Heart Rate Variability: Should Endurance Athletes Care About HRV?
How many tools are in your training and racing toolbox these days? Truth be told the market is saturated with new gadgets, technologies, philosophies, algorithms, and promises to make you better. As educated consumers, you need to evaluate new products coming to the market and decide personal worth to you. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a recent addition.
Although HRV started as a means to monitor cardiac arrhythmias, it has been commandeered by the athletic community as a training and recovery metric. Following the release of research articles, several companies started creating their own tools and applications to monitor HRV, geared toward athletes. Discerning athletes want to know, however, whether this new piece of information is actually useful.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
Heart rate variability is simply the measure of inter-heartbeat variation for a given period of time. What this means, is that although your heart might beat at 60 beats per minute, those beats are not happening perfectly every second on the second. There is variation, and that’s a good thing. More variation generally means the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” branch of the autonomic nervous system, is doing its job as a regulator. Adjustments to internal and external stimuli are reflected in the inter-beat variation.
Essentially, HRV monitoring gives us a window into how well our autonomic nervous system is working. This, in theory, could provide a way to measure how physiological stress, training load, and fatigue affect the way our bodies recover from a race, hard work out, or training block. What makes HRV monitoring so appealing is that it is a time efficient, inexpensive, and non-invasive tool.
What HRV can tell athletes
Generally speaking, once you’ve established your baseline for HRV you have a tool that allows you to monitor positive and negative trends in fitness, fatigue, and readiness to compete. It should be noted that HRV is a measure best used to compare internally and not across a population, or rather, athlete to athlete. This is due to it being a highly personal metric that doesn’t correlate well between subjects especially in one day, single value, measures.
Most often higher HRV values correspond with a well-functioning nervous system. It means that your body is reacting to stimuli and constantly making micro-adjustments. On the other hand, HRV measures that are low, or decreasing to below baseline, can indicate your nervous system is fatigued. In other words, it may be responding in a more sluggish fashion to that same stimuli. However, this is where it gets complicated… increases or decreases in HRV are not always so cut and dry.
Interpreting HRV changes
- An increase in HRV with a decrease in RHR (resting heart rate) generally means an athlete is coping well with training.
- An increase in HRV with an increase in RHR is generally a sign of accumulated fatigue unless it at the very beginning of a short training block.
- A decrease in HRV with an increase in RHR is generally a sign of accumulated fatigue unless an athlete is tapering and then it could be a positive sign for readiness to perform.
- A decrease in HRV with a decrease in RHR is generally a sign on prolonged low-intensity high volume training. If it cannot be reversed with rest it could be a sign of being in an overtraining state.
Additionally, HRV can dip below baseline values for a day or two after an especially taxing workout or race. Athletes also can experience an increase during times of illness, when the immune system is in overdrive. The exact opposite of what you would expect if HRV monitoring were a simple tool. Essentially, understanding how HRV changes day to day and over time on an individual level are important. Especially when positive and negative “scoring” days are not always what they seem. This makes HRV a tricky, but not impossible, metric if you have the time to put the measures into context.
How to use Heart Rate Variability effectively
So, if you’re going to use HRV what are the most effective ways to make it a good tool?
The No One-Day Rule.
HRV measures work best for evaluating trends over time and the use of rolling averages. As mentioned above, do not focus too much on one low reading or one high reading. Individual values do not always spell out a completely clear story. Interpretation is essential.
Take HRV readings immediately upon waking in the morning.
Research (*link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16531900) has shown that when monitoring rested versus over-trained athletes there is little difference in overnight readings, but waking up is often enough stress to show who’s nervous system is not working as well (ie who is more fatigued). This also means it is important to stay awake during the readings in either a reclined or semi-reclined position.
Take frequent readings.
To most accurately use HRV, you are going to be evaluating trends over time. Most applications work best with daily recordings as they are looking for slight changes from your normal baseline. This also means consistency is key. Measure HRV every day, at the same time, in the same position to rule out confounding variables. This means recording at least 5 days a week and not just after hard workouts, long efforts, and races.
Don’t use it alone.
Like most training metrics, HRV is best used in conjunction with other information. The best tools to use with HRV will generally be resting heart rate, training load, and some subjective measure like sleep quality. Some applications account for this automatically by syncing with TrainingPeaks or Strava. If using solo, you’ll want to be cognizant of context.
Clinicians use 5-minute measures.
If the application you are using gives you an option to chose the length of the reading, go longer. Most applications will give you an option of a 1-minute reading or an open/5-minute reading. The longer the reading the more clean data you can get. In many clinical studies researchers will actually take 10-minute long readings in order to obtain a really clean and consistent 5-minute chunk to analyze
Trust your technology.
