A More Detailed Look at HRV
I have been measuring HRV consistently for about a year now. I started out using EliteHRV and then switched to HRV4Training, which is what I use now.
Most people want simplicity, and I was no different. When I first started using HRV, I had a very simplistic view of how it worked, which is what I think most people want HRV to be: a simple “yes or no” as to whether I should train hard today or focus on rest/recovery.
After monitoring HRV for several months, listening to lots of podcasts on it, reading about it, and also influenced by the new research, I realized that the purpose of HRV is not to give you a simple yes/no answer. It’s really just another tool in your tookit to assess your wellness status and help you tune in to what your body is telling you and how you feel.
The goal for all of us should be to be able to determine our wellness status without the use of devices and gadgets. The HRV app should not be the ultimate authority on how you train and you shouldn’t need HRV to know how you feel. The HRV measurement should help inform your decision and should supplement the more reliable information like how you are feeling and how motivated you are to train.
My Real Life Experience
I am writing this based on two recent experiences that I had with HRV. The first experience was about 10 days ago, in which I ran a trail marathon and then measured my HRV the next day. I felt pretty decent considering that I had just ran a marathon, but I was still a little sore and felt, well.. like I had just run a marathon. So I was very surprised to see that the HRV reading was one of the highest I had ever recorded (high = parasympathetic activation). Accordingly, the app told me that I was “ready to train.”
The next experience was one week later, just a few days ago. I had a real ass-kicker of a weekend. I played in a golf tournament in Austin on Saturday morning, then drove to Houston to pace a friend in the last 25 miles of a 100 miler. He didn’t get to the 75 mile mark where I was supposed to meet him until 9 pm, and he was struggling, so the last 25 miles took us 12 hours to complete. These 12 hrs were from 9pm to 9am, so I didn’t sleep. In addition, I didn’t eat anything appreciable, just 3 nut butter packets (less than 600 calories). As soon as we finished, I jumped back in my car and drove back to Austin to play in another golf tournament. Then I ate dinner and crashed early around 7pm and woke up Monday morning.
Upon waking Monday morning, I took my HRV reading and was surprised to see that it was the highest reading I’ve ever recorded. The app again indicated that I was “ready to train.” This was really surprising to me considering that I’ve taken HRV readings after little/poor sleep and gotten very low readings, indicating that I was sympathetic dominant and needed rest.
Despite getting the “ready to train” message from my HRV4Training app, I knew I was in no condition to train. Going on no sleep really demolished me and I could feel it. So I wasn’t planning on training, and the app didn’t change my mind. I spent the day resting and doing recovery activities, like an epsom salt bath, sauna, massage, yoga, and meditation.
Interpreting HRV Data
The above experience reinforced the idea that the athlete’s subjective experience is paramount and should override whatever the HRV app says. But more than that, I realized that the athlete’s subjective experience should inform the interpretation of the HRV data. In this case for me, my HRV was super high, not because I was ready to train, but because my body knew I needed to be solidly in recovery mode and was activating the parasympathetic system so I could heal and recover. The HRVmeasurement was telling me what my body wanted to do; it wasn’t a reflection of how well I was already recovered as is sometimes the case.
The point is, in order to interpret HRV data, you need to know what’s going on with the athlete. A high HRV could indicate that the athlete is well rested and ready to train hard, but the same reading could also indicate that the athlete is in the middle of actively recovering and needs more time to rest and recover.
Coincidentally, I happened to listen to this Get Over Yourself Podcast with Brad Kearns that discusses exactly this topic. Here is a great takeaway from the podcast…
The time to train hard is not always when you are seeing high HRV. An HRV within your body’s normal ranges is probably the better way to look at it. So that’s another misconception is people always think high HRV is always good. Low HRV is always bad. That’s not necessarily the case because a very high HRV indicates the body is really trying to recover. It’s devoting everything it has into recovery. So that’s doing that for a reason, right? It’s trying to get you back to your normal kind of baseline range. If it’s really too high, it’s telling you there’s a reason it’s really too high. It’s parasympathetic dominant because because you’re, you’re a mess or whatever, so you’ll see actually in periods where your body’s trying to recover and vice versa. You’ll see very low HRV scores where your body is dealing with the stressor RIGHT NOW where it’s devoting energy into dealing with something [stressful]. The HRV is more of the high HRV, like I’m still in the process of recovering from that something that you did to me, so in either case really high or really low is where we see decreased recovery. It’s not always the case that higher is better, lower is worse. It’s more about in your kind of normal baseline range, tells you your body’s probably ready to go do it again because it’s not dealing with something or still recovering from something.
The podcast with Joel Jamieson also introduced me to a brand new concept that sounds very intriguing. Its called “rebound training” and it is to be done on your recovery days, the day after intense training sessions or competitions and is intended to speed up and facilitate recovery.
Jamieson developed an HRV app called Morpheus that not only tells you all the normal HRV metrics, but also helps you recover by training in what he calls “the blue zone” for rebound training days (rebounding from an intense effort). Based on some cursory research, it appears to me that the “blue zone” is a semi-elevated HR that does not exceed aerobic threshold. I found someone posting the following rebound training workout on Instagram in a post about using the Morpheus app:
3 x quadruped breathing
3EA x 3 Point hip flexor stretch w thoracic rotation
3 x neutral spine weighted dead bugs
Repeat x 3
BLUE ZONE RECOVERY HR 132-149
5 mins cycle
5 mins medball
5 mins row
3×3 shoulder elevated hip thrust
Repeat warm up as warm down x3
Based on this, the rebound workout looks like (1) some controlled breathing (likely designed to activate parasympathetic), (2) some stretching and core activation, (3) a light aerobic interval/circuit workout, (4) some light strength training, and (5) a cool down.
In the podcast, Jamieson suggests doing 10-12 second intervals up to the blue zone (low aerobic HR), then 60 seconds of rest, indicating that this is a very easy workout. He says that the purpose of the workout is parasympathetic activation and increased blood flow in order to speed up delivery of nutrients and removal of waste. He also says that being mindful of your HR and actively trying to lower your Hr between sets will help you learn how to lower your HR in competition, so also work on that during these rebound workouts. Lastly, he says you should feel amazing and energized after completing the workout. If you feel like you just worked out, it was too hard.
I know I will be adjusting my training and recovery based on this info. I am excited to give it a try. Hope you got some useful info too.
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