HRV and Wellness responses to overload and taper in sprint-swimmers

Here’s a brief overview of our latest study capturing daily HRV and wellness ratings throughout overload and tapering in collegiate sprint swimmers preceding a championships competition.

The majority of research in the area has primarily focused on endurance athletes. It’s been a goal of mine for a while now to examine HRV responses in athletes participating in anaerobic events such as short-distance swimming.

The athletes completed wellness questionnaires and recorded HRV daily via smartphone and validated pulse-wave finger sensor (seated position) after waking. The observation period lasted 6-weeks which included 1 week of baseline, 2 weeks of overload and a progressive 3-week taper. The overload was characterized by a substantial increase in training intensity while overall volume varied by up to only 20%. Of the group, 2 athletes went on to compete in the 2016 Olympic summer games.


Heart rate variability and psychometric responses to overload and tapering in collegiate sprint-swimmers

Full-text on Research Gate 


The purpose of this study was to evaluate cardiac-parasympathetic and psychometric responses to competition preparation in collegiate sprint-swimmers. Additionally, we aimed to determine the relationship between average vagal activity and its daily fluctuation during each training phase.




Ten Division-1 collegiate sprint-swimmers performed heart rate variability recordings (i.e., log transformed root mean square of successive RR intervals, lnRMSSD) and completed a brief wellness questionnaire with a smartphone application daily after waking. Mean values for psychometrics and lnRMSSD (lnRMSSDmean) as well as the coefficient of variation (lnRMSSDcv) were calculated from 1 week of baseline (BL) followed by 2 weeks of overload (OL) and 2 weeks of tapering (TP) leading up to a championship competition.


Competition preparation resulted in improved race times (p<0.01). Moderate decreases in lnRMSSDmean, and Large to Very Large increases in lnRMSSDcv, perceived fatigue and soreness were observed during the OL and returned to BL levels or peaked during TP (p<0.05). Inverse correlations between lnRMSSDmean and lnRMSSDcv were Very Large at BL and OL (p<0.05) but only Moderate at TP (p>0.05).


OL training is associated with a reduction and greater daily fluctuation in vagal activity compared with BL, concurrent with decrements in perceived fatigue and muscle soreness. These effects are reversed during TP where these values returned to baseline or peaked leading into successful competition. The strong inverse relationship between average vagal activity and its daily fluctuation weakened during TP.

While group responses are certainly meaningful, the individual responses provide more meaningful information to practitioners. The figure below shows the individual trends from 3 athletes that exemplify 3 common training responses I’ve observed in a variety of athletes.


Subject B (middle) has the smallest CV at baseline and subsequently handles the overload very well, with minimal reductions in lnRMSSD. This indicates that Subject B is in great shape and could probably handle greater loads.

Subject C (bottom) displays what I would consider to be a very expected response to overloading. There is a considerable increase in daily lnRMSSD fluctuation (i.e., increased CV) and progressive but small decrease in the trend. I interpret this type of response to indicate that the loads are sufficient enough to provoke the fatigue/recovery process but not so high that HRV becomes suppressed. This is possibly indicative of a load/dose of training that is high but within the overall recovery capacity of the athlete.

Subject A (top) has the highest CV of the group at baseline and subsequently responds the least favorably to the overload. lnRMSSD pretty much crashes almost immediately and remains suppressed for several days (boxed data points). The coach pulled back on subject A due to high fatigue, reduced performance, decrements in pulse-rate recovery between sets, etc. The trend immediately improves until about 1-week out from competition at which point loads again were further reduced. Ultimately, this athlete improved upon previous best times at competition from that year, suggesting that the interventions were effective.

The main take-home would be that the typical response to intensified training includes a reduction and greater daily fluctuation in HRV, along with decrements in wellness scores. Athletes demonstrating different responses (i.e., minimal change in HRV trend or conversely chronic suppression of HRV) may be coping better or worse than expected. Coaches should then investigate and address factors contributing to the poor response.


New Study: Interpreting daily HRV changes in female soccer players

Here’s a quick look at our latest study published ahead of print in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. The full text is available here. Below is the abstract and some brief comments about the findings.

Interpreting daily heart rate variability changes in collegiate female soccer players

BACKGROUND: Heart rate variability (HRV) is an objective physiological marker that may be useful for monitoring training status in athletes. However, research aiming to interpret daily HRV changes in female athletes is limited. The objectives of this study were (1) to assess daily HRV (i.e., log-transformed root mean square of successive R-R interval differences, lnRMSSD) trends both as a team and intra-individually in response to varying training load (TL) and (2) to determine relationships between lnRMSSD fluctuation (coefficient of variation, lnRMSSDcv) and psychometric and fitness parameters in collegiate female soccer players (n=10).

METHODS: Ultra-short, Smartphone-derived lnRMSSD and psychometrics were evaluated daily throughout 2 consecutive weeks of high and low TL. After the training period, fitness parameters were assessed.

RESULTS: When compared to baseline, reductions in lnRMSSD ranged from unclear to very likely moderate during the high TL week (effect size ± 90% confidence limits [ES ± 90% CL] = -0.21 ± 0.74 to -0.64 ± 0.78, respectively) while lnRMSSD reductions were unclear during the low TL week (ES ± 90% CL = -0.03 ± 0.73 to -0.35 ± 0.75, respectively). A large difference in TL between weeks was observed (ES ± 90% CL = 1.37 ± 0.80). Higher lnRMSSDcv was associated with greater perceived fatigue and lower fitness (r [upper and lower 90% CL] = -0.55 [-0.84, -0.003] large, -0.65 [-0.89, -0.15] large).

CONCLUSIONS: Athletes with lower fitness or higher perceived fatigue demonstrated greater reductions in lnRMSSD throughout training. This information can be useful when interpreting individual lnRMSSD responses throughout training for managing player fatigue.