We are fortunate that over the past couple of years smartphone technology has advanced exponentially, in particular the cameras. Advances in cellphone cameras allow us to now use photoplethysmography to accurately assess HRV without any extra gear. Some Android phones or older phones do not have this capability, but you can pair most applications with bluetooth capable heart rate monitor chest straps. Keep in mind, however, that wrist-worn monitors, like GPS watches with build in HR monitors, are not accurate enough to monitor interbeat variation required for HRV measures.
So… is that a Yes or a No?
Should you add HRV to the data you’re tracking or not bother? It really comes down to whether you’re the type of athlete who can be consistent with how you gather data and how frequently. Sporadic measurements don’t provide nearly as much value, and measurements taken at different times of day, in different body positions, can also make it more difficult to get an accurate and useful picture from the data. If you’re going to be consistent, then go for it!
By Corrine Malcolm,
CTS Expert Coach
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I started using a whoop strap after I fell apart on the Tour Divide to help me understand changing signals from an aging body. (68).
I find HRV actually measures heart arrhythmia. Whoop will tell me I need a rest day when HRV is in the 20s and suggest I am well recovered when HRV is in well into the hundreds. The opposite is true.
I’ve been wearing a Whoop strap for six months and I’ve come to realize two things about this device that makes me question the need for wearing it. First of all, the day before an event like pedaling in a Gran Fondo, I have trouble falling asleep at night. As a result of tossing and turning, I wake up with a low HRV and my recovery has been as low as 32%. With a recovery this low, most people would think I should sit this event out, which is not possible. I think looking at your numbers the morning of, has the potential to negatively reinforce your performance potential. Secondly, I question the accuracy of wearing a device on your wrist. For example, while swimming laps my heart rate has been as high as 197 bpm, I seriouly doubt that’s accurate. I think the strap slides up and down your wrist which effects the readings.
I agree with your observation. I’ve been tracking HRV for over 2 years now on a daily basis. I’ve had days where I get a “10” which means go ahead and train hard and actually felt very fatigued from previous day’s workouts. Conversely, I’ve taken readings on race mornings with the suggestion to take a day off and recover. As you said, that’s not happening…so I cleared my head and raced, of course, and had some of my best race days. I still find the data useful, but not enough to let it affect my training schedule too much.
Joseph – I’ve been using Whoop for a few years and I agree with you. For me, the following things will wreck my recovery score: poor sleep, too much alcohol the night before, eating a big meal late at night, getting sick, a really hard workout. When I got a cold a few weeks ago, my recovery score barely budged. But when I got COVID, the score crashed into the red for two days. The shingles vaccine also demolished my recovery score for a day.
I never use my recovery score to determine how hard to work out. I’ve never given up on a ride because of a red score, in large part for the reasons you cite – poor sleep will tank my HRV, but poor sleep is common the night before a big event.
For me, I use the HRV score as a trend indicator–am I getting enough sleep? Am I coming down with something? Am I drinking too much booze? My recovery score is a useful reminder to keep up healthy habits, because I can usually see quick results when I eat too much, drink too much, don’t sleep enough, etc.
One interesting finding: cutting calories to around 1500 per day will drive up my HRV for a few days, but after a week of that my HRV starts to go down as the lack of calories causes fatigue.
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I use my Oura sleep ring to track my sleep which includes, HR, HRV, body temp and movement. Can I also use this to track my HRV right after I wake up as you recommend in the article. If not, how would you suggest I do this? I also, have a Garmin with HR monitor if that might help.
Patrick McFeeley just use HRV4Training – It has a checkbox in the app that links directly into the OURA. The scientist/developer of the app also works for OURA and has a wealth of resources on the website
Thanks Corrine for great article. One part I am confused is when you said here: “Additionally, athletes can also see a dip to below HRV baseline values for a day or two after an especially taxing workout or race, and an increase during times of illness with the immune system is in overdrive.” I understand logic behind taxing work out but why increase in HRV during illness? If immune system is under stress, would it imply SNS is overactivated and hence HRV should dip? Thanks!
I have read the same – HRV can be the canary in the coal mine – it will start to decrease, not increase, as your body starts to become ill….
It is a pretty easy measure to use as a supplement and complement to the common sense based attentiveness to your health that all of us as athletes should consider.
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I’ve been using morning resting and standing HRs for ~20 years. The difference between them is your orthostatic HR and that’s quite sensitive to training state. However after I turned 70, my orthostatic became less informative and I started also using Elite HRV with a Polar H10 Bluetooth transmitter, as well as the orthostatic test in my Polar V800 which also gives HRV.
