Track Your Heart Rate Variability for Maximum Sports Performance?

Ever wonder what all the buzz is around sports watches and fitness trackers? Nowadays, these wearable devices are everywhere. You can see people using them in the gym, on the street, and even in bed while sleeping. It's estimated that more than 105 million units will be sold worldwide by 2022.

As you probably know, these gadgets display some health and performance indicators, such as your daily steps, calories burned, deep sleep duration, and so on. They also show your heart rate (HR), which is one of the most important factors in overall health and physical performance.

Once you know your HR, you can easily track your heart rate variability or HRV. This number measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. The latest fitness and activity trackers can collect meaningful HRV data and turn it into valuable insights.

But why is the heart rate variability important and how does it impact your performance in the gym? Let's find out!


Understanding the Heart Rate Variability.

Heart rate indicates the number of times your heart beats per minute. Heart rate variability, on the other hand, represents the changes in time — measured in milliseconds — between successive beats. This marker can tell a lot about your overall health, cardiovascular function, nervous system function, and physical performance.

In medicine, heart rate variability is used to assess the risk of metabolic illnesses, sudden cardiac death, congestive heart failure, and more. In sports, it helps track athletes' training adaptation and determines optimum training loads. It's also a predictor of illness in professional athletes.

Coaches and sports experts track HRV to measure the conditioning progress of runners, swimmers, rugby players, pro bodybuilders, MMA fighters (Demetrious “Mighty Mouse Johnson) and so on. This marker provides useful insights into your sports performance and ability to reach your fitness goals. It shows how much stress you can tolerate, whether you're training too much or too little, and how your body responds to exercise.


What Determines Your HRV?

Under normal conditions, there is a variation among the intervals between heartbeats. Even if your HR is 70 beats per minute, for example, it doesn't mean that your heart beats at regular intervals. Problems arise when these intervals are too long or too short.

Diabetic neuropathy, for instance, causes a significant reduction in HRV. The same goes for individuals who have suffered or are at risk for myocardial infarction. Decreased HRV may also occur in people in liver cirrhosis, sudden cardiac death, chronic high cervical spinal cord lesions, or sepsis. A low HRV can also be a sign of cancer, indicating the progression of the disease.

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder may cause your heart variability to drop too. Premature babies with low HRV have poor survival rates. Since HRV is modulated by the autonomic nervous system, it's an accurate indicator of your mental health and well-being. Your hormones, core body temperatures, stress, physical activity, diet, and sleep patterns all influence your heart rate variability.

The hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system and certain metabolic activities, signals your body to either relax or stimulate different functions. This brain region is particularly sensitive to stress, emotions, and other stimuli. Even a poor night's sleep or nutrient deficiencies can affect its overall functioning. The hypothalamus has a direct impact on your HRV, so any imbalance in this brain area will affect heart rate variability as well.

Medical professionals often track a patient's HRV to identify imbalances in the autonomic nervous system. For example, if you're stressed, your body enters the fight-or-flight mode and cortisol levels increase. This leads to a reduction in HRV. Over time, a low HRV may increase your risk of heart disease and premature death.


The Role of HRV in Sports Performance.

Heart rate variability is widely researched in the context of sports performance. In general, athletes and individuals with an active lifestyle are more resilient to stress and have a higher HRV. Proper sleep and recovery, meditation, balanced nutrition, and regular exercise can positively impact heart rate variability.

This marker is considered one of the most important training and recovery indicators in sports. Overtraining, for example, puts stress on your system, which in turn, reduces HRV. Studies have found that athletes experiencing high-stress levels make smaller gains in muscle and strength compared to those with low levels of stress.  (Think of people that do two sessions a day in their “black hole” heart rate zones!)

Physical and emotional stress can also affect your ability to recover from training and adapt to exercise. Other lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption, may lower your HRV too. Drinking just one glass of red wine can reduce both heart rate and HRV.

Tracking your heart rate variability provides useful insights into how your body responds to training. This marker can help determine whether you're working out too hard or for too long, how fast you recover, and how long it takes you to adapt to certain exercise programs. Furthermore, it may predict your susceptibility to injury and illnesses.

Think of your HRV as an indicator of training readiness. Let's say you're constantly sore and fatigue. This is often a sign of overtraining. If your HRV is lower than normal, you can adjust your workout routine and see whether or not you recover faster and your HRV returns to normal.

The average HRV varies depending on your age, gender, fitness level, and type of sport. In a study, women between 18 and 25 years old had an average HRV score of 65.9 +/- 9.9. Men of the same age had an HRV score of 68.6 +/8.5. The values were lower in older subjects as the HRV tends to decrease with age.

Generally, a high HRV score indicates that your body has a strong ability to handle stress and recover. A low HRV, by contrast, shows that your body is under physical or psychological stress.

Tracking this marker typically yields more accurate results than measuring your heart rate as it integrates the nervous, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. HR is best used during training, while heart rate variability should be measured in a rested state.

You can check your HRV with a Bluetooth chest strap, and a mobile app you need a more advanced activity tracker to measure your HRV, which can be costly. However, it’s an investment in your health. Based on the results, you’ll be able to adjust your workouts, mitigate stress, and determine how your body responds to exercise.

So in 2019, to improve your health and performance, get into your local sports store and grab yourself a Bluetooth chest strap or tracker, perhaps drop the two a day “intense” workouts in favour of more recovery activities, and last but not least check your social media usage.  Too many people sweat the small stuff on social media instead of getting out there and walking the walk, so less “talky talk”. 😉

-Hamish Creighton