A Beginner’s Guide to Recovery, Part 3: Heart Rate Variability as a Guide
Last fall, I wrote a little bit about using heart rate variability (HRV) after having seen it on Tom Bell’s blog. Read that original post from Tom, here.
Now that I have been using HRV and the EliteHRV app for quite awhile, I figured this was a great time to discuss its benefits to the athlete committed to proper recovery.
What is HRV?
HRV is a measure of the variability between heart beats or how consistent your heart beats are if you will. Your HRV reading gives insight into the nervous system and measures how much stress your body is under, whether from training or "the real world." Instead of only measuring beats per minute, the EliteHRV app claims that it looks at the "changes in time between successive heart beats."
By getting a baseline reading and then measuring each morning throughout your training cycle, you can get an idea of the stresses your body is under due to training, all other stresses considered. This will give you an idea of how much workout stress you are ready to undertake later that day. Sounds good, huh?
Taking an HRV Reading
Using a heart rate strap and smartphone or tablet, you can use EliteHRV to measure the HRV. Not all heart rate straps are supported, but if you have a Polar, Wahoo TICKR, or Garmin strap you are probably okay. Check with the app support page to see if your strap will work.
Be forewarned that most armbands and watches that use LEDs do not work well for HRV readings, like my otherwise awesome Scosche Rhythm Plus. I take my reading every morning as recommended, and the thing that stinks is actually the chest strap! It is a true bummer that the arm strap doesn’t work well for HRV. I try to keep my TICKR clean and funk free, but it is on me lots of times when I am sweating profusely. Since I use the iPhone, I need a Bluetooth compatible strap, and I really cannot afford another one just for “clean” usage for HRV in the morning when often I take a reading before work.
So how does it work and what does it do?
Every day, I take a seated two and a half-minute reading. The app then gives me a score from 1-10. This is the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Here is how the EliteHRV site explains the score (I couldn't really explain any simpler, so I will just paste this in).
What Do HRV Scores Mean? Higher resting-state HRV scores signify the ability of the body to activate the Parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” response. Higher heart rate variability is correlated with:
Increased fitness level
Calm, positive emotions
Lower resting-state HRV scores signify an activated Sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response or suppressed Parasympathetic activity. This can indicate the body’s inability to engage recovery mode or an exhaustion of recovery capacity. This can be a temporary response to a previous day’s hard workout or poor night of sleep. Or this can be a chronic response to stress that results in reduced health and increased risk of disease. Lower resting-state HRV is tied to:
Reduced fitness level
Increased disease risk and inflammation
Increased biological age
Increased anxiety and depression
I can also input other metrics like duration and quality of sleep and exercise. I do put these in, but let's just look at the HRV Score.
So, let’s recall last week’s training cycle and races on Saturday and Sunday. Here is the Strava report for the week. You can see a hard workout on Tuesday, rest day Wednesday, easy Thursday and Friday so I am fresh for the TT and criterium race on Saturday.
Here is what Saturday looked like in EliteHRV, all set to go. The app said I would be able to work harder than usual today. Good to know!
Now, on Sunday, after two races, I was tired as hell. You can see that the score is super low. The app recommended a day off. I obviously could not do that, as I was just about to leave for the road race stage. I wish for the sake of racing that I had taken the reading and not looked! I didn't need the app saying I was going to suck! LOL!
Monday, I was on a recovery day, and it had been almost 24 hours since the road race, so I was starting to feel better, but needed to spin the legs out. Score slowly starting to rise.
Tuesday, after a day of active recovery, I was starting to feel like myself again. You can see that the app says I can try a little harder today.
So. overall I have to recommend using HRV as an easy way to see what your body is saying about stress. I would not give up a ride with friends over a low score, or completely change my schedule because it said I was a 10 today! I have found it to be pretty accurate to my potential for the day. Sometimes, I wake up feeling a little blah but notice a higher score. Once I get on the bike everything goes great. Sometimes, I wake up feeling decent and take a low reading. When I get on the bike, I feel a little anemic no matter how hard I try to overcome it.
I don't think this is just a placebo effect. I do think it has a lot of promise in helping athletes who are used to the aches and fatigue to see what their heart is telling them about stress. And best of all, it is free to use! I don't think it can get any better than that.