Heart rate variability training is widely used by professional and Olympic athletes to get the edge in their training.
It provides extra subtle data on how ready your body is for a hard training session and how well it has recovered, so you can optimise training schedule and not unknowingly move into dangerous “over-training” zones.
Technology has advanced so much recently, it is very cheap and easy now for us all to monitor and do heart rate variability training but what exactly does heart rate variability training tell us? Successfully using the data still requires tracking and understanding.
More than 50 years ago, scientists discovered that the more variation in the time between someone’s heartbeats, the healthier the heart is.
More variability indicates your heart is reacting well to the second-by-second changes in your body, such as the peaks and valleys in oxygen when you inhale and exhale. “Another way to look at it is that HRV is a good indicator of whether your central nervous system is in a fight or flight mode [low variation] or a rest and repair mode [high variation],” says Alan Couzens, triathlon coach.
Elite trainers now use this data to measure how well their athletes recover from big workouts. Heart rate variability training involves understanding fluctuations in our HRV. Consistent readings of high variation are a strong indication of good recovery and the heart’s readiness to take on another training block.
Heart rate variability training apps, like SweetBeat, EliteHRV or HRV4Training, take your pulse via your phone’s camera or heart rate chest strap and spit out a score between one and 100, with most readings falling somewhere between 50 and 100.
Use a chest strap that is bluetooth compatible like Polar H7
Heart rate variability training scores are highly individual. It is not as simple as high is bad and low is good. But this has led many amateur athletes to see high numbers as good and low ones as bad. Rather it’s the consistency of your particular HRV score over several days or even weeks.
Couzens to give a basic rundown of things to look out for when planning your heart rate variability training:
- Build a baseline: “The most important thing is to identify your personal norm, which can only be determined by spending a month or so being consistent with the readings,” says Couzens. In other words try to measure it at the same time each day.
- Know your numbers: “Higher is not always better, and your number does not always correlate with fitness,” says Couzens. “I have some very good athletes who, for whatever reason, have really low baselines, meaning their hearts tend to have low variability. Once you know your general high numbers and general low numbers, those are the ones to pay attention to; how close your number is to your personal baseline is a better indicator of readiness to train than a high number. If you take arbitrary values and start comparing yourself with other athletes, you’re missing out on the most valuable data.”
- Don’t be fooled by false spikes: “Hard training often drives an athlete’s heart rate variability really low and then way up the minute we stop and our body rallies,” says Couzens. “But you may still feel really tired—listen to your body so that you’re following patterns, not one-off readings.”
- Use your number to plan workouts: Athletes reported their best training sessions when their HRV number was on the high side of their normal, according to Couzens. For example, if the athlete’s average was 50, she would likely see her best training while in the 55-60 range. This zone is a good indication that your heart is working to its full capacity and you’re thus likely to recovery from hard work quickly.
- Always check HRV before HIIT: Heart rate variability training helps determine the intensity of your next workout. “There are studies that have shown that athletes who do HIIT work when their HRV is high-to-normal get a significantly better training response—as measured by performance and recovery—than when it’s low. Likewise, if your morning number is significantly above or below your personal baseline, that’s a good indication that it’s not the best day to do a hard set or interval work because the body won’t be able to recover well.”
- Take HRV tracking a step further with training apps: Websites like Training Peaks are actually now talking with some of these HRV apps. “Training Peaks, in particular, has always had what they call a performance management chart, which basically tracks your long-term chronic training load with your acute training load. That’s pretty powerful information.”
- Number’s off? Do something about it: “You actually have the power to change your HRV. Often, very easy training will bring it closer to your baseline, as will non-training activities like going for a hike.” This is smart training.
- Heart rate variability training: In competitive sports, improved performance is achieved by alternating periods of intensive training with periods of relative rest. SweetBeatLife uses patent pending algorithms to create a personalized reference line for the user based on 3-minute daily HRV readings. Using the reference line, the app recommends the user “train as usual”, have a “low exertion day”, or take a “rest day”.
Here is a deeper dive into heart rate variability training:
How To Use Heart Rate Variability Training
If you are showing low heart rate variability you would only engage in activities like:
• Light mobility work
• Brisk walking
• Deep diaphragmatic breathing
If you had a high intensity Tabata session on the treadmill or a hard core strength sessions planned, you would likely get injured, get sick or get decreased performance.
If you are consistently showing high heart rate variability score, you are likely to be able to push yourself a little harder to get better results from your training.
What Is A Good Heart Rate Variability Training Score?
Data from elite HRV shows their average user score is 60.32. Remember this means nothing- it depends what your normal is! Though as a triathlete, I know we all love to compare data :)
Remember from a previous article how important recovery is for your increased performance.
- If you are a typical type A triathlete living under chronic stress and constantly pushing yourself with no down time, you are likely to be leaving a lot of performance gains on the table.
- Remember to schedule easy training days regularly. (These will make your harder training sessions more effective). Remember to schedule some easy stretching/yoga/breathing time in your week. (These will also make your harder training sessions more effective).
This heart rate variability training data can be massively useful in teaching you the subtleties of how your body is responding to training and help you mitigate illness, injury, accelerated ageing and chronic stress.
So, if you are not good as “listening” to your body or you find you are chronically tired, sick or injured, this heart rate variability training data may be just what you need to allow yourself to “hold” back a few times a week in order to make massive progress forward in fitness, performance and health.
Please comment below if you are using heart rate variability training…
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