Early changes in HRV relate to eventual fitness changes in collegiate soccer players

Numerous studies have shown that increases in fitness (e.g., VO2max, MAS, Yo-Yo, etc.) are associated with increased cardiac-parasympathetic activity among healthy, athletic and clinical populations. This is one of the reasons why aerobic exercise is considered to be cardio-protective, due to enhanced resting vagal-modulation.

However, there is considerable inter-individual variation in how a given individual responds to an exercise program. Following a standardized endurance training program, some individuals will show significant improvements in aerobic fitness while others will show only small improvements. Some may even regress. Why this occurs is likely due to a variety of potential variables including genetic factors, appropriateness of training stimulus and life style factors (i.e., sufficient recovery, sleep quality, nutrition, stress, etc.). Given the association between fitness changes and HRV changes, monitoring HRV throughout training may be useful in evaluating individual adaptation to a training program.

In our latest study (in press with JSCR), we wanted to determine if changes in HRV mid-way through a training program related to eventual changes in intermittent running performance in a collegiate female soccer team. It would be useful for coaches to be able to identify athletes who may not be coping well with training earlier on rather than waiting until post-testing to realize some athletes didn’t improve much. Coaches can then investigate the potential cause (i.e., fatigue, insufficient sleep, etc.) and intervene accordingly with modifications to training load or life style factors to get athletes back on track.

Before and after a 5-week conditioning program, we tested the team’s intermittent running capacity with the Yo-Yo IRT1. The conditioning program was designed based on the individuals max aerobic speed (MAS) adapted from Dan Baker’s MAS guide (link). Below is a screen shot of the conditioning program (unofficial).

MAS prog. Flatt

During week 1 and week 3, the athletes recorded their resting HRV each morning after waking with their smartphone using the ithlete HRV application which we validated previously (link). The weekly mean and weekly coefficient of variation (CV) for HRV and HR values were calculated. Change variables from week 1 to week 3 of HRV and HR (mean and CV) were correlated with the changes in Yo-Yo IRT1 performance from week 0 to week 5.

We found a very large correlation between the change in HRV CV at week 3 and Yo-Yo IRT1 changes at week 5 (r = -0.74). A large correlation was also found between the change in HRV mean and Yo-Yo IRT1 (r = 0.50). The HR measures showed only moderate correlations with the eventual changes in fitness.

Based on these results, it appears that monitoring HRV throughout training may be useful for evaluating how individual athletes are adapting to training. Specifically, we’re looking for two possible trend changes:

  1. A decrease in day-to-day fluctuation in HRV scores (i.e., decreased HRV CV)
  2. An increase in the weekly mean

Athletes demonstrating the opposite (increased CV and/or decreased weekly mean) may require a little closer attention from coaching personnel  to ensure that the training load is appropriate or that the athlete’s are taking care of the non-training factors that can be effecting their recovery.

Another novel finding of this study was that ultra-short HRV recordings (~1 min) derived from a smartphone app used by the athletes provided meaningful training status information. This indicates that HRV monitoring can be much more affordable and convenient than traditional approaches (i.e., longer recording periods with more expensive HRV tools).

I have plans for a much more elaborate post in the near future on the HRV CV. I’ll cover previous research, post some data and discuss how to interpret changes in the CV with appropriate context.

Link to current study: Evaluating individual training adaptation with Smartphone-derived heart rate variability in a collegiate female soccer team.

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About hrvtraining

Researcher and Professor. Former coach.
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