Understanding Heart Rate Variability
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
LifeTime WeightLoss in Exercise, Heart rate variability, Support, Tools, alpha, heart rate, heart rate training

Imagine a device that could tell you in less than 5 minutes a day whether your fitness level is improving, staying the same or declining. In addition, this device would guide you each day to work out harder, scale back on your training or use the time for recovery. The cost would be 41 cents per day. Would you be interested in using this device for your own health, weight loss or performance? It’s called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and it’s available to you today at your Life Time Fitness club. Let’s look more in-depth. What is it exactly, why was it developed, and how can it help you accelerate your fitness and meet your goals more quickly and efficiently? Read on to learn more….

What Is HRV?

Heart Rate Variability is similar to resting heart rate but goes a little further by measuring the space between each heartbeat known as the R-R Interval. This gives you a non-invasive measurement of the autonomic nervous system and allows you to know if you’re in a sympathetic dominant (Fight or Flight) or parasympathetic (Rest and Recover) dominant state going into the day. With this information, you can determine what type of workout to use and how hard you should train that day.

The History of HRV

HRV technology has been around for decades but was unattainable for most people’s use until recently. It was originally developed for the Russian space program and used by Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space in 1961. Since that time, it’s been a research tool applied in thousands of studies. As useful as the technology was, the devices were for many years only part of lab settings and were very expensive (over $30,000). Over the years, it has been used for the detection and monitoring of a wide variety of medical conditions. With recent improvements in Heart Rate Monitor devices and fitness apps, the technology has become more convenient and affordable, making it available beyond the laboratory for personal health and fitness applications. Strength coach Joel Jamieson, for example, has successfully used HRV technology with amateur and professional level MMA Fighters and with numerous professional sports teams like the Seattle Seahawks. Recently, he has offered his BioForce HRV device to fitness enthusiasts including Life Time Fitness members.

How to Use Heart Rate Variability

HRV is simple to use. When purchased, it includes a Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor Strap and an app you can download on a smartphone or IPad. Once the app is downloaded, all you need to do is put on the strap immediately after waking, lie down and turn on the app. The app will first record your resting heart rate and then count down from 2:30 minutes. When the time has passed, a bell will go off letting you know it’s finished. You’ll then know your resting heart rate, HRV score and physical readiness (indicated by a green, amber or red color) for the day. The app will send the information to a website - www.bioforcehrv.com - where you can create a user name and password to see your daily scores, enter notes on each day and view weekly and monthly trends.

How to Interpret HRV Data 

There are three main data points that the HRV app records for you to consider. The first piece of data is resting heart rate. This measure is commonly recorded by endurance athletes by taking their morning pulse, and it can be a basic indicator of physical fitness or overtraining. The second measure is your HRV score. This is a score of general aerobic fitness and work capacity. It’s also a great progress indicator because if the score is trending upward, fitness is improving in most cases. Likewise, if the score is trending downward, fitness is usually decreasing. It’s a simple score that tells you whether your fitness level is getting better or worse over time. Finally, HRV gives you a physical readiness color of green, amber or red. This color tells you what you should do for training that day or how you should adjust it.

The Physical Readiness Color 

This is one of the best features of HRV. If you get a green score, it means you should work harder that day in terms of intensity (intensity can relate to heart rate or load depending on your workout routine and fitness objectives) and/or train with increased volume (total work). Using the example of an endurance athlete training for a marathon, it would mean that the person could run a longer distance at a higher heart rate during the workout. If the same athlete gets an amber score, there can be two options. The first option is to keep training the same as he/she normally would. (In most cases, you probably want to see some amber scores once in a while to make sure you’re pushing yourself during workouts.)

Option two is to reduce the volume that day 20-40% if you feel tired or if there have been too many amber scores during the week or training block (3-4 week period). With the endurance athlete example, this person might run seven miles when he/she was planning on running ten. Finally, a red score means that you’re overtraining given your total stress load (physical and mental) and that day should be used as an off day or a light day. In the example of the endurance athlete, he/she may just do a short, light workout or perhaps focus on recovery methods. The red score can also indicate if the fitness enthusiast needs sympathetic or parasympathetic recovery methods. This is very important because using the right type of recovery can get the athlete out of the over-trained state more quickly. Sympathetic recovery methods include active recovery training (zone 1 cardio), relaxation/regeneration soft tissue therapy like foam rolling or static stretching, hot water therapy like a soak in the whirlpool, deep water floating and mental relaxation techniques. Some parasympathetic recovery ideas include active recovery training (zone 1 cardio), intensive deep tissue therapy like deep massage, cold water therapy, contrast showers and the sauna.

My Personal Experience with HRV

I have personally used HRV for five months and love the data it gives me. For example, when I was recently on antibiotics for an infection, my HRV score went down significantly. However, when I was training hard prior to the illness, my score was trending upward on a daily, weekly and monthly basis indicating my program was working for me. Regarding the daily readiness score, I notice that when I eat certain foods (e.g. processed corn), consume too much caffeine or drink alcohol, my readiness score the next day is often “red,” indicating that I shouldn’t work out.  

Regarding my clients’ experience with HRV, I’ve noticed similar results especially when they are dealing with a lot of work related or emotional stress. In these examples, their HRV score is lower, and their physical readiness colors are “amber” or “red” more often. In these cases, it allows me as a trainer to ask the clients questions regarding what they are doing differently outside of the gym regarding stress, sleep, nutrition, etc. The HRV score also tells me if a client’s program is working based on what we're doing in the gym.

For more information on HRV, please contact a personal trainer at your club who is certified in metabolic testing. If you decide to purchase the HRV Bundle in addition to the bluetooth heart rate strap and app, there’s a book called Understanding HRV, which covers the above concepts in more detail.

Have you tried HRV? Do you have additional questions? Share your feedback and inquiries, and thanks for reading.  

Written by Corey Grenz, Personal Trainer

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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