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Recovery, Training

A while ago while researching different topics on training stress, fatigue and recovery, I stumbled across HRV  (Heart Rate Variability) and how it is used to enhance athletic performance. This got my attention and I wanted to find out more about it.

When it comes to recovery, most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to improve fitness and performance, still many of us over train and feel guilty when taking a day off. Rest is as important as training and necessary so that the muscles can repair and strengthen. If that part is neglected, continuous training can actually weaken the athlete. Not what we really want right.

Coaches tell us to listen to our body, check our RHR (Resting Heart Rate) to decide when it’s necessary to take a day off or skip a session. We have training plans which incorporate easy workouts and recovery days to avoid over training. That’s all good and important but in the end it is an individual decision when recovery is needed. For example there are genetic factors, age, gender and baseline fitness which are determinants of individual differences. That makes it difficult to draw a general approach to recovery. I have often wondered when I felt a bit flat, if it’s fatigue or just a lack of motivation. To get optimal adaptions from your training, fatigue is an important aspect that needs to be considered.

Hence I was looking into something more reliable, a method or tool that gives me more insight into my body and how it reacts to training. I was looking for a way to control my training load in a better way in order to achieve better outcomes! That’s when I learned more about the power of HRV.

So what is HRV?

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the physiological phenomenon of variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval. 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_rate_variability

From a fitness standpoint, we know that the heart rate increases when we exercise, because the heart needs to pump faster to deliver oxygen to our muscles. The autonomic nervous system plays a role in speeding up and slowing down HR. There are basically two branches to the ANS that influences heart rate:

  • Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
    speeds up the heart rate
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
    responsible for slowing the heart rate

SNS is often referred to “Fight or Flight”, and PNS to “Rest and Repair”. These 2 branches can now be measured using HRV analysis and permit insight into this control mechanism.The way I see it, these 2 components need to work well together, we need the SNS to accelerate and PNS to break, like with a car. If these two are not in balance or working properly we run into problems.

I have added some links at the bottom of the post if you are interested in the science behind it in more depth. I am no expert by any means in this field but find the science behind it incredibly interesting. Nowadays modern technology offers us an easy and very convenient way to measure HRV.

What do you need to measure your own HRV?

It’s actually quite, we can use an app on our smart phones to do that.There are huge number of different apps available that you can choose from. I personally use the Sweet Beat HRV app on my iPhone (it’s not a free app but can be purchased for $9.99, sorry only for iPhone). Other apps which I personally haven’t used are e.g. iThleteBioForce HRV, HRV beta, Elite HRV

The other equipment you need is a heart rate monitor that is Bluetooth compatible. Here is a list of compatible devices. I currently use the Polar H7 monitor.

How to measure your daily HRV

There are a few important variables measuring your HRV such as: Time of the day, movement, mood, food and sleep. I measure my HRV at the same time every day to get more useful results over a longer period of time. It’s right after I wake up. So my usual routine looks like this.

  1. After I wake up I put my heart rate monitor on
  2. I lay down on my back and start the app
  3. I breathe normally in and out through my nose and let the app run. I keep my eyes shut and concentrate on my breathing
  4. The app will run for about 3 minutes. Once it’s finished you can check your numbers on the screen. The higher the HRV score the better it is.

It will take a few days of measuring until the numbers make sense and will be more meaningful. I add my HRV numbers into my training plan to be able to compare and find correlations between my workout days.

Lately I have experimented a little bit to see if I can increase my HRV. The following things seem to help improving it

  1. Meditation and Yoga – Measuring HRV after a yoga or mediation session has a positive effect. Especially on the Parasympathetic Nervous System
  2. Cold Showers – Straight out of bed and into the shower. Shower with cold water for a few minutes, go back to bed and measure. I was surprised how much my HRV improves by taking ice cold showers.

Here are a few screenshots of some of my HRV readings with an explanation beneath:

image1image3

image2

image4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screenshot #1 – This shows the HRV, Heart Rate and Stress level over a period of time. (blue line = HRV, orange = Stress level, green = HR)

Screenshot #2 – These are the power frequency readings (SNS, PNS) over a period of time. This was during the lead up to a big race. As the chart shows, in the last week which was the race week, my power readings sky rocketed. That is a good indicator that I was fully rested and recovered come race day.

