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.
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HRV and psychometric responses to overload and taper in collegiate sprint-swimmers
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.