This week Carl Valle had a great article posted on Mladen’s site here. It’s definitely worth the read if you train athletes. This article inspired me to reflect on where HRV fits in to training, for whom it may work best for and why. I monitor HRV in a very small number of athletes who are the minority of the overall pool of athletes I work with.
To get the most out of HRV tracking, I believe it should be measured daily, in the morning after waking. With ithlete this requires less than 2 minutes of your time to perform the measurement and make any comments, input training load, etc. Though this is a simple task, it is not easy to get full compliance from individuals. Therefore, I don’t even consider getting an athlete taking measurements unless he possesses a great deal of intrinsic motivation, is responsible, reliable, and perhaps most importantly, is interested. Though I would prefer they know nothing about the device, it’s hard to convince people to commit to using it every day if they don’t understand why. After a few sessions I will mention it to them and give them some basic details. If they appear interested or ask if they can use it then it’s a go.
I have several motivations for tracking HRV in select athletes. Below, these motivations are listed with some follow-up thoughts and elaborations.
- To observe ANS response to training, daily stressors, recovery modalities, etc.
What was HRV score the day following a workout? What else did the athlete do that day that may influence this score? What has the overall trend been that week (positive or negative)? I like to compare HRV score to other training status markers like strength levels (did he hit target weights for the day?), movement ability (how does he look during warm-ups, jumps, etc.?), perceived recovery/readiness levels (Does he feel great when HRV is high, when its low?), etc.
This motivation serves two purposes.
- It gets the athlete more engaged in his life style and training (more on this in a bit)
- It satisfies my curiosity. I’ve got questions I want answered.
- To observe HRV trends over times of illness, injury, etc. to determine if there were early warning signs in the trend and if the trend reflects recovery/return to play readiness.
In the event of an injury during practice or competition, what was the trend indicating? In the past year or so I hurt myself once during training and it happened with 60% of my 1RM during squats (hardly a threatening situation). My HRV that day was well below baseline. Possibly a coincidence, or possibly injury risk is heightened when HRV is really low. To my knowledge, there is no research on this in human athletes, but this seems to be the case in race horses. I discussed some very interesting research by Dr. Christine Ross in this post from last winter.
Here’s an excerpt from that post.
“Dr. Christine Ross monitored the HRV of 16 competitive race horses, all of which were in training. Of the 16, 13 had HRV readings that were associated with pain, fatigue, illness or injury. It was stated that even though the horses appeared healthy and energetic, they were considered “at risk” based on their HRV. There were no outward signs or symptoms to suggest these horses were currently sick or hurt. Within 3 months, 12 of the 13 at-risk horses got injured or sick requiring veterinary intervention and cessation of race training.”
Furthermore, I work with plenty of football players and hockey players who by nature are at risk of concussion. What insight can HRV provide regarding recovery and return to play after concussion? (Perhaps a post on this in the future)
- In rare cases, to manipulate training if HRV has been consistently below baseline and the athlete displays signs of fatigue.
This is an interesting topic. Working with an athlete is rarely long term. In many cases you may only have 6-8 straight weeks of consistent training before interruption. That means we need to get them better quickly. Getting better can be defined in many ways but in the training realm this means improving strength, speed, power, work capacity, etc. To do this we need to apply stress. In some cases, a lot of stress, of various kinds. Naturally, HRV will drop. The organism has to work hard to adapt to the stress (and thus improve). We don’t have time to wait for “optimal” recovery and this is likely not even desirable.
Let me use an example. Below is the HRV trend of a 25 year old hockey player I’m working with. He’s come to me to get in shape for a try-out he’s been invited to for a pro team in Germany.
He is a former NCAA hockey player and has been training relatively consistently throughout school. After this summer he thought he was done with competitive hockey and stopped training however he did start playing men’s league hockey. Since he hasn’t been training I knew we’d probably see some pretty big downward deflections after our first few workouts. He missed a few mornings of HRV measurements but it’s been about 2 weeks since we started. The “week change” is -8 and his HRV trend is steadily decreasing. His strength is steadily improving as is his conditioning. He’s adapting fast and re-acquiring lost strength and fitness. Training loads are steadily increasing every week. Now that it’s Christmas I expect to see his HRV bump back up due to some extra rest and likely extra calorie intake. So long as HRV approaches baseline levels after a few days of rest then I think things are looking good. However, if HRV continues downward I will evaluate performance markers and make adjustments if necessary. The physical stress load is high as reflected by his HRV but it’s only been 2 weeks and his performance markers are improving. The weekly trends will likely continue to decrease until about 2 weeks out from the try-out at which point I’ll steadily reduce loads. HRV should climb back up and fatigue should dissipate. This is what happens when I have a relatively short period of time to work with an athlete.
In contrast, the trend below is of a high school sprinter I’m working with. He trains with his sprint coach and works with me for recovery/restoration, mobility, etc. He has a sub 11s 100m time and is one of the fastest high school sprinters in Canada. He is much more long term and his training load reflects that. His weight training volume has been reduced quite a bit and has transitioned into more sprint work and power development in the weight room (controlled and implemented by his Sprint Coach).
This is an athlete who takes care of himself and is extremely motivated to get better, to say the least. He reports that training is going well, he’s hitting PR’s and it looks as though he’s handling training almost too well. Higher loads would be likely well tolerated. If I can just start getting him to get to bed at a decent hour on weekends he’ll be doing everything right.
In both cases the athletes have learned how lifestyle factors outside of training effect their recovery, soreness levels, etc. This is directly attributed to seeing their HRV trend, recognizing what events may have caused the additional stress and re-evaluating there decision making. One of the main things I like about HRV is that it forces you (and the athlete) to be more engaged in the process. It allows them to see how their actions (good or bad) can effect the quality of their training and their progress.
Having HRV records as an objective measure of training status helps guide the training process when taken with other markers of performance and fatigue. If the athlete is a high level athlete, mature enough to handle daily measurements and wants to use it then I am all for it. I don’t use it with many athletes because it would be a waste of time and energy for both parties. However, with the right athletes it can be a great tool to for monitoring training.