Heart rate variability (HRV) has been getting a ton of press lately, and with good reason.
We all know that training, nutrition and recovery always has been, and always will be, an arms race.
Who can train the hardest?
Who can really dial in their nutrition?
And who is recovering the fastest and most completely from training?
This is why we do what we do – to get the most out of our bodies, to push our limits and test our boundaries.
And one of the tools that I’ve used with increasing frequency over the past two years with my clients and athletes is HRV monitoring via Joel Jamieson’s BioForce HRV.
Today, I want to give you a very brief synopsis of what HRV is and how it works, and then provide you with two very cool examples that I’ve come across over the years.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
I started writing up an awesome intro section here, and then quickly realized this is a MASSIVE topic.
After all, Joel has an entire book on the topic, so why would I try and summarize it here in a few short (and possibly misleading) paragraphs?
I’ll save you the time and energy – if you want an awesome overview, read this article by my good friend Eric Oetter. He’ll have you up to speed in 10 minutes:
My HRV Journey
I first learned and read about HRV years ago from Val Nasedkin and the crew over at OmegaWave. I was immediately intrigued by any technology that would allow me to better monitor and track how my athletes were responding to training.
Unfortunatley, when you find out that an Omegawave is a cool 20k or 30k investment, you’re intrigued but also realize this probably won’t be the first purchase you make for your gym.
However in recent years this technology has become more and more cost-effective, and that’s when I jumped on board.
I started out with the iThlete software and app, but had a ton of issues with getting consistent readings, and quickly threw it to the wayside.
I was training for powerlifting at the time, so a huge HRV score wasn’t first and foremost on my mind. But I quickly saw a correlation between my daily HRV score and my performance in the gym.
But perhaps most importantly, I saw a correlation between my HRV score and my recovery.
For instance if I got a poor nights sleep, it was reflected in my HRV score.
Or had a few cold ones on the holiday weekend?
Yep, that showed up too.
The biggest thing HRV taught me was how factors outside of my training were positively (or negatively) impacting my recovery.
Since that time, I’ve monitored HRV status with any of my elite athletes who are willing to take the 2.5 minutes per day to maximize their performance and recovery.
Here are two very interesting case studies that I think will give you a better understanding of how I use HRV to monitor training, recovery and performance with my athletes.
HRV Case Study #1
Our first case study was a young female soccer player who was playing at the Division-1 level. She had just come home from school and was coming off a fairly major ankle issue, and as a result, her general fitness level was quite poor.
Here are some basic “before” stats:
Resting Heart Rate: 66 (had scored as high as 76, however)
Heart Rate Variability: 86
My goal for team sports athletes is to achieve a resting heart rate below 60 beats per minute, so seeing a 66 (or 76!) was simply not acceptable, and we made it a goal to address this.
With a high resting heart rate, you realize that the heart is very inefficient, so low-intensity cardiac output training can be of significant value. Here’s the Readers Digest version:
An increased diameter of the left ventricle means more blood in with each heart beat, and more blood out with each heart beat.
This is what the science types describe as “an improved stroke volume.”
But beyond the improved cardiovascular efficiency, we know that a lower resting heart rate (and improved aerobic metabolism) also strongly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
So it’s a potential win-win: Cardiac output training can decrease resting heart rate, while simultaneously increasing heart rate variability via improved parasympathetic function.
(If you want more info on the benefits of low-intensity exercise, read this first: You NEED Long Duration, Low-Intensity Cardio.)
Cardiac output was the cornerstone of this athletes conditioning program. There’s no need to jump into high-intensity methods if you haven’t built a low-intensity base first.
We built her aerobic base via multiple exercise mediums (jogging, ball work, swimming, etc.), but the goal was always to stay within a heart rate of 120-150 beats per minute.
In the first month of training, here are the improvements we saw:
Resting Heart Rate: 59 beats per minute (-7 bpm change)
Heart Rate Variability: 97 (+11 bpm change)
At this point, we backed off the cardiac output training and moved to more intensive aerobic strategies such as threshold training to further improve VO2 max and aerobic performance.
By the end of the summer (~10 weeks of training), here were the changes we saw:
|Pre Score||Month 1||Final Score|
|Body Fat %||28.5||24.5|
So not only did we see a massive decrease in resting heart rate, but a huge bump in heart rate variability.
And I won’t even get into the fact that she lost 10 pounds and dropped 4% body fat using minimal glycolytic/anaerobic training. I’ll fight that battle another day 🙂
At the end of the day, this shows how a combination of how RHR and HRV scores can be used to dial in a training program.
But what happens when things aren’t this simple?
Enter my second case study…
HRV Case Study #2
In my second example, we had a male professional soccer player, ~30 years old, that was in phenomenal cardiovascular condition.
In this case, resting heart rate was consistently in the low 50’s, so I assumed that HRV would be in good shape as well.
However, this athlete had dealt with a handful of minor nagging and annoying injuries, so I put him on HRV to see how he was recovering from and responding to his off-season training.
What I found next shocked me.
Even though resting heart rate was in the low 50’s, initial HRV scores were in the high 60’s or low 70’s. After talking to Joel, this was where he’d expect a power athlete such as an Olympic weightlifter or powerlifter, but definitely not a high-level field sport athlete.
So here was a guy with great aerobic fitness, but very, very poor heart rate variability.
And you’ll remember that HRV score is a fantastic indicator of autonomic nervous system balance (i.e. sympathetic-parasympathetic balance). So here we have an athlete that simply cannot shut their system off.
While digging a bit deeper into the lifestyle side of things, here’s what I found:
- Caffeine was a big part of this athletes’ routine,
- Athlete did not sleep much (~6 hours/night),
- Athlete was definitely a “thinker.”
So while aerobic training made a huge difference for the first athlete, that would’ve had minimal effect on this athlete.
In fact, these scores were taken after his first block of training, which was very heavy on low-intensity training.
So the focus here was quite a bit different. Instead of working on aerobic fitness, the goal with this gentleman was to work on driving up HRV scores via increasing parasympathetic function and activity.
Here are some of the steps we took to improve HRV scores:
- Decreased caffeine intake,
- Created a bed-time routine,
- No electronics prior to bed,
- Foo-foo relaxing massage,
In this case, the goal was to simply learn how to chill out and relax. For some people, this is very tough, but this athlete is incredibly dedicated and did everything I asked.
Over the course of the next 4-6 weeks, we saw a significant improvement in HRV scores. Our average was in the mid-80’s, but we had a few days in the low 90’s as well.
And this was during some very-high intensity sport training, and traveling across the country. Quite simply, if HRV was going to bottom out, this was the time for it to happen.
As you can see, when you arm yourself with resting heart rate and heart rate variability, you have a ton of information to start developing specific energy system and recovery protocols for your clients and athletes.
HRV has been an absolute game changer for my coaching. At this point in time, I really don’t want to train anyone if they aren’t tracking their HRV scores on a daily basis.
If you are looking to take the performance of your clients and athletes to the next level, I’d highly recommend taking Joel’s BioForce HRV Pro Trainer Certification. He’s currently ramping up the launch process, but it will go on sale next week.
Not only will you learn all the ins and outs of heart rate variability, but you’ll learn how to take this information and use it to create better programs for your clients and athletes.
There are only 100 spots available, so if you’re serious about taking your skills to the next level, this is a must-have resource. Pre-register today so that when it’s ready to go, you can snatch up a copy before your competition does!
All the best