Updated: Dec 4, 2018
If you missed part 1 of this series then check it out by clicking here.
As a quick re-cap we spoke about how heart rate variability (HRV) is your way of testing the robustness of your nervous system and in terms of training and fitness, when you should push hard or back off.
I touched on how your HRV usually comes in the form of a score of 0-100 and usually the higher the better. This is pretty much where part 1 ended and part 2 kicks in. Your HRV score isn’t as straight forward as the higher the better; there are also frequency markers that need to be correlated to that HRV score. If you remember we talked about how the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems need to work together to deal with stressors such as exercise. This nervous system balance can be shown through monitoring the low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF) values when taking your daily reading. Ideally, you want these two numbers to be as close together as possible and the higher the better. What you may find though is you have a super high LF number meaning you are sympathetic dominant i.e. in a stressed state. So even though your HRV may be ok, if your LF is high and way higher then your HF, you could be doing more harm than good if you train.
Monitoring those 3 values is your first step into analysing and improving training, however they are just numbers if you don’t start to correlate them to training sessions, stressful events, sleep, hydration etc. The reason is that your HRV can be sensitive to all the above and more, even breathing, so if you test one day and have seen a drop in your score, it may be something as simple as not drinking enough water the day before. If this were the case then I would argue that normal training should go ahead. So its not always as cut and dry as low HRV = don’t train and high HRV = go ahead and train. Add to that a high score combined with a chronic sense of low energy or fatigue could mean you are in a state of overtraining (very unlikely for most).
In short HRV~ is a simple way to measure readiness for training providing its taken in context and applied intuitively. Now that we have looked a bit deeper in to HRV and how to use it, we obviously want to know if there are ways to increase our score right? These suggestions aren’t all backed by research and may just cause acute (short term) increase in HRV, but they have been shown to increase it nonetheless. Most methods also have many other benefits to health and performances so are great for anyone who trains.
1 – Rest. Obviously. If you find you have as low HRV then you are in a higher state of stress and inflammation within the body. We want the parasympathetic nervous system to begin the recovery process so if you start piling on more stress i.e. exercise, then you won’t fully recover. This will also lead to a low HRV score over the long term.
2 – Green Tea. In studies conducted on the effects of green tea on diabetes, it was shown to increase HRV and reduce hyperglycaemia. Granted the study was conducted on rats, but we already know about the restorative qualities of green tea so it can’t harm to try. If you don’t like green tea, L-Theanine , one of the compounds can be bought in supplement form.
3 – Fish Oil. As mentioned before, stress can lead to an inflammatory response in the body. Chronic inflammation has been associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer and other nasty issues. Fish oil has already been touted as being great at reducing this inflammation along with other benefits. In some studies it has also been shown to increase HRV providing the dose was high enough (3.4g/day).
4- Yoga/Meditation/Relaxation/Controlled Breathing. Now I’m not grouping them all together because I think they are the same, I’ve grouped them merely because they look to achieve something similar – mindfulness. Clearing your mind, relaxing your breathing and living in the now. All methods have been shown to improve HRV as these exercises are great at activating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. I personally like to use box breathing as prescribed by Mark Divine (creator of SealFit) as a way to relax or even as recovery after a tough workout.
5 – Foam Rolling. Not only does self myofascial release (SMR) give acute increases in flexibility, it has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels (inflammatory stressor) and increase HRV. Click here for our article on SMR.
I’m sure by now you are seeing a key trend in how to increase your HRV. It mainly revolves around de-stressing and rest. I know that this is easier said than done, but even a few minutes a day doing some foam rolling and breathing exercises can make a big difference. If you don’t want to subscribe to the idea of breathing, rest, meditation etc. then at least take on board this final way to increase your HRV. Take a de-load week every 6-8 weeks. De-load means a reduction in total volume i.e. sets, reps and length of session decrease for a whole week. Intensity can remain the same, you just do less. A good time to recover, work on skills and efficiency of movement and feel ready to hit the next cycle hard.
In summary, there is a reason why more and more professional athletes and teams are using HRV and with todays the you can get the same benefits providing its utilised correctly. Add to that the health markers that can be gained from HRV and you potentially have one number to monitor your health and performance. While a piece of electronic equipment will never replace an athletes own instincts and experiences of their own body, it’s a great way to help you make an informed decision on your recovery status as well as those objective factors.
As always if you need help or advice on products, monitoring or analysing don’t hesitate to get in touch.