Heart Rate Variability has quickly been reaching buzzword status. It’s been a standard measurement amongst athletes in high performance facilities for years but not something that has been particularly easy to monitor for the average exercise enthusiast – until now.

So what is heart rate variability (HRV)? Why should you be aware of it? How can you to measure and track it? And why can measuring it completely change your approach to training and recovery?

What Exactly Is Heart Rate Variability

I’m sure you’ve measured your own HEART RATE at some point, whether that’s by placing three fingers on a superficial artery and counting the beats or by strapping on a heart rate monitor, you’ll get a figure measured in beats per minute. However, this number doesn’t tell you everything…

A resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute doesn’t mean that your heart beats exactly every second, it will vary from beat to beat – hence the term Heart Rate Variability.

So what does this mean?

As a (very vague) rule of thumb, the higher the HRV the better, the lower your HRV, the worse your current wellbeing. Human physiology is such a fascinating and complicated topic and there are a number of other factors to consider but let’s keep it simple to start.

Your heart works automatically. There are bundles of cells that get excited and send the electric impulse through the heart via the electrical conduction system and this causes the heart muscle to contract.

These pacemaker cells generate impulses at a higher rate than is actually required of a normal heartbeat and it’s the role of your autonomic nervous system to slow them down.

Your autonomic nervous system has two divisions. The sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. Stick with me here!…

The parasympathetic system is responsible for slowing things down and promoting “rest and digest” mechanisms, while the sympathetic nervous system fires you up and is your “fight or flight division”. In a normal healthy individual you want the parasympathetic influences over the pacemaker to be stronger, meaning that your heart rate is slower than it would be if the heart only functioned automatically, unfortunately stress, poor sleep and even being over-stimulated from your mobile phone can stop this from happening and keep us in a constant switched on fight or flight mode.

Why Change Is Good

Your body is constantly under changing conditions. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and their opposing actions, are there to ensure that your internal organs respond to these changes. That’s why if your heart rate variability is higher, it’s a sign that you’re more adaptable.

On the other hand, if your HRV drops, there’s a good chance that you’re undergoing a lot of stress. Low HRV is a good indicator of low resilience and adaptability. It can also signal mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, or chronic illness, From my perspective as a human performance coach, I use it as a marker for athletes under stress, still recovering from training sessions, poor sleep or even a bad diet.

How Do You Measure Heart Rate Variability

HRV was first noticed on ECG strips. ECG is reliable, and widely used in clinical practice. However, outside of hospital settings, the machine is simply not practical. Not only is it time-consuming to hook up the electrodes by yourself every morning, the device takes up space, and it’s very pricey if you’re not on a private hospital budget!

Thankfully, new ways of measuring HRV are emerging and wearable technology and mobile apps are leading the way in providing cheap, simple and incredibly easy and effective ways to monitor yourself.

Tracking HRV on your mobile phone

For the last few weeks my morning routine has consisted of strapping on my bluetooth heart rate monitor and opening the Elite HRV app on my phone. Yes, I know there’s an app for everything! But this one has been really useful for me and simple to use. I sit perfectly still and relaxed and allow the app to measure my resting heart rate and HRV and after just two minutes it gives me a score and tells me if I’m all set to push hard with my training or need to look after myself a bit more in the day ahead.

It may not be a perfect measurement but it gives me a good idea of where I’m at. You need to control the conditions as much as possible, for example taking it at the same time of day and in the same position. Even small changes in your routine can affect your score. There will undoubtedly be mornings where you have slept less, where you had to get up to go to the bathroom, or when you had a big meal late the night before that you still haven’t quite digested. All of these will change HRV and ultimately make the measurement unreliable, BUT I still believe it’s well worth tracking.

From my own perspective it has been really beneficial for me to start the day in a very calm manner. I get up very early each morning and I’m on the go straight away either into my studios in London, off to Red Bull Racing or out for an early morning training session. The process of stopping before I’ve even started has been incredibly beneficial from a psychological perspective as well as seeing the physiological benefits. I’ve also enjoyed the process of listening to my own body. I recognise if I haven’t slept well, if I’m feeling a bit under the weather or I’m stressed in any way about the day ahead or just sore and stiff from a tough training session earlier that week. After measuring myself for the past few weeks I’m getting pretty good at predicting what my score will be and most importantly adapting my day to reflect this.

I must stress that this is only a rough guide and in no way

How To Use HRV Information

While heart rate variability is a novel and highly effective way of tracking health, I have to stress that it will not be 100% accurate.

However, I enjoy using it myself and I recommend it to a number of clients that I work with. From a performance perspective I think it’s incredibly useful in determining how I pitch the training sessions for myself and my clients. I find that most people get very lazy with their approach to training. Yes you may be training several times per week but what are you actually doing during those sessions? Are you pushing beyond your previous capabilities? Are you following a proper training programme? and are you factoring in enough time for sufficient rest, recovery and proper nutrition?

My experience tells me that most people probably aren’t. Instead they do the same old workouts day after day that may actually be doing more harm than good. I’ll explain more about this in a later article…

My advice? Check your HRV, enjoy the process of slowing things down and listening to your body, push hard on the good days and learn to ease off on the low score days. I guarantee your results will improve – and that’s what it’s ultimately all about isn’t it?

Cheers,

David Osgathorp