Exercise is stressful. Its something that is easily forgotten as you charge towards your goals each session. Although this stress is beneficial for inducing hormesis over the long term, excessive stress stands to undermine your valiant efforts. The pursuit of more strength, more stamina, more endurance is a marathon, not a sprint. Its only right that you are going at a pace that will serve you over the long term. The urge to push yourself a little closer to your goals each day can be tempting. But, are these temptations costing you long term? How is your recovery effected and your training productivity as a result?
What is HRV?
Heart rate variability is exactly how it sounds – it effectively measures the flexibility to which your heart beats. You measure it as the time gap between your heart beats that varies as you breathe in and out.
A higher variability is beneficial, and correlates with higher levels of physical fitness.
A lower variability indicates a higher level of stress, and means you are less equipped to deal with stressful demands, such as exercise. A lower HRV is a cue to take it easy to let your body recover.
HRV is calculated algorithmically to produce a figure that indicates your level of stress and recovery. It is therefore effective when used to ‘check in’ on the readiness of your body to train hard again.
HRV is effectively a measure of vagal nerve activity. This activity is an indication of your current state of nervous system balance. HRV identifies the current state of your Autonomic Nervous System. The ANS exists in two states:
Also known as the rest and digest state, this branch of the ANS allows for rest and recovery. You would typically feel relaxed in this state, and direct precious nutrients towards growth, repair and recovery.
This state is how the ANS responds to stress. It is your fight or flight response to dangerous stimuli, and uses your bodies resources to escape that perceived threat. Continually existing in a state of sympathetic activity means your energy leans towards producing stress, not growth and repair.
How to Recover More Effectively
HRV measures the balance between PNS/SNS activity, giving an indication of how suitable it is for you to train (on that given day).
Understanding your current state of physiology is tough to establish through intuition alone. Thats why HRV is such a useful tool.
It couldn’t be easier to do today – there are a few apps out there which use the camera to measure you heart rate which then calculates your HRV:
In order to get an accurate reading for your HRV, take your measurements at the same time each day, preferably in a state free of interference. First thing in the mornings is the favoured time, because this makes it obvious whether you are still recovering or not.
Once you have consistent measurements of your HRV, you can use this data to see how the intensity and duration of your workouts is affecting your level of fatigue. A good set of data can inform changes to your workouts, ensuring you are not overtraining. Playing around with the intensity, duration and type of workouts now has some backing to it – data. As you begin to play around with these variables, you begin to optimise your recovery for future workouts.
How To Become More Productive
HRV is essential to a long game strategy for increasing your strength, your endurance and your muscle mass. The more you can tap into your level of recovery, the more you can tailor the training ahead of you.
Through workouts that reflect your current level of fatigue and recovery, you take a marathon approach to goal achievement. Push yourself beyond your bounds one day, and you risk an unproductive workout for the following day(s).
Let’s say you currently do a HIIT workout that runs for ~ 30 – 40 minutes. Consider dropping off a couple rounds, exercises or minutes to prevent overtraining. Measure your HRV the next day and see how you may adjust that workout to still ensure progression and overload, whilst preventing overtraining. You will thank yourself in the long term.
As your workouts begin to match your bodies resources and capacity on a given day, your following training sessions become more productive. A greater productivity day to day adds up overtime, from the beneficial adaptations that result from sufficient rest and recovery. If you hit the right intensity, you can actually increase your parasympathetic tone, increasing HRV. However, push it too far, and you expect to see HRV drop.
HRV is considered a good indicator of exercise performance, and increases with regular exercise training (providing there is sufficient recovery). You can even take your recovery to the next level by accounting for additional factors which influence HRV. Your diet, your level of stress outside of training and your sleep all contribute. Even meditation, and pranayamic breathing exercises increase HRV.
Track these to get an accurate depiction of how your lifestyle impacts your recovery, not just your training.