Why is Heart Rate Variability important to Watch
It’s getting close to the end of the year, and we’ve all been feeling a little stressed out. Stress comes from many different places. It can be physically from training too hard, chemically from poor nutrition or mentally from work and relationships.
When you are overloaded with any stress, and you don’t have sufficient recovery time, you are bound to end up in the dog box, spiraling downward to a depressive, overtrained lump of your former self.
But don’t worry guys and gals, there’s good news. We can learn to curb that stress through a particular training regimen, one called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training.
Wait, what’s this HRV thing? Another fancy health fad?
Heart Rate Variability has been around for a while. The biggest reason that it’s only gaining popularity now is that it is becoming more accessible to us mere mortals. Due to the technology needed to measure HRV, it was once only available for participants in the space program and pro athletes.
But hey, we’re in 2017 here, and there’s an app for everything these days – so the tech needed to measure HRV is getting easier to obtain.
But I’ve jumped the gun, let’s get back to a definition.
To explain HRV, we first need to talk about our nervous system, you know, that thing that sends information from all over our body to our brain; allowing us to react, think, remember and plan. It’s a pretty important part of our body. *understatement of the century*
If you want a healthy nervous system, and to function optimally, you’ll need to know the cycle between stress and recovery in your body. You don’t want to overwork it and go too far.
There are two branches of the nervous system:
Autonomic that controls your body’s survival functions like breathing, heart rate, digestion, organ control and blood pressure.
Voluntary that is more conscious and controls daily activities like pumping iron, cutting food and helping a damsel in distress.
With HRV, we are mainly concerned with the autonomic nervous system, which is broken down into two more sub-systems.
Still following? Good!
The survival part of the nervous system is separated into:
Sympathetic which is our animalistic tendency of fight or flight, the accelerator of our body, if you will. When stress is introduced, it increases our physiological performance. Mothers lifting cars to save their children, anyone?
Parasympathetic which is more like the brakes of the autonomic nervous system, helping the body to rest and recovery when it’s shocked by the sympathetic nervous system.
These work on a continuum, helping each other out. So when you breathe in, for example, the sympathetic system increases, causing your heart rate to go slightly faster. Then you calmly breathe out, and the parasympathetic system causes your heart rate to slow down a little, this causes variability between each heartbeat. Your heart is not a clock – it doesn’t click on time and to a particular beat – rather it varies depending on the stimulus inputted into your nervous system.
Enter Heart Rate Variability
HRV is a way to analyze and observe the parasympathetic nervous system, or in other words, to check your recovery and restoration, this allows you to choose the best time to train, making sure your nervous system is at the optimum efficiency. It answers the question “Is my body coping with the stress of life or will my heart implode into a whisper of dust on my next workout?”
A key point here is that higher variability is better as it displays a well-rested and calm condition. What do low values show? Well, that you are obviously overstressed and need a bit of a holiday.
Tip: The difference between HRV and Heart Rate (HR) is that HRV measures the changes in time intervals between heart rate. Normal heart rate is measured by the average number of heartbeats per minute. HRV measures how your heart fluctuates when responding to internal and external events.
What is Heart Rate Variability analysis then?
HRV analysis allows you to look at the parasympathetic nervous system, or in other words, how your body is recovering from stress and is restoring. As you work better (mentally and physically) when your body is unstressed, HRV can tell you how ready you are for training. You will then be able to work at your optimum levels when exercising. You will also enjoy the workout more and be less prone to injury.
Let’s look at a pro-athlete as an example for you should use HRV. You’ll notice that they respond very well to competition (stronger sympathetic response) and can recover quickly during periods of rest (higher parasympathetic response). But the more important part here is the latter, being able to recover quicker in non-stressful situations is key.
In some cases, such as powerlifters and competitive runners, HRV even increases after sufficient rest. HRV is also directly related to better VO2 max levels.
Okay, so measuring HRV is good for you. But how do I do it?
HRV is measured by looking at the spaces between R waves on an EKG, which is a fancy medical way of saying the difference between heartbeats. It shows you the difference between the output of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (your autonomic nervous system).
All you have to do to measure HRV is to get a simple heart rate monitor and then download an app like athlete or Bioforce. The app will track your HRV and display it in a graphical format. It will show you trends in your day, week, or month. If there is a significant decrease in your HRV, it’s time to have a rest day.
Before you begin, set a baseline so that you can compare how well you’re doing. You can then track your workout length and quality, sleep quality and duration, and periods of recovery. Do this for about 4-6 weeks and then analyze all this information to your set baseline. You will then learn more about your body and how it responds to stressors, as well as how you can control your recovery and get to peak performance quicker.
But I’m not a pro athlete, so should I start using HRV?
If you want to improve your performance and reach your goals, give HRV training a try. It’s fairly inexpensive, is easy to use and is useful to monitor your health. When you know how your nervous system works, you will be able to work out at optimum capacity; this will make you increasingly stronger, fitter and healthier, as well as being less prone to injury.
So, why not give it a try?
Dai "Coach Moose" ManuelDai Manuel: Your Lifestyle MentorSeptember 23, 2017