Tracking Recovery and Heart Rate Variability

In one of my last articles I discussed some research around using mood states and hormone levels to track recovery during the training process. (You can read that article by clicking here). One thing I said in that article was:

The interesting thing for me is that we have found extremely effective ways to monitor the training or workload stresses, yet the problem I often have when communicating with athletes is explaining the value of proper recovery. (This could be days, weeks or months.)

One issue is that motivated people don’t like inactivity. And we don’t have a universally used methodology for assessing recovery like we do with training loads using power meters and gps watches.

That may be changing and there may be a more universally used and accepted method to monitor recovery as we do training loads? What is that methodology – Heart Rate Variability.

When I first started training for marathons in 1999, I remember one thing I was taught from the beginning was to track my resting heart rate. The procedure was as follows:

1. wake up
2. prior to getting out of bed take my heart rate for 1 minute
3. log the resting heart rate.

A higher resting heart rate was a sign that my body needed to recovery a little more. I have continued to use that method over the years, but not at all consistently. The major problem is that I get up and feel like I need to hit the ground running. Plus, many times I end up having so much on my mind that I lose count or have little confidence in what I was counting. (It’s hard to be on top of it prior to my first cup of coffee!)

Heart Rate Variability is something that I was reintroduced to a month or so ago by Carson Boddicker (his website here). Quite innocently he mentioned HRV in an email exchange and it brought the topic back to my attention. The previous experience I had with HRV was merely an academic interest while in graduate school and I was collecting research on the topic of mood states, stress management and exercise.

At the time I remember thinking that HRV would be interesting data to collect, but from what I was exposed to, it didn’t appear easily determined. Well that has changed also with Polar and Suunto monitors and other pieces of technology.

In any case, I’m excited to be back learning about a tool that athletes can use to systematically and analytically track recovery during their training programs. This is an incredibly huge piece of the puzzle that many triathletes and runners just don’t do very successfully, but if you can put a number to it or track it, then they may be able to incorporate it better (which is why I like the idea of the Zeo to track sleep quality for these individuals too).

It isn’t only amateur or age group athletes that struggle with this topic either, as I noted in my news topic blog, Ryan Hall deals with managing recovery and even changed coaches to see if it would help: Ryan Hall’s Beard and Recovery

As a friend / triathlete, George Van Meter, and I were discussing the other day, life is one long learning opportunity. As a coach, I want to continue to learn as much as I can on topics that give my athletes the best chance to succeed. I will be honest in saying that when it comes to current use of heart rate variability within a training program I have a lot to learn. I can not say that I have heard of an athlete consistently incorporating it into their program on a long term basis that resulted in changed programs and workout structures. Here are some of the things I’m reading right now to start my journey, I would love to see other resources if you got them:

- Using Heart Rate Variability To Measure Stress: There’s an app for that! by Patrick Ward
- ithlete app – the app that Patrick mentions
- Polar watch that calculates HRV, quote from amazon page below:

R-R Intervals / Online HR Variability: Measures heart beat intervals and reflects autonomic nervous system in heartbeat regulation. The R-R interval measurement is most useful at rest and at low intensities. Relaxation rate indicates the state of your physical recovery.

- Biocom Technologies – Heart Rate Variability Article (found in google search with basic on HRV)
- Manual Therapy and Heart Rate Variability – Carson’s post on HRV and Manual Therapy
- USA Triathlon article by Lee Gardner and Walter F. DeNino that suggests HRV is not a valuable marker
- Interview with ithlete app on Phil Maffetone’s webiste (talk about getting the contraversial pot stirring now! Just mentioning Maffetone will get some comments)
- Can Daily Heart Rate Variability be used to Guide Endurance Training (pdf) – short abstract in the pdf discussing some research using HRV to determine the daily workout versus control and regular training group

Heart Rate Variability is by no means new knowledge! There is a ton of information out there to read, just do a google scholar search for the topic. What I’m really interested in is people using that data to adjust their training programs the same way a triathlete uses power meter data on the bike or gps data on the run.

A training program is not only about the work accomplished. It is also about what happens to the individual athlete in response to that workload.