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Improved Fitness Results Using Heart Rate Variability

In an age where knowledge is power, everyone from elite athletes to Crossfitters and weekend warriors are looking for the next spark to reach their goals. Apple Watches, smartphones, and Fitbits are now providing key biometric information in respect to our overall health. These devices can monitor blood pressure, heart rate, steps taken, and calories burned all at the touch of a button. Some of these devices can also monitor heart rate variability (HRV). HRV information may shed light on areas of health previously difficult to track. The effects of stress, fatigue, recovery, and improvements in general wellness can now be better quantified.

HRV is a biomarker of the cardiac modulation of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS is responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, and is further subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The SNS operates as the body’s “fight or flight” mode, regulating the acceleration of the heart, constricting blood vessels, and increasing blood pressure. The PSNS serves an almost opposite function, slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal and glandular activity, and controlling most facets of a resting-state body. These two parts of the ANS are linked to physical training and provide a complex interrelationship allowing a better understanding of the conditioning of the heart.

The heart is a specialized muscle pump that functions via regular contractions that supply blood throughout the body. Heart rate is typically defined as the number of contractions that occur in a set unit of time. HRV refers to the beat-to-beat variance in heart contractions. A healthy person has natural arrhythmias that cause beat-to-beat increases and decreases in the heart rate due to inspiration and expiration. If the heart is able to make near immediate responses to environmental changes and other stressors, HRV will be high. This is also indicative of a system dominated by the PSNS, as the SNS increases the heart rate but decreases its variability and ability to adapt. In short, a body spending most of its time in the “relaxed” state of the PSNS will experience better health than a body dominated by fight or flight responses. Specific programming tuned to the individual physiology of the athlete can help HRV levels improve over time, improving a wide range of function.

Mental, physical or environmental stress will show an acute effect on our HRV. Personally, I have been tracking my own heart rate variability. There are a variety of applications available, but here at Catalyst Fit we use Elite HRV. It is simple to use and good feedback will be available after a few days of use. Using a Polar H7 strap I am able to track HRV every morning when I wake up. It only takes a few minutes and I can attest to the effect my previous actions and current state has on my numbers. In addition to training appropriately, I have listed a few additional methods to help improve HRV:

  • Be sure to get enough sleep

  • Simple breathing techniques to regulate heart rate

  • Cold showers rather than caffeine to help with alert and attentiveness

  • Essential Oils to aid in attention span and recovery

  • Adopt a positive outlook on stress

  • Perform daily dynamic stretches and mobility drills using foam rollers, bands, lacrosse balls...

HRV is important in the determinant of training adaptations. As a Certified Personal Trainer, there is an important connection that I make with my clients on a personal and physical level. Without markers like HRV, clients will often try to push through a workout that is not appropriate for their current state. Part of my job is to determine whether or not someone is physically capable of withstand the training regimen planned, and if not, to adjust it. We now use HRV in rehabilitation, sports performance, and general wellness coaching. This addition has made me a better trainer, and has provided further insight into how the body responds and adapts (for better and worse) in the variety of situations life throws at us.

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