Athletes and active individuals have tools at their fingertips to help augment their workouts and keep track of their progress. Everything from new workout philosophies, diet plans, exercise programs, and gadgets can help athletes get past those tough plateaus and reach new heights of performance.
One of the most recent additions to the athletic sphere is the heart rate variability metric (HRV). Physicians first used HRV to analyze patients with irregular heartbeats. The athletic community has recently adopted it as an in-depth performance and recovery metric. Using HRV for athletes can help pinpoint exercise frequency, intensity, and overall training load.
Heart Rate Variability is a metric representing slight beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate. If you were to measure your heart rate and look at the data on an ECG, you would notice that the time between each beat is not the same but varies slightly. This slight variation results from your autonomic nervous system (ANS) actions.
Your heart rate varies relative to the body’s physical needs, such as the need to absorb oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide and experience recovery from physical exercise, sleep, anxiety, stress, illness, and more. In athletes, the activation of systems responsible for athletic activation and rest (modulated by the ANS) changes in response to different intensities and durations of your training regimen.
The ANS is responsible for regulating stress responses throughout the body. Studies have shown that athletes who train with intensity have an increased ability to push their bodies and experience deeper states of rest.
This improved ability demonstrates a healthy activation of both arms of the ANS. HRV monitoring can help athletes get a deeper look into how well this mechanism in the body is working and how well you can adapt to a new training routine, diet, or mid-season alteration.
Why HRV Is Valuable for Athletes
To reach peak performance levels, athletes must find a way to balance intense training with the right amounts of rest and recovery.
Finding this optimal balance between work and recovery is a tough challenge. The main problem is not that athletes don’t work hard enough – they pile on too much work and fail to devote enough time to nutrition, rest, and recovery. A good general rule of thumb is that you should be recovering if you are not working.
Many athletes are unsure how much recovery they need after each quality workout and how much rest to integrate into their monthly and yearly training and performance schedules. Monitoring training load by analyzing heart rate variability trends reveals these amounts.
An athlete’s recovery pattern can make or break their entire training program. Recovery periods give the nervous, endocrine and musculoskeletal systems a break from the traumas of training and the opportunity to carry out some vital repair work. Keep in mind that training creates stress. Physical and mental stress requires time to repair and recover.
HRV measurements inform us of how well the body responds to stress and adapts. In other words, it allows us to see how well it is switching between activation (workouts, performance) and rest and recovery.
A more variable HRV tells us that the ANS responds healthily to the various stimuli and makes the necessary adjustments. When your HRV is less variable, studies suggest that your body is fatigued, and you need to find more balance in your workouts and lifestyle. You need to lessen your training intensity, improve your rest strategies, or both.
For endurance athletes and team sport athletes, finding that critical balance between exercise intensity and proper rest is vital to performing at your best – both physically and mentally. Physical fatigue has a variety of drivers – dehydration, glycogen depletion, muscle damage, and mental exhaustion – and recovery of muscle function is predominantly a matter of reversing the leading causes of fatigue.
Several studies have shown that HRV strongly predicts successful training adaptation. When training less, a rising HRV trend means your training results are sticking, and recovery is proceeding well!
The parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system triggers these recovery processes. The cardiovascular autonomic regulation capabilities of the body are an important determinant of the ability to adapt and grow as an athlete. If the sympathetic nervous system is overly activated, it can result in increased blood pressure and a decreased ability to recover, leading to a negative HRV trend.
If the ANS is not functioning correctly (as represented by a more variable HRV), your growth as an athlete will suffer!
How To Interpret HRV Data
Before diving in, it is essential to note that what works at the group level does not necessarily work at the individual level.
The key is not to work with “fixed” thresholds. Try to use your unique improvements and deviations alongside other metrics such as heart rate and lactate readings when performing a heart rate variability analysis. Multiple studies demonstrate unique HRV readings ranging between high-activity athletes and less active individuals. HRV readings change based on individuals’ health improvements and lifestyle choices.
Athletes should keep track of the long-term trends in the HRV readings data and observe improvements over time rather than immediately after workouts.