Using Elite, I take a 2 minute resting HRV and then a 5 minute standing. I add the RMSSDs together to get my status. That’s quite sensitive to training. However, the most sensitive thing and the thing I watch the most is my HF power which Elite gives me under Data Details. That tells me the state of my parasympathetic nervous system, which is a direct marker for fatigue.
The RMSSDs + the Polar orthostatic test + HF power: looking at all these variables together takes most of the guesswork out of it. I track them in a spreadsheet. Yes, it takes time, about 1/2 hour every single morning, but it’s been very much worth it to me, because I’m always trying to ride the knife edge between OK and not OK.
Reading the other comments, I should have mentioned that mental stress is very much reflected in one’s HRV. It’s critical when taking HRV to use mindfulness meditation and a specific breathing routine which you do not vary from day to day. Empty your mind. Listen carefully to the sounds around you. Let thoughts drift away like clouds, without emotion or censure. I do that for a few minutes before starting an HRV reading and maintain that state during the reading. It’s good for you.
Thanks David – going to read up on HF…
Thank you all commenters for adding the “how do you obtain HVR data” which this article seemed to be lacking. Looking forward to some analysis.
I use my Oura Ring to track sleep and HRV. I believe it’s the most efficient tracker available. https://ouraring.com/ Aah, this has changed how seriously I take recovery and sleep. I have to charge it once a week.
I have been tracking HRV daily for about a year. I use Elite HRV first thing in the morning (4 min recording) and Polar “Nightly Recharge” overnight and track HRV vs baseline and HR vs baseline.
Like Martin, I have not found any discernable correlation between HRV and my levels of fitness, which can be used to predict when to train and when not. Over the last year I have had two extended periods of enforced rest due to illness and fatigue which were not identifiable from HRV data.
The only factors I have found to affect HRV are alcohol consumption (I’m not a big drinker) and non-training related stress.
I use a Whoop strap and find that the easiest way to goose my HRV is to eat no meat and eat under 1500 calories for the day. Doing that always drives up my HRV.
i used whoop and found the data to be inaccurate many times. so stopped using. my garmin hr monitor was much more accurate in the end.
Worth noting, with the discussion and questions on apps, that the Health App, when used with an Apple Watch will track your HRV by day, week, month and year – providing averages for each. I’m getting a number so I wonder why there is a sense that wrist worn devices won’t provide a value or the suggestion that the value would be suspect.
Excellent article, Corrine!
I am deep into measuring/analyzing my cycling #s using TP Premium & WK04 both for performance (PDC, TTE, FRC, etc) and fitness/fatigue management (PMC chart). Your article not only gives a good overview of HRV (I know the subject goes deep), but raises the question for me as to whether I would make the same commitment to HRV.
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Also look at ithlete.com for HRV recordings as well. It’s very easy to use.
You can use a HT strap or purchase a finger sensor to record readings.
Great information I have record dating back early 80s heart rate, weight, and training date. Mostly Polar equipment . Have with in the last year upgraded to HVR4 every morning at 2min and using V800 Polar heart rate monitor. I find the information very usefully ,because I am 75 and train as hard I can. this information keeps from over training.
I’ve been using Elite HRV for over a year. As to the “best” application, whatever works for you. Elite has a one time only payment to sync with major tracking programs.
I’ve found correlation with HRV and fatigued state.
I have been using HRV for well over a year now. Started with Elite and now use Emfit QS sleep monitor.
Unfortunately I have not been able to discern any usable trends between HRV measured by either product and my state of training. (Which is why I stopped using Elite. I continue to use Emfit because it takes no time and provides other useful info).
The only physiological marker that has proved reliable is lower HR when doing threshold+ efforts. If I am fatigued then this is around 10bpm less compared to fresh.
I should add I followed all the suggested rules above in the article. The main reason I stopped using Elite was because it took around 10 minutes every morning to put on my HR strap, wait for my HR to stabilise, take a reading then check the results.
iThlete have a finger sensor that takes no time at all. Try it. Quick and easy to measure. I’ve been using it for about 15 years.
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Chris, con u comment on what you think is the best app or device currently?
I am fascinated by the HRV info. Thanks! Is there a particular watch or device that you would recommend?
Janet L. Simpson MS, RD, MHSW
Personally I would recommend any bluetooth HR monitor chest strap paired with a phone application like HRV4 Training or Elite HRV. They both have an “open recording” function allowing you to record for longer than 60seconds. (ideally 5mins)
Corrine- I would be interested in your thoughts on using the Polar Orthostatic test on say the Vantage V2? It can be done each day upon waking, is a 4 min test, and the data is transferred to Polar Flow which has a detailed analysis of your status – including being able to see summaries over time and a % of “rested” and ready for harder excercise state, vs need for light excercise or rest.