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Measuring Your Recovery with HRV

Train SMARTER, not HARDER!
You’ve probably heard it, but what does it mean? One way to do it is by measuring your recovery with HRV. 

The fine line within training hard is that if you pass a certain threshold of intensity and volume, it can limit your training over the next few days. We know that if you’re not properly recovered, it can affect your training and performance. I wrote about this HERE. This is why there’s always a tapering pros before competition; if you train really hard right up to your competition you could be suffering from acute fatigue.
At the elite level there are many ways we can use MONITORING to judge readiness and recovery, but what about something simple for the weekend warrior or young athlete?
There is a simple solution – Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

What is Heart Rate Variability and How do I measure it!?

The HOW is the simple part, so I will explain that and then we will get into the WHY.
Measuring your heart rate variability is done by getting a heart rate reading first thing upon waking. By using an HRV app, it can give you a score based on your recovery and readiness. This will tell you if you need a lighter day for increased recovery or it can tell you if you’ve recovered and can go for a more intense workout. This is your nervous system talking, so remember this can have lifestyle implications as well. The concept is simple enough, each morning you take a heart rate reading (that can measure the R-R interval), and let an app tell you how your nervous system is working.

There are a number of different apps that you can use to monitor and measure HRV: we’ve used HRV4Training and EliteHRV. Getting started can be simple and there are plenty of options for more complex systems (including monitoring teams) as well.
If you’re on an iphone, HRV4Training can use the phones camera to detect your Heart Rate, otherwise you’ll need a bluetooth chest strap like the Wahoo TICKR or Polar H7.

According to EliteHRV, wrist devices don’t always take the R-R interval, that’s the time between heartbeats, so it won’t give you an accurate reading for HRV.

 

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN??

The point of measuring your HRV is to get a reading for the state of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Your ANS dictates basic activity in your body. Your ANS is divided into: Parasympathetic Nervous System and Sympathetic Nervous System.

– Parasympathetic nervous system is all about recovery and is referred to as ‘Rest and Digest’.It lowers blood pressure and heart rate and increases recovery.

– Sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight response. This induces adrenaline, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. This is intense and taxing on the body.

Your body fluctuates between sympathetic and parasympathetic at all times. Naturally we want to be able to stimulate sympathetic efficiently when we need to, but spend much of our time recovering and relaxing in the parasympathetic state.

Doing HRV measurements can tell you whether your ANS is more sympathetic or parasympathetic.

This is on the parasympathetic side

WHY DOES IT MATTER!?

Having a reading of your ANS can give you a guide for your day or week. This can let you know whether it will be a good day for intense stimulation or the opposite. Many athletes have learned the importance of the nervous  system through their years of training and being coached. Sometimes the feeling of fatigue is obvious – groggy, tired and lethargic; but sometimes it can’t be felt.

In my experience, non athletes are much less aware of the implications of a fatigued nervous system. Athletes test their abilities almost every day and can see the performance changes, whereas the average Joe might not notice that there’s a difference. I can’t count how many clients have come for a personal training session and been frustrated at why they have a “down” day, feeling like it’s purely linked to desire and work ethic. I’ve routinely had to coach clients about the fact that their performance is directly linked to their lack of sleep, travel and intense work schedules (to name a few). More people would achieve better results if they optimized their training based on their recovery. This can obviously be done without HRV but having the data will be much simpler. As a general rule, if you feel exhausted it’s a smart idea to back off and if you feel great you can push the envelope.

There are a lot of very competitive people who are also stubborn. Thinking that you can just out work a fatigued nervous system is just stupid. Sorry, but it’s true. Using HRV, you can track how your feelings relate to your recovery and how your body relates to stressful events. Instead of just using intensity and work ethic to “man up”, you can use information to make smart adjustments to your program. Long term performance always beats short term, especially when it’s one workout.



How Do I Start!?

The different ways in which we can utilize HRV data are endless and each person/athlete may want to use the data in a different way. This is the benefit of collecting meaningful data; now we can interpret it any way we want or need. If you don’t collect the data, you can’t interpret and see trends.

So, my first suggestion is simple. Pick up a Bluetooth heart rate strap (or use your iPhone camera) and start taking daily readings. Be detailed with your reporting, especially when it comes to sleep, exercise, mood, travel and illness. these will help give you a snapshot on how your body responds to each of these stressors. You don’t need to change anything right away, but once you start to see trends develop, you can start to incorporate subtle changes to maximize daily performance. Should i incorporate some aerobic recovery? Can I work out harder today? Am I recovered yet from illness/sleep/exercise/travel? These are all things you will see.

If you want more HRV information and science, I suggest reading ore listening to anything from Andrew Flatt. He’s probably the world’s foremost researcher on the topic (but not the only one).

Here’s his twitter

All in all, this is probably one of the simplest and easiest ways to get elite level feedback available to the masses. If you’re serious about your health or performance I seriously suggest you give it a try.

 

Remember,

It’s About Getting Better!

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