Many of the people that I speak with about HRV lately are non-competitive athletes. They are however recreational weightlifters/runners who still take their training seriously (as they should!). Others include typical mom’s and dad’s who work and raise children, as well as other individuals just trying to get by. The purpose of this post is to explain why these individuals can still benefit a great deal from monitoring their HRV.
So why might the average person want to monitor their HRV?
First and foremost, HRV provides a very simple to use and inexpensive measure of the stress your body is currently experiencing. I’m going to use an analogy I learned from Joel Jamieson at the Central Virginia Sports Performance Seminar, that does a really good job of explaining this better.
Think of your current ability to handle stress as a bank account. Every time you take money out of your account (experience stress), you are reducing your overall balance of money (ability to handle more stress). Provided you always replace that money that you’ve withdrawn by depositing money back into the account (allowing for sufficient rest), your balance will remain steady. Now, if you withdraw too much money (experience too much stress) you can eventually go into debt (poor health). It will take much longer now to replace the money you’ve spent (return to good health) and lots of problems will start to arise. This is a position you obviously don’t want to be in.
So HRV is your ‘bank account’. Every time you experience stress (training, money problems, emotional stuff, etc) your HRV will reflect this by declining. When your HRV is below baseline levels, your ability to handle further stress is reduced. If you get enough rest, eat quality foods and so forth, you’re essentially putting money back in the bank. If you fail to do this, and continue to experience various forms of stress, you will start to experience breakdown. This can be in the form of suppressed immune system function, injury, weight loss (not the good kind), weight gain (not the good kind), low libido etc. There’s a good chance that many of you reading this are “in debt” due to the stressful nature of work, raising a family, paying bills, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, etc. Though you may not realize it, you may even be experiencing symptoms of this excess stress. Stress is typically the root that manifests itself into various forms of illness and disease when not controlled. I highly recommend checking out this book by Dr. Sapolsky titled “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” for a much more thorough explanation of the detrimental and deleterious effects of stress.
Think of your HRV score as a reflection of your current health. If you notice HRV declining over time, then your health is likely deteriorating. Think about those times when you’ve felt completely run down, gotten sick, and your training sucked. HRV monitoring can help you avoid these situations.
How can it do this? Simple really, when your HRV is low (and doesn’t seem to come back up after a few days) you need to purposefully reduce your stress. Cut back on the training, improve your nutrition, get some extra sleep, etc. Anything that you perceive as relaxing or rejuvenating will likely improve your HRV. This can be massage, a bath, yoga, etc. Once HRV has returned to baseline, ramp the training back up and get back to it. This will prevent you from overdoing it until it’s too late and you get hurt or sick.
Let me provide some real life examples that might hit home a little with you. Have you ever gone out for a run intending on doing a certain distance only to find that you’re struggling to make it half way? Perhaps your ankle is bothering you a little or you just can’t get a good rhythm?
Or for those that resistance train, how many times have you shown up at the gym intending on bench pressing a certain amount of weight only to find that your warm up sets feel like a million pounds?
I see and hear about this all of the time. I used to experience it too. However, by using HRV to plan and organize my training, I have entirely eliminated running into this problem. This is because I can typically predict when these types of days will happen based on my HRV score. Rather than sticking to the plan and attempting a hard training session when my HRV is below baseline, I simply plan a lighter workout or omit it all together to allow for the needed rest. Typically it only takes one day of reduced training to bring my HRV back up. If I ignore the warning my HRV is giving me however, it will take much longer for me to bring my scores back up and the workout is usually poor.
You certainly don’t need to be a competitive athlete to monitor your stress levels. Balancing your stress is crucial to your own health and longevity. If you feel that you may be under a lot of stress, physically, mentally or otherwise, you should consider monitoring your HRV to help keep things in check.