Screenshot #3 – HRV reading a day before a big race. Both LF, which is the power frequency of my Sympathetic Nervous system and HF which represents the Parasympathetic Nervous System  are well balanced. The LF/HF ratio is almost 1, which is a good indicator that your nervous system is well balanced. HRV score is 97 which is a very high score for me.

Screenshot #4 – Compared to the reading in the previous screenshot, this one clearly indicates that I am in a fatigue state. Both LF and HF are low and more importantly the ratio LF/HF is way out of balance. HRV is 68 which is quite low. I had low HRV readings for 2 days in a row and the app suggested to take a day off to recover. Even though my heart rate is in normal range which would not raise a concern by itself. Most likely I would have continued training if I just considered my HR but looking at the HRV it’s a clear sign to take some rest and recover.

Conclusion

It’s really interesting to see how sleep, food, stress and training can affect your heart rate variability and your overall fatigue level. In my opinion recovery is a crucial component in endurance sports and thanks to modern technology it’s very easy and affordable to measure it. So why not making use of it?! It’s a relatively simple measure that you can use to tract how well you are recovering. It helps you to prevent over training, reduces your risk of getting sick and in the long run makes you are stronger, healthier and fitter athlete.


 

References

Further articles to read

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Triathlon

My last season ended with racing at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Champs in Zell am See in Austria! What an amazing experience and a great way to finish off my first season of long course triathlon racing,

Overall it has been a fantastic year of training, racing and learning. After my big set back in February 2014, when I was hit by a car that left me with a broken shoulder and out of training for almost 6 months, I have worked my way back through hard and consistent training! Considering the circumstances I am more than happy with my achievements and the progress I have made so far. I also know there is plenty of room to improve and work on.

As I have progressed through the year I have learned a lot about myself, my body and how to connect with it to unlock your potential. Although I haven’t found the perfect approach yet,  I am surprised of what we are capable of doing and what mental boundaries and challenges we face. I think one of the most important things I have learned last season is the importance of the mental aspect in the sport of triathlon. As it is well know, mental strength is as important as physical strength when it comes to endurance sports.

Before you go into a race you set expectations and goals (usually a target race time or ranking). I think it is important to have specific goals when it comes to triathlons or life in general. On the one hand a goal can be a driving force that motivates and keeps you focused and on track. On the other hand a goal or expectation can also limit you or work against you during a race when things don’t go according to plan and you need to rethink and adjust your mindset.

When I was racing at the World Champs I faced that situation. I went into the race with high expectations of what I wanted to achieve. And I was well on track until the last part of the race – the crucial run that makes the difference. Until this point I felt really good, despite the though conditions on that day. I had no major problems but as soon as I started my run I knew immediately that it’s not going to work out as planned. That was a massive hit on my confidence, I lost trust in my capabilities, was mentally stressed and started to develop negative thoughts. The pain, tiredness, heavy legs, the heat all the negative things hit on me. I wasn’t mentally ready to deal with that and overcome these doubts and stay in the moment and develop positive thoughts!
My reaction at that point was, ” OK that’s it, your race is over, you can’t reach your goal, now just finish the run and get on with it. You at least own this to your supporters”

Pete Jacobs once wrote the following: “If you are putting expectations on yourself and during the race you don’t feel you are achieving them, there is only one way you’ll go, and that’s backwards. Staying mentally strong during a race means a clear mind free from stress, and that’s what keeps your body functioning at its best”. 

I think that’s exactly what I experienced. My mind wasn’t clear, I wasn’t in the moment and too stressed about my expectations. I am a big believer that only a clear and focused mind will allow you to perform at your very best!
After my initial disappointment, I am now very glad that I could experience that situation, I will learn from it, grow stronger and will deal with it in a better way the next time. If I face a similar situation (and I am pretty sure I will at some point) I hope that I am prepared to react in a better way.

So I am looking ahead to a very exciting next season. After a short break, I will settle my mind for the next goal, which is IRONMAN Austria in June 2016. I guess racing an Ironman distance will require even more mental focus and the right mindset to master such a race. I am very excited to take on this journey. I had a great last 12 months, with a lot of highs, great moments and important lessons learned. I can’t wait to get on my next journey, full of excitement of what is ahead of me. Keep an eye on my journal to find out more about my preparation for this race.

Be present in the moment, be mindful, relaxed and focused.

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