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Heart Rate Variability (HRV): What It Is and How to Improve It

Researchers at Harvard University have gone as far as to say that measuring your Heart Rate Variability is “a visual insight into the most primitive part of your brain” which sounds great but how can us fit folks use it to our advantage?

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #411
Image of a heart and an heart rate monitor

The Latest Research on HRV

A new study called Training Prescription Guided by Heart Rate Variability in Cycling revealed some very promising results.

Seventeen well-trained cyclists were recruited, with an average age of 39 and riding experience of 13 years, and had their cycling performance measured three times over the period of the study:

  1. At the beginning
  2. After 4 weeks of baseline training
  3. After 8 weeks of guided training

After that, the group was split into HRV-guided training program and a traditional (intuitive) training program for eight weeks.

The major finding of this new study was that HRV-guided training led to significantly greater increases in peak power (five percent), power at Ventilatory Threshold 2 (14 percent), and power over the 40-minute time trial (seven percent) compared to traditional training.

When looking at the participant’s performance on the 40 minute Time Trial, it is clear that the HRV-guided training produced many of the best results while also avoiding the worst outcomes.

HRV Tips

If you decide to start tracking your own HRV for training or general health, here are some tips.

1. Higher is not always better.
If your score is always high, it can actually be a sign that you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. Remember that fitness is built through stress and rest so sometimes seeing some lower scores is exactly what we are after. Just don’t let them stay too low for too long.

2. Consistency is key.
Good measurement practice will increase the reliability of the test and produce better results. So, make sure to take the measurement first thing after waking (avoiding the effects of caffeine, food, and any external stress), use the same body position every day (don’t lay down one day and sit up the next), and don’t manipulate your breathing rate (inhaling increases your heart rate while holding your breath and exhaling slow it down).

3. Don’t compare your numbers to others.
Just like race times, run streaks, VO2 Max, and anything else people can brag about on social media, you may see people posting their HRV scores on there as well. Don’t fall into this trap. Establish your own baseline and keep an eye on your own trend. This isn’t a competition—no one gets a medal for having the highest HRV score.

4. Trend trumps accuracy.
No matter which system you choose to measure your HRV with (and there are many to choose from), don't get hung up on the accuracy. Just like a home scale, an activity tracker, or a step counter, the important part is whether or not your trend is moving in the desired direction. The actual accuracy of the value or score is less important, in the grand scheme of things. 

5. Interpret the values.
Every morning that you are training, I suggest that you check in on your HRV. Then, based on your HRV score, judged against how you feel, your anticipated recovery state, or where you are in a training block, see whether or not your score matches what you expect it to be or what you want it to be. If it doesn’t line up (for example, you are in a recovery period but your HRV is still lower than usual) you can adjust your workout for that day. If it lines up well with what you expect or desire to see, you can carry on with training as usual.

Should You Monitor Your HRV?

HRV is an interesting and noninvasive way to peek at potential nervous system imbalances. If an athlete is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If that same athlete is in a relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier your nervous system the faster you are able to switch gears, which contributes to more mental flexibility and overall physical resilience.

Even if you aren’t worried about your training or recovery, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and states like depression or anxiety. A low HRV has even been associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. People who have a high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and show more resilience to stress.

Even more interesting, HRV may provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help to motivate those folks who are considering taking steps toward a healthier and fitter life.

So, if you decide to track your own, watch how your HRV changes as you do things like becoming more mindful, experimenting with meditation, increasing your sleep duration or quality, and especially increasing physical activity in your life. This can be a nice way to track how your nervous system is reacting not only to your athletic training, but also to your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

For more heartfelt info, variability tips, and to join the beat conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy. Also don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, StitcherSpotify, Google Play or via RSS.

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