HRV, Stress and Training Adaptation

Below is my HRV trend following my first year of working on my PhD. Training was held pretty much constant throughout this time period (lift 4x/week, moderate aerobic work 2-3x/week). Both my first and second semester were equally as busy, however my perception of stress and my HRV trend was much lower and higher, respectively,  in semester 2. The first few weeks of the first semester were so bad I was sick for over  a week with the flu, which rarely happens to me (occurring at the lowest dip, early in the trend).


From the trend above, we can see that I spent a lot of time below the smallest worthwhile change (SWC=0.5*CV) during the first semester. Over Christmas I didn’t fall below the SWC at all. In the second semester I experienced considerably less scores below the SWC. Once summer started, I experienced an immediate increase in scores.

Here’s the trend with perceived stress (purple columns, lower score = higher perceived stress). Clearly a big difference between first and second semester.


In reviewing this data, I’m reminded of a study that evaluated the relationship between perceived stress and fitness adaptations in healthy subjects (thanks to Fabio Nakamura for sharing this one with me a while back). Perceived stress levels measured before a training program showed moderate, negative correlations with improvements in fitness. See abstract below:

Ruuska, Pirita S., et al. “Self-rated mental stress and exercise training response in healthy subjects.” Frontiers in Physiology 3 (2012): 51.


Purpose: Individual responses to aerobic training vary from almost none to a 40% increase in aerobic fitness in healthy subjects. We hypothesized that the baseline self-rated mental stress may influence to the training response.Methods: The study population included 44 healthy sedentary subjects (22 women) and 14 controls. The laboratory controlled training period was 2 weeks, including five sessions a week at an intensity of 75% of the maximum heart rate for 40 min/session. Self-rated mental stress was assessed by inquiry prior to the training period from 1 (low psychological resources and a lot of stressors in my life) to 10 (high psychological resources and no stressors in my life), respectively. Results: Mean peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) increased from 34 ± 7 to 37 ± 7 ml kg−1 min−1 in training group (p < 0.001) and did not change in control group (from 34 ± 7 to 34 ± 7 ml kg−1 min−1). Among the training group, the self-rated stress at the baseline condition correlated with the change in fitness after training intervention, e.g., with the change in maximal power (r = 0.45, p = 0.002, W/kg) and with the change in VO2peak (r = 0.32, p = 0.039, ml kg−1 min−1). The self-rated stress at the baseline correlated with the change in fitness in both female and male, e.g., r = 0.44, p = 0.039 and r = 0.43, p = 0.045 for ΔW/kg in female and male, respectively. Conclusion: As a novel finding the baseline self-rated mental stress is associated with the individual training response among healthy females and males after highly controlled aerobic training intervention. The changes in fitness were very low or absent in the subjects who experience their psychological resources low and a lot of stressors in their life at the beginning of aerobic training intervention.

There’s also ample research demonstrating strong relationships between HRV and fitness adaptation in a variety of populations. This includes research showing that baseline HRV relates to fitness changes, in addition to the change in HRV from pre to post training relating well with changes in fitness.

We have 2 paper’s in review at the moment that show how early changes in HRV showed very large relationships with changes in fitness markers (lab and field measures) in team-sport athletes.

~50% (or more) of the variance in fitness adaptation is explained by genetics, so there’s not too much we can do about that. But the other things that explain smaller %variance in training adaptation should be managed. This includes the obvious: stress, sleep quality, nutrition, etc. which all tend to influence HRV as well.

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