HRV. Is it really worth the hype?

Unlike professional athletes, a lot of people manage to balance full-time jobs, family commitments and relationships with training. Training and competing, tight deadlines at work, travel across time zones, misunderstandings with people you care about, illnesses, dealing with difficult kids – all accumulate and add to psychological and physiological stress. Add on top of problems at work one or two hard training sessions, sprinkle it with sleep deprivation and you are well on your way to burnout and injury.

Mood swings, food cravings, inconsistency and unpredictability in athletic performance, lack of motivation, low energy levels are only the symptoms of system overload. You feel drained and totally destroyed. At 3 pm you fall asleep on the toilet at work, or worse, while driving back home. Total load is the term proposed by International Olympic Committee. In addition to your training and competing stress, it takes into account the daily life stressors.

Faster, better, stronger, harder! Sleep less, work more! Sleep for the weak! No pain – no gain! Chasing “gains” in our sports, we totally neglect psychological stressors and daily life hassles. We are so good at pushing ourselves, but so bad at recovering. Do you really think you can keep on abusing and pushing you body this way forever without any consequences? How long do you think you can last until it breaks? The question is not IF, the question is WHEN? Understanding the implications of total load and how to manage it – is critical to achieving your goals.

Modern technologies allow people to monitor so many body metrics: Heart rate during exercise; Resting heart rate (RHR); Sleep duration; Sleep stages; Caloric consumption and expenditure; Glucose and Ketone levels, you name it. We have access to data, that only a few decades ago was available to scientists in research labs. So many metrics at your hand and inability to make sense of it leads to information overload and analysis paralysis.

Information is gold. You will learn what the HRV is, and can it help you to improve your health, well-being and sports performance. I will teach you how to track and interpret your HRV data and show you real life examples of how daily life events and trainings impact your performance and recovery.


By default, Mother Nature has programmed your autonomic nervous system (ANS) with two operation systems: Sympathetic OS and Parasympathetic OS. They both work simultaneously, however performing totally different tasks.

Sympathetic Operation System

This is the system that has direct access to the “red button” which in situations threatening survival will prime your body for action.

Muscles contract, and begin to convert glycogen into glucose.

Heart rate ramps up.

Bronchial tubes dilate to facilitate better gas exchange.

Pupils dilate to enhance visual input, even in low light.

Hearing shuts down (auditory exclusion – loss of hearing).

Vision becomes “tunneled” (peripheral vision shuts down).

You might start shaking.

You feel almost like rocket fuel has been poured into your system. Nitrous oxide is fueling your engine. You are READY TO EXPLODE at any second now. Flames are shooting down your exhaust pipes. Go get them!

This system saved your great-great-great-…-great father’s life, when saber-toothed tiger decided to have some homosapien for dinner. It is the reason why you are being alive. It was developed from necessity as a survival mechanism to prepare your body respond with everything it got in a matter of milliseconds. This system is awesome.

Parasympathetic Operation System

Manual NHRA top fuel driver Brittany Force (right) deploys her parachutes alongside Pat Dakin during round one eliminations for the US Nationals.

Unlike SO system, Parasympathetic OS is designed to slow you dow. This system is responsible to deploy the parachutes when the race is over. It maintains both mental and physical health by helping your body to calm down from stress reaction you’ve had and divert energy from other body processes to “rest and digest”. It’s a pit stop, where you get repaired, refueled and prepared for the next race.

  • Turns on digestion system, sending you to use the restroom
  • Relaxes muscles
  • Makes you horny
  • Puts brakes on the heart rate and lowers the blood pressure after the sympathetic nervous system has activated the fight or flight response

Now that everything is behind, it’s time to chill and restore the energy you expanded.


HRV, What are you?

Heart Rate Variability –  is the physiological phenomenon of variation in the time interval between heartbeats. 

Unlike the car’s engine, your heart doesn’t beat with exact same frequency each moment. The pauses between beats are not equal and can range from 0.85 and 1.35 seconds.

Note: The longest intervals between beats occur when you exhale, and the shortest intervals when you inhale.

HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat which is controlled by autonomic nervous system (ANS).


Is it Worth the Hype?

