Is HRV (Heart Rate Variability) a crucial metric in assessing our overall health and fitness? In this article, we delve into the intricate details of HRV, its correlation with the autonomic nervous system, and how it mirrors the delicate equilibrium between our body’s parasympathetic and sympathetic activity.
Plus, we’ll take a look at all the different factors that can influence HRV, like our mood and training status, to give you some valuable insights on how to optimize your performance levels. Join us as we explore the intriguing concept of HRV and how it can greatly influence our well-being and athletic potential.
WHAT IS HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
WHAT DOES HRV MEASURE?
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE HRV
The beat-to-beat changes in heart rate, otherwise known as HRV, are heavily influenced by various factors.
MOOD AND MOOD DISORDERS
OBESITY, HIGH BODY MASS INDEX (BMI), AND WEIGHT GAIN
WHAT IS GOOD HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
IMPROVED COGNITIVE FUNCTIONING
BETTER EMOTIONAL REGULATION
WHAT IS BAD HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
RUNNING TRAINING PLANS
HOW TO MEASURE HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
COMMON HEART RATE VARIABILITY MONITORS
HOW DO SMARTWATCHES AND RINGS MEASURE HRV?
HOW TO CALCULATE HRV?
BEST HRV MEASUREMENT PRACTICES
As we have discussed, HRV is subject to immense variability due to a multitude of factors. With this in mind, it is crucial that you account for several factors each time you take an HRV measurement for accurate and reliable data. Many people are familiar with circadian rhythms, which are psychological and physiological biological changes that occur in the body in 24-hour intervals. As you might have guessed, HRV is subject to that circadian rhythm. For this reason, it is crucial to measure HRV at the same time every day5. For accurate HRV measurements, be sure to avoid ingesting caffeine beforehand.
Caffeine is known to affect HRV measurements. Sleep quality and quantity are heavily associated with HRV measurements, so try to get consistently good sleep23. The brain has a connection to the heart, which means your mood can alter HRV. Try to maintain a consistent mood for the most reliable results. At the very least, be mindful of your mood each day and consider that when measuring HRV.
Additionally, higher HRV can often result from consistent exercise. However, HRV is temporarily lower during and shortly after exercise23. It is best to exercise after taking an HRV measurement so results aren’t skewed. Posture and small movements affect the cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems. When taking an HRV measurement, be as still as possible while maintaining the same posture23.
Each of the factors above can have an effect on some of the systems that contribute to an HRV measurement. Please note that this is not a limited list. If you choose to track your HRV, ensure consistency in your measurement process.
HOW TO IMPROVE HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
Do your best to downregulate, or lower feelings of stress. Coping strategies that alleviate stress can vary for each person, but try to find what works best for you; e.g., a ski tour, a mellow climb, or a run can be very helpful. Sometimes, a nice walk or meditation is the right answer.
A sedentary lifestyle is associated with lower HRV, and while this is not a risk for athletes, overtraining is. Make sure to manage your training effectively, so you don’t overtrain. Remember, we get stronger when we recover, not when we train. Eat a well-balanced diet to help maintain a healthy body. Finally, avoid unhealthy habits such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. Review how much caffeine you’re drinking, many athletes love coffee, but too much can affect HRV.
NORMAL HEART VARIABILITY RANGE
Unfortunately, there is not a specific HRV score that would be considered healthy for everyone. It is challenging to interpret HRV measurements, and these scores are subject to variability, given the multitude of lifestyle and psychological factors. If you think your heart rate variability is low (or are concerned about your HRV values), you should see a physician.
However, there can be some range fluctuations in HRV scores regarding gender and age; see the chart below.
HEART RATE VARIABILITY BY GENDER
HEART RATE VARIABILITY BY AGE
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WITH HRV DATA?
If you choose to measure HRV on your own, make sure you follow a strict protocol (outlined above). This includes measuring HRV at the same time each day.
We don’t recommend using HRV to track your fatigue, recovery state, and fitness. Instead, we urge you to pay attention to other things affecting your training and overall health. For instance, be mindful of your sleep patterns, food, stress, and mental health. Are you sleeping enough? Is your sleep quality good? Are you regularly using caffeine and alcohol? How about other recreational substances? How are those affecting your sleep and training? Are you eating a balanced diet? Are you stressed at work? At home? Do you have stress management tools that you can use? Are you feeling recovered after recovery workouts? Do you have a regular workout that you can use to index your fatigue (e.g., daily fingerboard routine runs, etc.)? These, and many more, are excellent ways to measure your training and overall health.
Make sure you don’t overtrain. This is a tough one, especially for endurance athletes. We all want to crush our goals. One of the easiest ways to prevent overtraining is to measure your training load. For this, you can use training applications or even a spreadsheet. Keeping track of how you feel after each workout can give you a signal when you’re overtraining. When increasing load, do it slowly and progressively, or have a coach direct your training. Make sure to recover, rest as needed, and seek expert guidance when you’re not sure you’re resting enough.
While HRV can be a useful tool for measuring the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, it is influenced by many factors and can be challenging to measure accurately.
There are many tools, indices, and procedures to index training state, recovery state, and overall health, but make sure you take care of the basics first, and the rest will fall into place.
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