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How do you know how far to push yourself, and when to recover? Unfortunately, our bodies don’t print out a daily report that tells us exactly how well we’re performing. Recently technology has advanced to bring us consumer devices designed to help better manage our bodies when it comes to performance. Some researchers say that testing heart rate variability might allow you to train smarter, train less, and gain better performance results.   

What is Heart Rate Variability?

In the past, the experts believed that endurance and strength training athletes should test their resting heart rate (RHR) to look for signs of overtraining. But many exercise specialists now recommend that you evaluate heart rate variability or HRV, instead.

“RHR is simply looking at the beats per minute, while heart rate variability is measuring the distance between each heartbeat,” says Tim Rusbasan, MS, C.S.C.S., Omegawave Customer Experience Manager. Omegawave is a company that develops and sells HRV testing systems for professional and consumer use. 

He says that any kind of athlete can measure the differences in the distance between heart beats and evaluate how the body is responding to stress from workouts as well as other sources, like work or relationships. The data is then used to tailor workouts and avoid fatigue, overreaching, or in extreme cases, overtraining syndrome.

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How to Use HRV Testing

In one recent study, researchers gathered data from forty recreational endurance runners. Half of the runners were told to exercise according to a predetermined training schedule. The other half used professional grade equipment to measure their heart rate variability each morning and perform low-intensity workouts if their HRV showed signs of stress. The result? The HRV group trained less but ran faster at the end of the study.

Clients who train at Lifetime Fitness use BioForce HRV, says Alexander VanHouten, National Development Specialist, Master Trainer and Regional Education Specialist. “I recommend athletes and non-athletes alike use heart rate variability as a measure of recovery to assess the effectiveness of their program’s volume and intensity progressions,” he says. The BioForce HRV system gathers data from a heart rate chest strap or finger sensor which then tracks changes and provides training recommendations based on the data.

So should you conduct your own HRV testing at home? You’re not likely to have access to the professional equipment used in the study. But consumer devices are becoming widely available.

Both BioForce HRV and Omegawave sell consumer-based HRV training systems for about $200. But you don’t need to fork out that much cash to take advantage of the technology. If you already own a heart rate chest strap, you can pair it with an inexpensive smartphone app to deliver the data for less. myithlete is a smartphone app that can be downloaded for less than $9 and there is even a free app called Elite HRV that you can use.

Your heart rate monitor may also take HRV data into account. Many Polar devices, including the new M600 sports watch, use heart rate variability along with a number of other variables in the fitness testing and training recommendations.

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Accuracy of Heart Rate Variability Results

Even though there are several studies that support the use of HRV to determine how hard to train, not everyone agrees that the results are useful or accurate.

Authors of the running study acknowledge that HRV measurements taken at home may not be as accurate as those taken in laboratory conditions. Consumer publications have reviewed HRV devices as well and questioned their accuracy. In an interview with LiveScience, researcher Daniel McDuff says that there are potential problems with sensors, and HRV trackers can’t distinguish good stress from bad stress which may lead to misleading data.

There are studies to support the use of HRV data to prevent overtraining in elite athletes, says Stephanie Bryan, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and an assistant professor in the Health and Physical Education Program at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. But she also says that she does not see heart rate variability testing as a reasonable approach for the average athlete.

Bryan says that training for athletes like runners and cyclists should be based on heart rate zones and that heart rate should be monitored during exercise. She says training heart rate and perceived exertion are the best ways to monitor training response. “The signs and symptoms of overtraining are extreme—you basically could not miss them,” she says.

There are many different factors that play a role in your ability to recover adequately from training. But if you’re an athlete that likes data, heart rate variability testing offers an interesting, new way to evaluate those factors and decide if you should forge ahead and complete your workout or lay low and take a day off.

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