Your HRV, or heart rate variability, plays a surprising role in determining how effective and impactful your exercise is, as well as how much time it takes to improve recovery from your workout. Although you might assume that a standard heartbeat has a completely even interval between beats, your heart rate actually can and does vary measurably. And when you're in a resting state, your heart should speed up and slow down as you inhale and exhale.
For example, a healthy HRV might show a pattern of 1.05 seconds, .97 seconds, 1.11 seconds and .94 seconds between heartbeats when you inhale or exhale. More variation in your HRV is an indicator of health, while a relatively low HRV might suggest your heart experiences more stress and has less resiliency.
A steady HRV is actually associated with the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the "fight or flight" instinct. This is because the parasympathetic system isn't strong enough to stop your heartbeat or slow it down when it's supposed to, either due to stress or overtraining. Athletes can use their HRV to improve their training by learning to respond to the information being gathered, helping them keep their body healthy and prevent stress or overtraining.
Track how your exercise is affecting your body
When you measure your heart rate variability and track it on a regular basis, you can learn to identify patterns in your cycle that reflect your actions. If you notice that the numbers appear to be quite consistently similar—for example, if for many days in a row you get heart rates of .99, 1.01, 1, .99, 1.01, it can be a sign that you're experiencing stress. This indicates that you need more recovery time, and you should take a break before going back to the gym.
When you track your HRV rather than follow a pre-set schedule, you can give your body the recovery time it needs based on what it's physically experienced, rather than a pre-set schedule for exercise you concocted beforehand. This is important because your body, although following a cycle and schedule, does not respond to every exercise routine the same. In addition, stressors in your life can aggravate your body in ways you don't realize, and if you don't allow yourself thorough recovery from all stress, you will begin to see negative side effects in the gym.
Instead, take rest time according to your HRV. If it's still low the day you're set for another workout, take another rest day. Don't rush your recovery, and use your HRV to determine whether it's time to go back or not.
Learn when you can shoot for personal records
On the other hand, you can use your HRV to identify when you're in your best shape and most prepared for another workout. A 2007 study found that athletes who adjusted their training based on their HRV make significantly larger gains in running than athletes who followed a set schedule. In addition, the study found that members of the team using HRV improved across the board. It helped them all roughly the same amount, suggesting that all bodies can benefit relatively equally from incorporating HRV measurements into their training regiment.
By using your HRV, you're more likely to be fully recovered when you do go in for training, which can increase the steadiness of your physical improvements and make you a better athlete in the long run. Although it's a relatively recently identified biofeedback tool, HRV has been studied extensively enough that there is a consensus on the role it plays in identifying recovery.
Tracking your HRV can help you limit injuries, lower your stress and improve your performance. By training your body only when it's ready, you avoid pushing it beyond its limits and allow it to perform at peak capacity at all times.
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