Sometimes you step onto the field or into the weight room and feel like no person or thing could slow you down. Other times, you feel like you're moving through mud with each step, and a weight you normally lift seems downright impossible.
This happens to all of us at one point or another. It's impossible to perform at our peak every single day.
For the sake of your performance, you want to reduce the "moving through mud" sessions as much as possible. That's where heart rate variability comes into play. What was once a way to assess heart attack risk, heart rate variability (HRV) is a powerful tool to help you know whether you're ready to push your body to its limits.
What Is Heart Rate Variability
Measuring your heart rate is an easy way to see how your body responds to certain situations. Increase physical or emotional stress, and your heart rate goes up. Relax and remove stress, and your heart rate goes down. HRV takes this a step further by looking at the difference between every single heartbeat.
At its most basic level, the heart is a pump, and the central nervous system (CNS) is its power supply. The CNS sends electrical impulses that causes heart muscles to contract, pumping blood throughout the body. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) can detect this impulse. The QRS complex shown below indicates a heartbeat. HRV measures the interval between R waves, in milliseconds. This number changes as you inhale and exhale, and it depends on the amount of stress you're under.
Less stress and fatigue leads to a more variable heart rate, because the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down your heart rate, is more active. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, takes over under stressful situations and boosts your heart rate.
Each person has his or her own individual HRV range on a scale from 0 to 100. Higher is better. If your HRV falls below your average range, that indicates your body is under stress. If it's greater than your average range, your body is ready to take on an tough challenge.
What This Tells You About Your Body
All types of training are designed specifically to place stress on the body. Your body gradually adapts and is able to handle more stress, which can come in the form of more weight, longer sprints or other training variables. This process is called General Adaptation Syndrome. The graphic below shows how your body responds to a tough workout.
Image via Myithlete.com
HRV decreases after a workout because of the stress placed on the body. As you recover, HRV increases back to its normal range. As your fitness improves, your HRV can also increase. A study found that HRV increased by 17 percent after six months of aerobic training in healthy men from 24 to 32 years old.
Problems arise when HRV stays down. This indicates that your body is dealing with stress, which can occur for several reasons, including:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor nutrition
- Mental stress
If your HRV is low, it will be difficult for you to perform at your best. Ultimately, you may place more stress on your body than it is able to handle. On the other hand, if your HRV is high, you know you can push your body extra hard. Another study found that elite swimmers performed better when their HRV was higher.
Having this invaluable data allows you to make educated decisions about your training. Rather than going in blind or realizing you're gassed when you fail to lift a weight that you normally lift, you can make a decision based on whether your body is capable of being pushed.
How To Measure HRV
It's not possible to measure HRV with just your pulse. You'd need superhuman powers to tell the time difference between your heart rate. The traditional method has been to use an ECG, which requires expensive equipment and a trip to a lab or doctor's office.
Fortunately, tech innovations now allow HRV tests to be performed in the comfort of your own home using a smartphone and a heart rate monitor. The tests are relatively simple. Attach the heart rate monitor, launch the app and sit down. Once the test starts, breathe slowly using your diaphragm for as little as 60 seconds. Once finished, the app compares the results against your baseline average, showing your degree of readiness for training.
HRV testing apps typically chart every HRV test, so you can track how your HRV is trending and how it responds to certain types of training or sport activites. This data is great to have when you're in a sports season. You can carefully monitor your overall stress and ensure that any additional training will not sabotage your performance.
Improving Your HRV
As an athlete—or any person for that matter—you should try to increase your HRV. Like other aspects of fitness, it's completely trainable. However, it takes a comprehensive effort across the board to minimize the amount of stress your body experiences.
Fit individuals have a higher HRV and are better able to handle stress placed on their bodies. The study above indicated that it's possible to significantly increase your HRV in only six weeks. There are many ways to go about this, depending on your goals, but the most important thing to do is to find a progressive training program that consistently provides a challenge.
More is not always better when it comes to training. Work out too much and your body will actually break down due to overtraining rather than get stronger and fitter. Your time between workouts is when your body has the opportunity to rebuild, grow and recover. If you don't give your body this opportunity, HRV will decrease due to physical stress. It's best to train three to four times per week, and no more than five. Take at least two recovery days per week, and never train the same muscle groups on consecutive days. Make your recovery days productive by doing light conditioning and corrective exercise workouts.
Get Better Sleep
Sleep is a critical aspect of recovery. This is when your body has the opportunity to rebuild after tough workouts. Unfortunately, many of us are sleep-deprived, which can impair our recovery and lead to mental fatigue. It's advised to get eight hours of sleep every night. Some elite athlete sleep for 10 hours. Remember to stay off your phone an hour before you go to bed to eliminate distractions.
Improve Your Breathing
If you breathe through your chest, you're breathing wrong. You should breathe through your diaphragm, or your belly. Deep abdominal breaths fill your lungs more completely from the bottom up, sending more oxygen into your bloodstream, where your muscles use it as a source of fuel. Also, this type of breathing lowers your heart rate and decreases tension in your body. Try these two breathing techniques to improve your breathing while training.
Reduce Emotional Stress
Emotional stress can come from a number of sources, all of which have an effect on HRV. To help control stress, try yoga or guided meditation. They can help take your mind off things that may be adding stress to your daily life.
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