HRV stabilization in athletes: towards more convenient data acquisition

Our “stability” paper has recently been published in Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging.


Resting heart rate variability (HRV) is a potentially useful marker to consider for monitoring training status in athletes. However, traditional HRV data collection methodology requires a 5-min recording period preceded by a 5-min stabilization period. This lengthy process may limit HRV monitoring in the field due to time constraints and high compliance demands of athletes. Investigation into more practical methodology for HRV data acquisition is required. The aim of this study was to determine the time course for stabilization of ECG-derived lnRMSSD from traditional HRV recordings. Ten-minute supine ECG measures were obtained in ten male and ten female collegiate cross-country athletes. The first 5 min for each ECG was separately analysed in successive 1-min intervals as follows: minutes 0–1 (lnRMSSD0–1), 1–2 (lnRMSSD1–2), 2–3 (lnRMSSD2–3), 3–4 (lnRMSSD3–4) and 4–5 (lnRMSSD4–5). Each 1-min lnRMSSD segment was then sequentially compared to lnRMSSD of the 5- to 10-min ECG segment, which was considered the criterion (lnRMSSDCriterion). There were no significant differences between each 1-min lnRMSSD segment and lnRMSSDCriterion, and the effect sizes were considered trivial (ES ranged from 0·07 to 0·12). In addition, the ICC for each 1-min segment compared to the criterion was near perfect (ICC values ranged from 0·92 to 0·97). The limits of agreement between the prerecording values and lnRMSSDCriterion ranged from ±0·28 to ±0·45 ms. These results lend support to shorter, more convenient ECG recording procedures for lnRMSSD assessment in athletes by reducing the prerecording stabilization period to 1 min.

CPFI figure

In collaboration with Dr. Fabio Nakamura, we have a new paper currently in review that assesses the suitability of ultra-short (60-s) measures with minimal stabilization in elite team-sport athletes using the Polar system. We will also be assessing if these modified HRV recording procedures sufficiently reflect changes in fitness after a training program. Overall, shortened lnRMSSD recording procedures appear very promising. This will hopefully enhance the practicality of HRV monitoring among sports teams.

Validity of the ithleteTM Smart Phone Application for Determining Ultra-Short-Term Heart Rate Variability

Here’s our latest study testing the accuracy of the ithlete vs ECG.

Validity of the ithleteTM Smart Phone Application for Determining Ultra-Short-Term Heart Rate Variability


HRV in a bit more detail: Part 2

Part 1 of this series provided information on heart function, ECG basics, HRV basics and how the Autonomic nervous system influences heart rate. For Part 2, I’ll discuss and display basic HRV analysis concepts to try and enhance your understanding of HRV.  I’ll relate as much of this discussion as possible to smart-phone based HRV tools as it is unlikely that most readers of this site have access to an ECG.

Athlete vs. Non-Athlete

Fit individuals generally have lower resting heart rates and greater parasympathetic activity at rest. These adaptations to training may be a result of both intrinsic heart adaptations (SA node remodeling, increase in ventricle capacity) and autonomic adaptations (greater vagal activity).

Below is an ECG segment from a collegiate male endurance athlete. This sample is likely capturing the normal fluctuation in heart rate that occurs in response to respiration (breathing). Heart rate tends to speed up on inspiration and slow down on expiration. The technical term used to describe this phenomenon is “Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia”.

athlete ECG RSA1

Endurance Athlete ECG

For comparison, below is a screen shot of a healthy non-athlete ECG. Here, you can clearly see a higher resting heart rate and less variability.

Non-athlete ECG

Non-athlete ECG

The Excel snap shot below is what R-R interval data looks like once exported from the ECG software (Acqknowledge in this case) to a workbook. Though specialized HRV software is much more functional, it’s certainly possible to perform some time series (statistical) analysis on the R-R interval data with basic excel functions (i.e. Standard Deviation, Mean R-R Interval, RMSSD, etc.). Today, we’ll focus primarily on RMSSD as this parameter appears to be the preferred HRV index for athlete monitoring (See Plews et al. 2013 and this for more on RMSSD).

R-R Intervals

R-R Intervals


With HRV software analysis, ECG recordings are converted to a tachogram, which plot the successive R-R intervals on the y-axis and the number of beats within the ECG segment on the x-axis. This provides a nice visual representation of heart rate variability over a given time and makes for easy software analysis.

Below is a 5 minute ECG segment from an endurance athlete converted to a tachogram with our Nevrokard HRV software. Notice how the R-R intervals vary considerably over a broad range. The time domain values follow.

