What is Heart Rate Variability Training?

If you’ve been eavesdropping in the gym shower recently, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about HRV. One of the latest trends making big waves in training arenas around the globe, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) analysis is a useful tool for professional athletes, seasoned gym bros, and recreation fans looking to get a reliable assessment of their overall shape, recovery, and training. But how exactly do you monitor HRV and how can you use it to put your fitness quest on the right track?

HRV Analysis: What is it and What Does it Measure?

Just like muscles need time to recover after training and other types of physical stress, the nervous system needs to rest and replenish, so it can take on the next plateau. If pushed too far too soon, the neurological system may not be able to cope with the stress, which could lead to injury or illness. That’s where HRV analysis comes in: by tracking heart rate variations between inhalation and exhalation when resting, HRV can help athletes track their nervous system activity, optimize recovery, and dial-up long-term athletic performance. So, how exactly can you measure HRV and how do you interpret the results?

photo credit: https://www.joachimstraining.com

How HRV Impacts Performance: What’s in a Heart Beat?

When you breathe in, your heart rate goes up because that’s when the sympathetic part of the nervous system gets behind the wheel, raising your blood pressure and heart rate and stepping up muscle power and speed, which are required for survival in fight-or-flight situations. When you breathe out, your heart rate drops as the parasympathetic part of your nervous system comes into play, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, relaxing the muscles, and promoting digestive functions. The difference between the two rates is a reliable indicator of stress levels and recovery efficiency: the higher your HRV is, the better rested your body is and the calmer you will be both in the gym and in everyday situations. Low HRV, on the other hand, is a telltale sign of chronic stress and less than optimal recovery, which can lead to an increased risk of injury, fatigue, illness, and overtraining.

Hi-Tech Gear after Your Heart: How to Track Your HRV

HRV was developed by Soviet scientists as part of their space program back in the ’60s, and it has since been used in various aspects of cardiac medicine and sports performance tracking. In its early stages, HRV was measured by means of an electrocardiogram (ECG) but nowadays it can be tracked by means of health and fitness apps such as HRV4Training, TrainingPeaks, ithlete, Welltory, and Elite HRV, allowing professional and recreational sportsmen to keep tabs on their performance and recovery without major hi-tech investments. In addition to the smartphone app, you’ll also need a heart rate strap or finger-wave pulse sensor to take your HRV readings.

Make Your Heartbeats Work: Exercise after Your Heart

To put workout intensity and recovery on the HRV-suitable track, you’ll need to take your heart rate readings in the morning over the course of a few months and review the data on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. To get an accurate insight into your performance, physical shape, and recovery, you should set up a training log and track key workout and lifestyle basics, such as exercise sets, reps, weight lifted, rest periods, nutrition, and sleep duration and quality. Based on the weekly training log review, you’ll get a grip on the meaning of each daily measurement and the correlation between your workout intensity, recovery, overall HRV trends, your body’s response to stress, and the best ways to optimize your recovery. Still, you should be aware that HRV readings might not reflect the previous day’s training load accurately if you throw low-intensity workouts and increased non-fitness related stress load into the mix.

Beyond Muscle: Track Your Heart to Tweak Your Life

Apart from recovery tracking, HRV can be used to monitor the body’s adaptation to training load changes and make workout adjustments. On top of that, HRV analysis can help athletes prevent injury, overtraining, and illness, such as respiratory and pulmonary disease, and predict the days when their performance may be better or worse. As a rule, athletes who normally record high HRV values achieve better results in endurance tests, while those who are continually exposed to high stress levels usually make smaller strength gains in the long run.

A Workout to Warm Your Heart: Final Notes on HRV

As against pre-planned training programs, HRV-based workouts usually lead to quick yet steady performance improvement and maximum fitness effects, because of the optimal use of recovery. Nevertheless, before you slap on the heart rate strap and head out, try to pick most comfortable gym outfits and footwear to get the most accurate readings of each workout. What you wear during training impacts your psychological shape, and your mind affects your performance, stress levels, and neurological function. Based on HRV analysis, you will get a clear image as to whether you should cut yourself some slack in the gym, increase total sleep time, or add more protein-rich foods to your plate. Each of these simple lifestyle and fitness cues will help you take your endurance and/or strength training to the next level, and you will also be able to slice the risk of sports injury and disease down the road.

The fitness industry is no longer what it used to be – things are changing at a rapid pace, and if you want to be a part of the evolving trends, you should take full advantage of the advancements offered. HRV is just one of the ways you can use tech to become an even better version of yourself, dig deeper, and climb your very own version of Mt. Everest.

Mathews McGarry is passionate about many forms of strength training, and spent years lifting, dragging and flipping all manner of heavy objects. After graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney, he started writing about his experiences, and sharing tips for better life. Follow him on Twitter.

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