HRV is on everyone’s lips these days, it seems.
But what exactly is it?
HRV is heart rate variability. It’s the easy way of saying: the changes in time between peak contractions of the heart, or heart beats. The lower the HRV the higher the rate rate, which is only good when you’re running away from a hungry lion with his eyes set on your hindquarters.
A higher HRV means your heart is beating at fewer beats per minute which correlates to a healthy heart and less stress.
Heart Rate Variability is just that… variable. It changes per beat of the heart, so when you get an HRV rating on your fancy schmancy wrist watch, it’s averaging the time between each beat. Because your heart beats all day and night, this number changes as the day goes on and depends on how stressed you are and how calm or relaxed you are.
Things that can effect HRV:
Exercise (volume, intensity)
New stimulus to the body (vaccination shot, new exercise, new food, etc)
Rest vs Work Days
Sleep quantity and quality
Age, gender, genetics
Chronic Health Conditions
Let’s look deeper.
Your HRV actually is a function of your Autonomic Nervous System, which can be broken down into two branches: the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic nervous system.
The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for your flight or fight responses (ex: see your ex walk into the party, do you bee line it for the door or do you continue talking to your friends and hold your ground at the party?). Undoubtedly, your heart rate will increase, therefore the time between beets decreases, which is your low HRV.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for resetting. This is the system that takes over after you’ve realized there is no threat to fly from or fight (ex: your ex is not a threat and you can continue to enjoy the party despite their presence). This system relaxes you and allows recovery after the Sympathetic Nervous System has done its job to alert you to the possible dangers.
When your HRV is high it means your body is getting input from both sides of the nervous system, and is balanced (low stress = low heart rate = high HRV). When it’s low, it means something is stressing the body (high stress = high rate rate = low HRV).
Following so far?
Basically, if you wear a HRV monitoring system, you want a high HRV, that means your body is responding well to stress and therefore recovering well to imposed stresses.
Why is this important to know?
Well, in terms of training hard (athletes and non), you want your body to be able to train hard and get the benefits of doing so. If your heart rate variability is low, this means you may not be recovered enough to get the benefits of pushing yourself right now. Your body is already stressed and you’re going to stress it some more which can be very counterproductive when looking at goals such as muscle growth, strength and power output as well as fat burning and cardiovascular training.
A high HRV simply means you’ve recovered well enough to stress the body with training again.
Individuals can expect a very individual HRV reading. Meaning, some people will naturally be high or low, but what matters is not the numbers, but your consistency within a range of numbers.
If you find you tend to be higher on the HRV numbers then you probably are naturally good at handling stress of daily living and your body rids metabolic wastes especially quickly.
If your HRV is lower it means your body may be not as skilled at handling stressors, internal or external. But, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train or push yourself.
You must watch YOUR trends and if your trends run low, then you know that’s naturally where you fall and you can start to determine how ready you are to push yourself in the gym (or out, depending on your mode of training) and still get the rest and recovery you need.
There are ways to increase your HRV:
Taking adequate rest days if you workout strenuously
Sleep & Meditation
Limiting or abstaining from alcohol
Massage and Mobility work
Walking or gentle workouts – increasing blood flow and enjoyment in movement
Signs of Over Training – which would result in a low HRV:
Loss of interest in training or activities that bring you joy
Things feel more difficult than usual
Excess Fatigue (more than usual)
Loss of Appetite
Increase in injuries
Metabolic Distress (trouble digesting foods, difficulty losing fat or gaining weight/muscle)
So what now?
If you track or schedule your training around your HRV, continue to practice activities that can lower your HRV (as seen above).
If you don’t track, pay attention to the signs of over training (listed above) and make sure that you are counteracting those with recovery techniques (also listed above).
Bottom line is this: people have been training/working hard and recovering adequately for centuries. And only in recent years has the HRV tracking become something of value. Yes, there is absolutely value in it, but is it absolutely necessary? For professional athletes, I’d say a solid yes – maybe. For weekend warriors, probably not. If you’re having a difficult time, as a weekend warrior or non athlete, getting enough sleep, eating well, taking a rest day (depending on how often and how hard you train), partaking in enjoyable activities that lower your stress and increase your appreciation and enjoyment of daily life should be adequate recovery for you.
The new products are great (in particular Whoop and Oura Ring) but on the whole, for general population, it’s not something you need to probably worry about.
Someone like me, who trains relentlessly, despite not being an athlete, I would probably benefit from one of these products. But would I adhere to the recommendation of HRV readings? Probably not.
Often if we’re in tune with our bodies, which takes time, we can do a lot of good for ourselves, auto regulating our workouts, rest days and nutrition.
However, if you find it difficult to do so, a device could be very helpful.
HRV – varying times between heart beats.
A way to gauge recovery and the body’s adaptive abilities.