Endurance Athlete Tachogram

Endurance Athlete Tachogram


In contrast, below is the tachogram and time domain analysis of an age matched non-endurance athlete for comparison. Note how the R-R intervals are relatively stable and within a narrow range, demonstrating less variability.

Non-athlete Tachogram

Non-athlete Tachogram


To put this in perspective for the good folks using ithlete or BioForce, I’ll convert the raw RMSSD values (displayed in the “Summary Statistics” screen shots above) to ithlete/BioForce values. To do this, we simply log transform the raw RMSSD and multiply it by 20 (lnRMSSDx20). Keep in mind that the ithlete uses a 55-sec test and BioForce uses 2.5-min test. The values shown here are from 5-min ECG samples, but you get the idea.

rmssd conversion

Ectopic Beats and Artifacts

Last post, I discussed “normal” beats originating from the SA node. Any beats originating from outside the SA node disturb cardiac rhythm and can therefore impact HRV. These are called ectopic beats. Electrical interference, or excessive noise or movement can create “artifacts” which can also affect the data. It’s important to manually inspect ECG data for ectopic beats or artifacts and correct them (replace with the adjacent “normal” cycle) or discard the ECG sample entirely if there are excessive disturbances. Most smart-phone HRV tools do not provide R-R interval data and therefore manual inspection for ectopic beats is impossible. Conveniently, devices such as ithlete and BioForce are designed to automatically detect and correct irregular beats. For example, the application will detect and replace R-R intervals that are unlikely to occur in healthy, resting individuals (e.g., R-R intervals below 500ms or above 1800ms). I’d assume OmegaWave Pro, SweetBeat and other devices also have this feature.

Below is an example of an ectopic beat from an ECG which appears to be a premature atrial contraction. You’ll see this again in a moment on the tachogram as well.


Measurement Protocol

For athlete monitoring, HRV data is ideally collected as soon after waking in the morning as possible after bladder emptying.  We want as close to resting conditions as possible. It would be wise to avoid checking e-mails, text messages and anything else that can alter mood, excite you, upset you, etc. Even water consumption will have an acute impact on HRV. Consistency of measurement protocol and time of measurement are important for longitudinal monitoring. In addition, being as motionless as possible and undisturbed is equally as important.

In the screen shot below towards the right hand side, we can clearly see when the individual gets restless and moves or adjusts his position. We can also see the ectopic beat that occurs toward the start of the measure (same ectopic beat shown above in the ECG). Slight and subtle movements can clearly impact heart rate so be as still as possible when you perform your measures at home.

ectopic_disturbed tachogram

In the tachogram below, notice how heart rate changes considerably at around the 10 minute mark. This is a result of a researcher entering the exam room where the subject was resting during an ECG recording. Clearly, the resting condition was disturbed as the subject was excited/stressed from the person entering the room. Thus, do your best to remain as undisturbed as possible when performing a measure at home.

disturbed measure 10min

All data shown today were from supine ECG recordings. Next post I’ll discuss and show HRV changes in response to postural change (i.e., from supine to standing).

HRV in a bit more detail

Over the next several posts I will attempt to provide a little more depth to the typical explanations of heart rate variability that I’ve provided in the past. I will be displaying ECG data and HRV software screen shots to provide a better visual representation of HRV analysis. I will present and discuss things like;

  • How HRV data is often collected and analyzed
  • ECG basics
  • What respiratory sinus arrhythmia looks like
  • What an ectopic beat looks like
  • What a tachogram is and looks like (HRV software)
  • Comparing athlete to non-athlete ECG/HRV data
  • Looking at supine and standing ECG/HRV data
  • Looking at paced vs. spontaneous breathing data and how it affects HRV
  • Showing how subtle errors can impact an HRV measurement
  • Discussing HRV research questions that my colleague and I are investigating here in our lab
  • Whatever else seems  relevant as I get writing

Today’s post will serve as a brief, but slightly more in depth introduction to heart rate physiology. To really get a handle on HRV, it’s important to have an understanding of the interplay between the brain and heart and the details therein. I encourage interested readers to check out an actual physiology text for a more elaborate and detailed discussion for which I’ll provide a few recommendations at the end.

