fully relaxed. You can then compare this number to normative data by age and gender: 

When collecting resting heart rate data to form a baseline, it should be measured at the same time of the day and in the same position (seated or lying down for example). Once a baseline is established you can then compare future readings against it, to gauge your recovery. A resting heart rate at or near baseline is usually an indication of optimal recovery, whereas a significant increase from the norm suggests inadequate recovery and/or a state of increased stress.

4. Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV is the measure of the difference of time intervals (usually R-R intervals) between successive heartbeats. It is a powerful and reliable indicator of the state of your autonomic nervous system, which reflects either a parasympathetic or sympathetic tone. A high HRV indicates a high parasympathetic tone and a low HRV indicates a high sympathetic tone. 

Measuring your HRV is similar to measuring your RHR, however, you will need a specific app or software which can calculate HRV from the data provided by your heart rate monitor (Elite HRV are currently the industry leaders).

The technology and the use of HRV as a health metric are still relatively new and although normative data is beginning to emerge, it’s becoming apparent that HRV is highly relative to the individual. Most HRV software, therefore, requires a minimum number of data points in order to provide accurate analyses, which becomes more reliable over time. Elite HRV, for example, displays readiness scores in terms of “relative balance”. If your reading is similar to your average, this means you are optimally recovered and ready to go. If your reading skews too far away from your average to either end of the spectrum, this indicates the body is not fully prepared to handle high amounts of stress. 

A Multitrait-Multimethod Approach 

The most accurate and reliable way to determine recovery and stress status is by combining all four techniques, this is known as a multitrait-multimethod approach. Getting the “green light” across the board is a powerful indication that you’re adequately recovered and ready to handle physical and mental stress. Some software, such as the one provided by Whoop, will do this for you and provide you with an overall “recovery score”.


Stress is an inevitable part of life that, because unavoidable, should be monitored to optimise performance, improve recovery and develop stress resilience. Adequate recovery is crucial in order to gain beneficial stress adaptations, for example recovering from exercise sessions to improve fitness or performance.

In this article, we outlined four techniques for measuring and tracking stress and recovery status; 1) Mindful check-in, 2) Sleep performance, 3) Resting heart rate and 4) Heart rate variability.

Each technique can provide valuable insights by itself, but combining all four increases validity and reliability. When collecting data; consistency (same time, same position), frequency (daily or weekly) and volume (number of readings) allows for better data analysis and subsequent interpretation. A large amount of data can provide reliable averages and baselines, which can be used to measure future readings. Daily recovery scores can then be used to guide your training and recovery practices. 


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Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.