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Heart rate variability is where the amount of time in your heart rate fluctuates slightly. HRV plays an important role in your physical fitness. The idea behind using HRV in training is quite simple. As an athlete, you should monitor your HRV every morning and train normally. Today in this blog we will provide you with a complete guide to HRV (Heart Rate Variability).

Key learnings:

  • How to improve your HRV
  • Why is the HRV fitness indicator
  • Why should you track HRV trends

What is heart rate variability?

 

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of your autonomic nervous system that can be extremely effective in assessing your physical well-being and determining how well prepared your body is.

The time difference between your heartbeat is called heart rate variability. This means that if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, it does not actually beat once per second. There may be 0.9 seconds between two beats of that minute and 1.15 seconds between the other two. Greater variability will help your body function at a higher level.

HRV measures the interrelationships between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that are responsible for physiological processes over which you have no direct control.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), known as rest and digestion, allows you to recover and reduce heart rate variability. On the other hand, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is known as ‘Fight or Flight’, allows you to respond to stress and increase the variability of heart rate.

Depending on what you are doing, both systems send signals to your heart to slow down (PNS) or speed up (SNS).

High HRV means your ANS is strong, balanced, and ready to respond to stress. Low HRV, on the other hand, indicates an unbalanced ANS that is less responsive to stress.

We already know that the variability of heart rate is determined by the time between heartbeats which is known as the RR interval.

What is a good heart rate variability?

 

High heart rate variability is a sign of improved fitness. HRV, however, is an incredibly personalized metric that differs greatly from one person to another. Many factors such as age, gender, fitness level, lifestyle, environment, and genetics must be taken into consideration when determining what is good heart rate variability.

The average heart rate variability for WHOOP members is different for men and women – 65 for men and 62 for women. This is 78 for 25-year-olds, 60 for 35-year-olds, 48 ​​for 45-year-olds, and 44 for 55-year-olds. If your HRV is consistent with WHOOP averages, you can consider it as good. 

Rather than comparing yourself to others and worrying about what is good or normal, it is much more practical to follow your own HRV trends. If you are trying to improve your overall health and fitness, your heart rate variability should start to increase over time.

Why is HRV a sign of fitness?

 

Every person has a different HRV which is very normal. It can be affected by a wide range of factors such as age, hormones, activity levels, and gender.

Your high heart rate variability indicates that your nervous system is in balance, and your body is able to adapt to its environment and function optimally. For an athlete’s HRV, high HRV is very important. 

As an athlete, you are always looking for that desired 1% improvement in every aspect of your game. But as elite athletes get better, the improvement gap narrows, making it really difficult to achieve a 1% improvement. With that in mind, athletes need to return to the “train harder” mentality to capture the 1%. This mentality does not always work because it often leads to overtraining and consequently trauma. 

But if you want to make sure that your body is getting to the top right now, then having an insight into HRV becomes the tempting 1% of all athletes looking for. So you can see that HRV is a great sign for fitness.

How to improve heart rate variability?

 

An unhealthy diet, poor sleep, and lack of exercise can upset the balance of your ANS, lower your HRV and force your heart to overdrive. So it is important to improve your heart rate variability.

There are many ways to improve heart rate variability. These are given below:

Good exercise and proper training: One of the most effective ways to improve HRV is to exercise regularly. Athletes should avoid excessive training because strenuous exercise lowers HRV in the short term. So it is important not to put too much pressure on the body. 

Practice intentional breathing: Slow, controlled breathing helps increase HRV and fight stress, which can reduce HRV.

Eat healthy food and sleep properly: Eating nutritious food on time and getting proper sleep are good for your HRV. Not eating 3-4 hours before bed can increase your sleep quality which enables your body to focus on other recovery processes instead of digesting food.

Take a cold shower: If you expose your body to cold temperatures for a short period of time (cold shower, ice bath, etc.), it will stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system and regulates the heart rate variability.

Avoid alcohol: If you drink alcohol you may lose an average of 22 milliseconds of HRV the next day and the long-lasting effects of alcohol on your system may even reduce your HRV for up to 4-5 days. So, for improving heart rate variability it is better to avoid alcohol. 

Stay hydrated:  The amount of blood in your body is determined by your level of hydration. So the more fluid you have in your system, the easier it will be for your body to circulate blood and provide oxygen and nutrients.

Meditation and mindfulness: Practicing meditation or other mindfulness techniques can have a positive effect on HRV, even helping to relax and reduce stress.

Heart rate variability trends, why do they matter?

 

When you start using the heart rate variability Monitor, you may notice that your HRV changes drastically from day to day. If your friend has more HRV than you do today, this is not an indication that they are more fit than you.

When a person is under stress, their HRV naturally decreases, while higher sympathetic activity helps the body meet its needs. HRV is usually higher when the heart is beating slowly and lower when the heart starts beating faster, for example during stress or exercise.

HRV levels naturally change from day to day based on a person’s activity level and the amount of work-related stress. However, if a person is under excessive physical or mental stress for a long time, the normal interplay between the two systems can be disrupted and the body can get stuck in a state of sympathetically dominant fight, with low HRV and high-stress hormone levels, even when the person is resting. It affects her body a lot and can lead to various mental and physical health problems.

Genetic factors contribute significantly to an individual’s overall HRV level, but an individual can improve their individual HRV by improving their health, fitness, stress management, and recovery skills. High HRV is generally regarded as an indicator of a healthy heart, and high HRV has been found in many studies to be associated with reduced morbidity and mortality and improved mental health and quality of life. 

The good news is that a healthy lifestyle can have a positive effect on HRV. We can take proactive steps to improve our quality of life, stay physically active, and strive for a better balance in our lives, and in the process, we will probably see improvement in our HRV as well.

Conclusion

 

Although HRV is associated with your overall physical well-being, the correlation between HRV change and how your autonomic nervous system works needs further research. If you decide to use HRV as another piece of health data, don’t be overconfident if you have high HRV or worry too much if your HRV is low. You may think of HRV as another way that your body and mind are responding to your daily experiences.

Connect with a coach if you have questions.

Coach Damian

Damian is a head coach and founder of Cyklopedia, which was created with one goal to help everyone be faster cyclists by structured training plans, healthy recipes, and nutrition plans. Damian is racing and coaching for over 10 years, working with athletes all around the world.

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