For the past 4 months, every single morning I measured my HRV using HRV4Training IOS app. It costed me $10 for the app which promised to provide data analytics on the relation between physiological parameters, training and performance.
It does not require any extra sensors and use iPhones flashlight with camera to measure your heart rate (technique is called photoplethysmography).
The process of measuring is really easy:

  1. Place your fingertip exactly on the camera. Touch the camera gently
  2. Try not to move for the duration of the whole test, and breathe freely, without forcing any unnatural breathing pattern
  3. Stay still for 1 minute

After each measurement the app will output the HRV Score. Higher score (or greater variability between heart beats) usually means that the body has a strong ability to tolerate stress or is strongly recovering from prior accumulated stress. At rest, a high HRV is generally favorable and a low HRV is unfavorable.

I also been journaling my emotional conditions, energy levels and training performances during that time period. I collected a lot of data to see if there are any patterns or corrections between HRV and my athletic performances , as well as overall feeling.


Traveling & Racing

Ukraine, Euro-tour, Marathon, Half-Marathon

From December 29th to January 19th I put A LOT of stress on my body and mind. I flew to Kiev, Ukraine from Toronto changing 8 time zones. I visited 5 countries during the road trip through the Europe. I drove over 5,000 km. I ran a marathon on January 5th in Paris and a half-marathon week later.
Below is the data I got from the app during that crazy trip:

Left picture shows the recovery points and the right one shows the heart rate.
To my surprise, app measurements show that cross-continental flight to another part of the world didn’t harm my body too much, neither the marathon did. Almost throughout the entire time of travel, training and competing my recovery points stayed nice and high, even higher then when I was back home.
Same story with heart rate. It stayed low during the entire time, showing the positive trend even after the marathon.

Looking at this graphs it seems that my body handled travel, training and racing very well. In fact the scores are better than I had, while back home in Canada.

Back Home

This is where it gets really interesting! Immediately right after returning back home, everything went down.
My recovery points fell straight down, continuing this negative trend for 7 days!
We can also see direct correlation to heart rate readings. For a week it continued to creep up indicating that my body is having a really hard time.

My theory is that during the time spent traveling and in Ukraine, my body was under some sort of adrenaline or in defense mode to absorb the stress. Shortly after I returned back home and touched my bed, my body switched off the defense mode and literally fell apart.

Not to mention that despite downward trends I felt good mentally and emotionally.


Can HRV predict good and bad performances?

Let’s put travel and stress associated to the side and evaluate the data during regular training under normal conditions. Consistent journaling allows me to go back and see when I felt particularly good or bad, strength or weakness.
I used my post-workout comments to compare them with HVR scores on that particular day.


Below Average / Bad Performances

In contrast to low HRV scores, let’s review some more recent data with higher scores. Did I feel and perform better with high HRV scores?


Great performances / Breakthroughs


Conclusions

“Information is only useful if it’s actionable

Now that we reviewed the data, lets bring the elephant into the room and answer the main question:

Does HRV4Training provide data analytics on the relation between physiological parameters, training and performance?

In my case it DOES NOT.

During the 4 months of recording and comparing HRV data to my overall feeling I did not find direct relationship between HRV scores and athletic performances. It addition HRV score does not reflect mental or emotional state, neither it was promised by developers it would.

I am sure there are people who found this tool useful and will disagree with me. However everyone is different and what works for one, does not work for another. $10 for this particular app will not break your budget and I encourage you to give it a shot and see if you benefit from it.
I am opened for discussion on the topic and I might change my mind, but for now I will stop measuring my morning HRV using the app for the reasons I stated above.
Instead I will work to recognize the signs my body tell me, when something’s not quite right. I will also listen more to my emotional state to access my condition and predict the readiness to perform on a given day.

Stay STRONG!


References:

  1. Soligard, T., Martin Schwellnus, J. A., Bahr, R., Clarsen, B., Dijkstra, P., Gabbett, T., . . . Engebretsen, L. (2016, September 01). How much is too much? (Part 1) International Olympic Committee consensus statement on load in sport and risk of injury. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1030
  2. Schwellnus M, Soligard T, Alonso J, et al(2016, September 01). How much is too much? (Part 2) International Olympic Committee consensus statement on load in sport and risk of illness. Br J Sports Med 2016;50:1043-1052. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1043
  3. Simon Wegerif
  4. What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)? And how it can enhance your training. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2019, from https://www.myithlete.com/what-is-hrv/

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