Heart Rate

The human heart is equipped with an intrinsic pacemaker within the wall of the right atrium called the sinoatrial node (SA node).  The SA node randomly depolarizes, generating action potentials that ultimately result in a contraction (heart beat). All heart beats that originate from the SA node are “normal” beats and provide normal cardiac rhythm. However, as we’ll get into eventually when I display some ectopic beats, depolarization also regularly occurs in other areas within the myocardium, which if reach threshold, can initiate a contraction on its own. Non SA node action potentials disturb cardiac rhythm that is ideally dictated by the SA node (more on ectopic beats in future). Left alone, the SA node would give you a resting heart rate of about 100 beats per minute. Obviously, healthy individuals have much lower heart rates while at rest. Other times, we can experience quite high elevations in heart rate to facilitate blood distribution requirements (e.g., during physical activity). We’ll get into how these changes in heart rate occur momentarily.

In the lab, we can evaluate heart beat information with electrocardiographic (ECG) recordings. An ECG detects electrical currents at the surface of the skin generated by the action potentials that propagate through the heart. In our lab, since we’re mainly interested in heart rate variability and not intricate ECG analysis, we use a simple, modified lead II electrode placement. From the ECG we can observe 3 distinct patters that represent the electrical conductivity involved in the cardiac cycle;


P wave – Displays as a small upward deflection and represents atrial depolarization. The P wave indicates that the impulse originated from the SA node and therefore results in a “normal” beat.

QRS Complex – Begins with a shallow downward deflection (Q), followed by a tall upward deflection (R) and ends with another downward deflection (S). Collectively, this represents ventricular depolarization.

T wave – Oftend described as dome-shaped in appearance and represents ventricular repolarization

As you can see, the R wave has a high peak making measurements between cardiac cycles rather easy. The elapsed time between two R waves creates an R-R interval. The time between R-R intervals varies across successive R-R intervals and is termed heart rate variability. In the screen shot below of the AcqKnowledge software, notice how the space between R waves (the tall peaks) is inconsistent as some intervals are wider and some are more narrow.



Centrally Mediated Cardiac Control

Now we’ll return to our discussion on heart rate control. Heart rate is influenced by both intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms, however for this discussion, our interest is primarily with central nervous system regulation of cardiac control via autonomic innervations of the heart. Heart rate is largely mediated by both sympathetic and parasympathetic influence which originates in the cardiovascular center of the brain. The cardiovascular center is located on the lower portion of the brain stem at the medulla oblongata. From here, sympathetic neurons extend from the brain, through the spinal cord and directly into the heart. Increased sympathetic activity increases the release of norepinephrine which speeds up SA node depolarization (increases heart rate) and increases the force of contraction. This response occurs to facilitate increased blood distribution requirements that may arise due to physical activity, stress, standing up, etc.

Parasympathetic influence of the heart occurs via the Vagus nerve (10th cranial nerve) which originates in the medulla and has axons that terminate directly into the heart. Vagal stimulation elicits an inhibitory effect on the SA node via release of acetylcholine, effectively reducing heart rate and is associated with “rest and digest” activity. Since vagal activity inhibits SA node activity, vagal withdrawal will result in less SA node inhibition and allow the heart to beat faster. At the onset of exercise, the initial increase in heart rate is a result of vagal withdrawal with a progressive increase in sympathetic activity as exercise persists (Yamamoto et al. 1991).

Since heart rate is directly affected by autonomic activity, it serves as a relatively simple marker for us to monitor to assess autonomic status. Increased parasympathetic activity will reduce heart rate and result in greater variability between R waves. In contrast, a higher heart rate with less variability (think more metronomic) is the result of reduced parasympathetic activity and possibly increased sympathetic activity.  HRV has thus become a valuable metric to monitor in athletes as it provides information regarding the relative balance of “stress” in the individual. Though I’m a proponent of HRV monitoring in athletes, its interpretation requires caution as nothing is black and white when it comes to determining an athlete’s training status from HRV, particularly from isolated measurements. Rather, taken with performance trends, psychometrics (perception of mood, soreness, fatigue, etc.), and training load, HRV becomes more meaningful.

In the next post, I will start to get into HRV analysis with some software screenshots to provide a good visual representation of HRV.


References/Recommended Reading:

Smith, D. & Fernhall, B. (2010) Advanced Cardiovascular Exercise Physiology. Human Kinetics.

Tortora, G. & Derrickson, B. (2006) Principles of Anatomy and Physiology 11th Edition. Biological Sciences Textbooks Inc.

Yamamoto, Y., Hughson, R. L., & Peterson, J. C. (1991). Autonomic control of heart rate during exercise studied by heart rate variability spectral analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology71(3), 1136-1142.