Classic heart rate training helps you pace yourself during workouts and follow periodorized training plans. However, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a more effective tool for managing workout recovery.
HRV isn't just a passing fitness trend. HRV has applications beyond human fitness. Innovative programs are exploring HRV to manage Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) for veterans and hospitals use it in treatment of premature babies. Even racehorse owners use HRV to optimize their million-dollar thoroughbreds' training and recovery plan.
Equine trainers can't ask a horse about perceived exertion, stress, or fatigue. Instead they rely on guesswork and objective observation. Monitoring HRV provides objective data about the body's response to stress. The same is just as true for you as for a racehorse.
"Adequate fitness without overtraining and associated fatigue is a critical component of the successful competitor... HRV has been used in human athletes to more sensitively assess fitness and conditioning. It has also been used to assess physical and emotional stress, pain and mortality risk. Fit horses are thought to have a relatively greater parasympathetic nervous system input, and less of a sympathetic component than unfit horses... This parasympathetic and sympathetic input can be estimated with HRV." - American Endurance Ride Conference
Why not use this powerful tool to manage your own workout recovery!
Before offering practical tips, we should review how HRV connects to your workout recovery. HRV measures the intervals between each heart beat. Every device uses a proprietary number to quantify this, but all are looking at the same thing. All are looking for insight into the state of your autonomic nervous system.
Two primary subsystems form your autonomic nervous system:
- Sympathetic nervous system: When you feel startled by a loud noise or a snake then you experienced your sympathetic nervous system at work. It controls your "fight" or "flight" reactions. Some classic symptoms include a quickened heart rate, pupil dilation, you breath faster, and you may experience a heightened state of alertness.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: After a fight or flight response, your heart rate starts to return to normal and you return to your normal state. This subsystem reflects your body's desire to maintain balance.
Your sympathetic system helps power you through a vigorous workout whether it is aerobics, high-intensity intervals, or a competitive game. Your parasympathetic system guides your heart and nervous system through recovery.
A Higher HRV reading indicates that your parasympathetic nervous system functions well. While a low HRV reading indicates your sympathetic nervous system is still dominant. This balance reflects your stress management, workout recovery, quality of sleep, and general wellness.
Vigorous workouts stress your body. Much of your fitness gains come from your workout recovery. Overtime, you get stronger and can handle bigger challenges.
Three Workout Recovery Tips To Make The Most Of Your Fitness Program
1. Practice Massage, Touch and Physical Relaxation
Remember the racehorses? Researchers conduct studies on HRV and their training recovery. In one study, researchers investigated the connection between relaxing massage therapy and the horse's HRV. Both the control and experimental groups of racehorses trained six days a week. The experimental group received massages three times a week. They found the massaged horses had higher HRV levels and performed better during races (on average).
If you need an excuse for a massage -- there it is! You are welcome.
2. Rest Your Mind and Breathe Deeply
Mindful practices that involve deep breathing tend to raise HRV. As we previously mentioned, numerous studies point to the HRV raising power of meditation, yoga, and tai chi. This effect may stretch to other mindful relaxation techniques. Breathing and relaxation may help restore balance between your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system.
3. Evaluate Your Recovery
First take a daily reading of your HRV using a heart rate monitoring device like your Biostrap. With the right device, this is as simple as measuring your resting heart rate - in fact your Biostrap measures both!
Remember to keep the conditions as consistent as possible. We know life happens, but try to take your HRV measure while relaxing, before eating or drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages, before exercise, and before eating.
Your HRV reading may be lower than normal the morning after a vigorous workout. This means your body is still recovering. When it returns to higher numbers, that means you had adequate rest. If you ran a race, played in a tournament, or had an especially tough Crossfit session then it may take a couple days to recover.
Whether you are a human or a racehorse, higher HRV reflects that you are ready for new challenges.
Sources and Resources:
Live Healthier With Heart Rate Variability, Biostrap
The Importance of Measuring Resting Heart Rate, Biostrap
American Endurance Ride Conference
The effect of relaxing massage on heart rate and heart rate variability in purebred Arabian racehorses, "Animal Science Journal"
Effects of Age, Exercise Duration, and Test Conditions on Heart Rate Variability in Young Endurance Horses, "Frontiers in Physiology"