Heart Rate Variability or HRV is a term that some experienced cyclists have heard of, but that the vast majority probably don’t know much about.
However, once understood, this relatively simple concept can be used to significantly improve the effectiveness of your training plan by allowing you to make more scientific, objective decisions on what kind of training sessions you should do in the immediate future, based on how recovered you are from recent hard workouts.
In this post, I’ll explain Heart Rate Variability, illustrate the benefits that HRV analysis can offer and then show you how to go about monitoring it on a regular basis.
WHAT IS HEART RATE VARIABILITY?
Heart Rate Variability is essentially self-explanatory, and refers to how variable (or regular to put it another way) your heart rate is from one beat to the next when breathing in and out at rest.
Changes in your heart rate variability are related to the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is the part that activates the commonly known “fight or flight” response and indicates that the body dealing with some kind of stress.
This stress can come from all kinds of sources, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on stress coming from challenging training sessions, like an interval workout or a race, for instance.
When the sympathetic system is more active, your heart rate variability is LESS (i.e. more regular) and conversely, when it is less active and the parasympathetic system is most active, heart rate variability is greater (or more irregular).
So, it stands that by simply measuring your heart rate variability on a regular basis against a optimal baseline, you can determine your readiness to perform a hard workout.
BENEFITS OF HEART RATE VARIABILITY ANALYSIS
The key benefit of HRV analysis is that it provides a more scientific way of measuring your fatigue levels and rate of recovery, as oppose to a purely subjective judgement like “I think I feel OK”.
Whilst this subjective point of view is very important, it’s strengthened greatly when combined with a more objective measure (much like heart rate training is when used alongside a power meter).
This can have very positive implications when it comes to avoiding things like non-functional over-reaching (and overtraining), injury and mental burnout.
It allows cyclists (or their coaches) to tweak their training plans from one day to the next, and provides a solution to blindly following a plan that will always be somewhat speculative, especially if planned weeks in advance.
HRV analysis, whilst sounding quite involved, is also very easy to conduct, making the process of measuring it daily and tracking it over time not as challenging as it might seem.
HOW TO MONITOR HEART RATE VARIABILITY
Different apps use different methods of measurement, and I prefer those that link up with compatible heart rate straps such as those from Polar, Garmin etc and take a direct measurement, as oppose to use the camera to try and detect heart rate.
You can then record the results using the apps in-built system, in your own spreadsheet, or link it up to TrainingPeaks which will automatically create a graph of your HRV over time.
As mentioned, HRV is a way to measure the degree of stress your body is experiencing, and this stress may not be coming from many different sources, not just an overly-ambitious training plan.
For that reason, it cannot wholly say whether the training your performing is optimal, since your stress may be due to factors outside of your workouts. Nevertheless, if your body is stressed, this will impact on your training, so it’s always important to consider.
You may find that your HRV results don’t always align with your subjective feelings, which can leave you in two minds about what training is right for that day. My advice would be to try to experiment with these results and build up a picture of your unique responses over time through trial and error.
Finally, HRV analysis is most useful when determining whether to perform a high intensity training session in the immediate future and is concerned more with intensive training in general than longer, more endurance based workouts. Even though the latter can leave you tired, they do not usually elicit the same sympathetic stress responses as high intensity does.
OVER TO YOU
If you’ve been tracking your HRV to guide your training, I’d love to hear about your experience and how valuable you feel it has been. Please drop a quick comment below if so, and if you have any questions or queries at all about monitoring response and recovery, please also leave your two cents.