How Athletes and Trainers Should Read HRV Data
The key things to keep in mind regarding HRV scores include:
- An increase in HRV with a decrease in RHR (resting heart rate) means your ANS is improving, and the body is better at adapting to stress.
- An increase in HRV with an increase in RHR is a sign of accumulated fatigue ( over the long term).
- A decrease in HRV with a reduction in RHR is often a sign of being in an overtraining state.
Remember that HRV levels can drop in the short term, especially after a physically taxing workout or competition event. Additionally, illness can cause HRV readings to increase due to the body’s immune response activation.
According to our good friend and HRV guru Marco Altini, “HRV data has an inherently high day-to-day variability. This means that there can be large fluctuations between consecutive days…to make effective use of the data, we need to be able to determine what changes are trivial, or just part of normal day-to-day fluctuations.”
Overall, understand that the key is to look at how your HRV scores compare to your everyday personal ranges. Comparing that with these simple daily changes can help you know what’s happening within your body and what your HRV data tells you – both in the long and short term.
How To Use HRV Monitoring To Your Advantage
If you make the best out of your HRV readings as an athlete using a wearable such as Hanu, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind.
Keep a Long-Term Mindset
HRV data is best evaluated using trends over time and rolling averages. At the same time, you will see effects in your daily routine, such as when you engage in physical exercise or meditate. Still, these are not indicative of improvements in health status or the health of your autonomic nervous system. Individual values will not give you the whole story! One day of lowered HRV does not tell us much. Weekly downward HRV trends tell us a lot more.
Exercise and Rest are Equally Important
Since the health of your autonomic nervous system relies on being able to perform at your best AND experience deep rest, being at your healthiest means placing equal weight on both training and rest. Rest, in this case, does not simply mean doing nothing. Proper rest involves getting plenty of sleep, keeping your circadian rhythm in sync, eating a balanced diet, and engaging in active rest techniques such as meditation and yoga.
If you are training hard but not seeing much improvement in your HRV score over the long term, it may mean you need to up your rest game!
- One quick piece of advice is that intermittent fasting can give your digestive system a break and divert the energy typically used to constantly digest food to critical recovery processes that may have been neglected.
Unhealthy Stress Can Negatively Affect Progress
Cultivating a healthy relationship with stress is one of the most significant elite athlete breakthroughs.
Successive bouts of training combined with suboptimal recovery practices can lead to stress. When stress accumulates, it can negatively impact subsequent performances in training and competition. Incorporate healthy stress coping strategies such as sleep, cold water immersion, meditation, and cryotherapy alongside proper nutrition and supplementation to give your body the time and space it needs to recover properly.
The Importance of Subjective Check-Ins
One of the most important aspects of utilizing HRV data is to avoid using your data as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sometimes, viewing your HRV data as purely objective can lead you to make some less than ideal choices regarding your health. If you have been training a lot and are feeling fatigued yet you see that your HRV data comes back positive, don’t override your natural feelings here.
Use your HRV as a supplement, but don’t forget to listen to your body. If you feel the need to rest after a couple of weeks of good workouts, then, by all means, get some rest!
As we have mentioned, your HRV data is meant to be a long-term form of guidance. Think of it as HRV-guided training.
It can help you get some short-term info on how your body performs and modulates between rest and activity. Still, the main benefit is that it can help you see how your autonomic nervous system activity is improving.
So, do some personal check-ins with yourself to see how you feel and compare this with your long-term HRV trends – don’t get so caught up in the data that you forget to pay attention to how you feel!
Using Hanu To Improve Your Game
As an athlete, your biggest rival is always going to be yourself. Understanding how your body works and how you can help it perform better is the core of improving your training adaptation and becoming a legend in your sport. HRV is an invaluable metric that can help you learn about how the body reacts to stress and how you can better use rest and recovery as a more integral part of how you think about getting stronger, faster, and wiser.
So, start using Hanu today to look into your body’s autonomic system and see if your body is recovering correctly and healthily adapting to stresses.