The idea of evaluating relationships between the coefficient of variation of lnRMSSD  (lnRMSSDcv) with fitness parameters was inspired by a 2010 paper by Martin Buchheit et al. In that study,  greater lnRMSSDcv derived from post-submaximal exercise recordings negatively correlated with maximum aerobic speed in youth soccer players. We had similar findings in our current paper where we observed large negative relationships between lnRMSSDcv (derived from waking, ultra-short smartphone  recordings) and VO2max and Yo-Yo IRT-1.

Another objective of this study was to focus on individual HRV responses in addition to group responses (see figure below). An interesting observation we made was that greater lnRMSSDcv was also associated with higher perceived fatigue. This finding is in contrast to a recent case comparison study by Plews et al. that found a decreased lnRMSSDcv to be associated with non-functional overreaching in an elite triathlete. However, this can possibly be explained by the severity of fatigue. For example, the decreased lnRMSSDcv observed in the triathlete was accompanied with a chronically suppressed lnRMSSDmean. Thus, lnRMSSD decreased and did not periodically return to baseline.

In our current study, large decreases in lnRMSSD typically returned to baseline after 24-72 hours. Thus, loads were not so high that the athletes were unable to return to baseline. Therefore, it is possible that there may be a progression in one’s HRV trend leading from moderately fatigued to severely fatigued that is characterized first by a greater lnRMSSDcv (reflecting fatigue and recovery process) followed by chronic suppression of lnRMSSD with no rebounding to baseline (reduced lnRMSSDmean and reduced lnRMSSDcv). More on this to come.


Figure interpreting daily HRV

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.

HRV: Means and Variation

At this point, most of you are aware that a single HRV (lnRMSSD) score taken in isolation does not necessarily imply or reflect an acute change in performance, fatigue, recovery, etc (though it may sometimes).

Here’s why:

Below are two separate HRV trends I pulled from a training cycle I did last year at week 1 and week 8.

Week 1 and Week 8

If someone were taking once per week recordings, or pre and post training phase recordings on isolated days, you can see how they can get entirely different results based on which day they measured. Suppose measures were taken on Friday’s from the above trends. These values are 84 and 76.7, respectively. However, if we look at the weekly mean values, we would get 73.6 and 78.3. From the isolated readings, one would conclude that HRV decreased nearly 10 points. However, the weekly mean shows an entirely different change (HRV actually increased from 73.6 to 78.3).  Therefore, it’s quite clear that when averaged weekly, HRV scores allow for more meaningful interpretation.

  Isolated Measure (Friday) Weekly Mean
Week 1 84 73.6
Week 8 76.7 78.3

See the following papers for more on weekly mean vs. isolated recordings (Le Meur et al. 2013; Plews et al. 2012; Plews et al. 2013)


One limitation of the weekly mean value is that is does not reflect the fluctuation in scores throughout the 7 day period. A simple way of determining this is to calculate the coefficient of variation (CV) from the 7 day HRV values (see Plews et al. 2012 for more on CV).

The coefficient of variation is calculated as follows;

CV = (Standard Deviation/Mean)x100

Below is 9 weeks worth of data from a training cycle I performed early last year that resulted in some personal records (PR’s) and was discussed in this post. This time, in addition to the weekly mean values I have also calculated the CV for each week.

9 weeks CV and Mean

Without going into too much detail about the training cycle (see the original post for that), I will highlight a few keep observations.

HRV Avg HRV CV Brief Notes
73.6 7.5 1st week after detraining, Good
77.4 5.6  Good
77.5 2.3  Good
76.2 5.7 Stress, poor sleep, deload
79.37 3.0  Good
79.7 4.0  Good
77.9 11.4 Stressful week
77.8 6.8 ↑ intensity, ↓ Volume, Good
78.2 4.8 PR(1RMs)
81.1 4.7 Deload, Good


Below are the HRV trends from Week 1 – 4 of the cycle.

weeks 1 to 4

Week 1 was my first week training after about 10 days off from lifting (Christmas holidays). Clearly the trend from week 1 reflects the fatigue and recovery as I lifted on M W F that week. On week 2 I performed the same workouts on the same days but with a little more weight for each set. However, it appears (based on CV) that this may have been less stressful. In week 3, I moved to lifting 4 days/week with moderate loads and CV decreases further. Interestingly, the following week (week 4), the weights feel heavy, I feel pretty rough and I take an unplanned deload (CV increases, mean decrease).

Further analysis of the CV and weekly mean can include calculating the smallest worthwhile change (see Buchheit, 2014) to see if a change is practically meaningful. (Will do this in the future once I figure out how to display SWC on a chart).

The point of this post was to introduce the CV concept for those who may not be familiar. I believe that the CV likely provides information regarding stress, fatigue and adaptation that the weekly mean may not reflect. Therefore, the CV and mean values should be considered together.


Buchheit, M. (2014). Monitoring training status with HR measures: do all roads lead to Rome? Frontiers in physiology5.

Le Meur, Y., Pichon, A., Schaal, K., Schmitt, L., Louis, J., Gueneron, J., … & Hausswirth, C. (2013). Evidence of parasympathetic hyperactivity in functionally overreached athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise45(11), 2061-2071.

Plews, D. J., Laursen, P. B., Kilding, A. E., & Buchheit, M. (2012). Heart rate variability in elite triathletes, is variation in variability the key to effective training? A case comparison. European journal of applied physiology112(11), 3729-3741.

Plews, D. J., Laursen, P. B., Kilding, A. E., & Buchheit, M. (2013a). Evaluating training adaptation with heart-rate measures: a methodological comparison. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance8(6).