I’ve always been a fan of tracking biomarkers because it gives a clear picture of our state of wellness. Tracking these markers lets us know objectively that we’re doing the right things for our body. And we’re the first generation to have this power at our fingertips, so we’d be dumb not to take advantage of it.
One powerful biomarker that you can track daily in the comfort of your own home is Heart Rate Variability (HRV). By tracking this marker, you can maximize performance, enhance recovery, and strengthen your nervous system.
A primary challenge with our modern society is that it promotes a state of sympathetic nervous system dominance. In other words, our fight our flight nervous system is activated constantly throughout the day. This chronic stress state puts us at risk for weight gain, preventable disease, and general unhappiness.
Heart Rate Variability monitoring and tracking can help us train our nervous system to find more balance. We can be in a parasympathetic state (calm) when needed and a sympathetic state when needed. Finding this balance is essential to human health.
You can also use Heart Rate Variability monitoring to maximize exercise and prevent overtraining. Through HRV you can enhance performance by working out when your body is already in a state of readiness. You can verify that you’re not pushing yourself too hard and falling into a state of overtraining. And you can speed up recovery by improving your sleep, slipping back into a parasympathetic state more easily, and verifying the effects of other recovery protocols.
Most importantly, HRV gives you a clear picture of your overall health and can tip you off when you’re getting into dangerous territory with stress so you can make changes and back off.
How Heart Rate Variability Works
To understand how HRV works, you have to understand the principle behind your heartbeat.
The heart’s job is to respond dynamically to the needs of the organism. The “beat” is not a perfect metronomic beat. In other words, it doesn’t beat according to a set rhythm with an identical pattern. Rather, there should be variance in the beat-to-beat rhythm. This variance is the “variability” part of HRV. The more variability, the better, because it shows that the heart is responding well to the inputs it’s getting.
Having low or no variability is a sign that your heart is not responding well to changes, which means it’s less able to meet demands. This can be due to several factors, including aging. But it’s also something that you can improve. Exercise/movement is important because it naturally improves HRV. Improving mental health also helps, as anxiety and worry decrease HRV.
Increased variability is a sign that you’re engaging more of your parasympathetic nervous system—the relaxation system. Decreased variability is a sign that you’re in more of a sympathetic nervous system state—fight or flight. That’s the state that indicates stress, inflammation, overtraining, and so on.
This is the power of HRV. It makes the invisible, visible. It gives you a glimpse into your nervous system so you can start to make impactful changes. And then you can verify that those changes are pushing you closer to your goals.
Getting Started with Heart Rate Variability
Start by monitoring your HRV at the same time every single day under the same conditions. A good starting point is in the morning, prior to any other behavior (especially eating, drinking coffee, etc.) The test only takes a couple minutes and will be recorded by the app. After a few days or a week you will have a good picture of your HRV baseline.
Once you have a good baseline, you can start to check HRV at different times of the day to help monitor the demands you’re placing on yourself. For example, check HRV after exercise, at different points during the work day, after a fight with your spouse, and at night as you’re winding down. This will teach you how different daily events impact your HRV and keep you mindful of your nervous system state.
You can also use these check-times to slip back into a parasympathetic state through deep breathing and other mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
As you go through stressful periods in your life, you’ll see the changes reflected in your HRV graph. This will indicate that you need to slow things down. It will show when you’re overtraining and need to back off and also when you can benefit from more intense training.
Decreases in variability mark the need for rest, relaxation, and recovery. Increases in variability mean you’re better able to handle stress. I would encourage you to start HRV monitoring today and shoot me an email or leave a comment below with your findings.
Recommended Monitor: Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Monitor
Recommended App: Elite HRV