Train hard or train intelligently: Can Heart Rate Variability (HRV) help athletes to optimise their gains?

Given the fact that no two runners respond to the same training in the same way, getting a training programme right can be as much of an art as it is a science.

Quantifying how hard you’re training with simple measurements, such as heart rate or the traditional constituents of training (mileage, intensity, frequency) will reflect the effort you’re putting into your training but, what it won’t do is assess your actual response to that training.

Just like measuring how much petrol you put into your car won’t tell you exactly how far you can drive before the tank is empty again, (that depends on engine performance, how you drive the car etc), simply knowing that you ran 40 miles in a week can’t really tell you if you’ll end up running a faster marathon.

If only training adaptation was as simple as the equation: training + nutrition + sleep – life stress – every other hassle = adaptation!

If it was that straightforward, then changing one or more of those variables should result in improvements in fitness. But unfortunately it just isn’t that clear-cut and much of the research into genetics and exercise is devoted to understanding what separates the training “responders” from the “non-responders.”

However, the question of how to assess and quantify the effects of training on the body may finally have an easy, and surprisingly accessible answer.

Thanks to recent technological advances, it has now become possible to measure a physiological function called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). And best of all, the means of measuring this metric has broken out of the clinic lab and is now within reach of most people’s pockets.

So what is Heart Rate Variability?

HRV reflects the heart’s automatic regulation. Specifically, it measures the time gap between each heartbeat and is usually assessed while the person is resting. It may appear to us that the gap between each of our heartbeats is always the same, particularly when we’re resting. In fact, it isn’t. Tiny, millisecond differences occur in the length of gap between each heartbeat – and research has linked a high HRV – that’s a greater variation between each heart beat – as a marker of the heart’s ability to adapt, and so a sign of fitness. The converse of this is that a low HRV is linked to fatigue and over-training.

And what does this mean for sportsmen and women?

Well, in practical terms, it means that HRV can be used to determine your response to training in general; and even your response to specific types of training.

In a 2016 study, presented in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers examined the effects of an 8-week HRV guided running programme on running performance. Forty recreational endurance runners were divided into an HRV-guided experimental training group and a traditional, predefined training group (trained according to a predefined training programme that included 2-3 moderate/high intensity training sessions/week). For the experimental HRV group, the timing of higher intensity training was based solely on HRV, measured every morning. If the subject’s HRV was within a normal, acceptable range, higher intensity workouts were programmed. If HRV fell outside that range, then low intensity training was performed instead.

The researchers found that at the end of the 8-week training period, only the HRV–guided training group improved its performance in a 3000m running trial, even though they performed less moderate and high intensity training sessions compared with the predefined training group. The study concluded: “The timing of moderate and high intensity training sessions according to HRV is more optimal compared to subjectively predefined training.” In short, following a training platreadmilln out of a book or off of a website may not optimally improve performance.

HRV shows promise in identifying what types of exercise are individually optimal before an exercise programme is started. In another study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports in 2015, researchers measured the response of recreational runners to either high volume or high intensity training. By assessing HRV before the training period started, the researchers hoped to better understand how individuals would respond to different intensities and amounts of exercise.

At the end of the 16-week programme, the study indicated that the runners with a higher HRV improved to a greater degree with high-intensity training while those with a lower HRV responded better to a higher training volume rather than training intensity. The researchers concluded that: “HRV may be used to individualise endurance training in recreational endurance runners, especially to adjust training volume and intensity, to achieve greater improvements in endurance performance.

It seems that HRV may hold the key to telling runners how to train for maximum gain before they start a training programme. Having a high HRV may indicate that you can take a greater dose of high intensity training; whilst a low HRV may be a red flag, or at least a yellow one, warning that long, slow distance training is needed instead of intense practice.

Wouldn’t you like to know the most efficient way to train for your next event?

The lead author of both of the above studies, Dr. Ville Vesterinen of Finland’s Research Institute for Olympic Sports, recommends that between 3 and 4 HRV assessments are carried out each week to achieve a good, overall view of the current training status. Dr Vesterinen states: “Given the large day-to-day variation, it is better to use long-term (e.g. 7-day) trends rather than one single HRV value. It is also essential to standardise the assessment protocol – time of day, length of measurement – to ensure good quality information.

Measuring heart rlogo-stresschecker_transparantate variability used to require complicated cardiac monitoring in a laboratory. Now, all it takes is a small ear-clip sensor, some computer software (to analyse the data) and, of course, a computer!

The StressChecker HRV package, produced by Respilex, a Netherlands-based biotech company, is an inexpensive, easy to use piece of kit, that enable athletes, body builders and other sportsmen and women to add HRV assessment to their training arsenal.

Visit the StressChecker page for more details, or just go to the main Peak Health Online website to explore the full product range.

Using HRV undoubtedly helps to take the guesswork out of training, so instead of the hit and miss approach, of trying different programmes to see which one works for you, the information gleaned from measuring your HRV could serve to quickly turn you from a training non-responder to someone showing real gains.

This post is adapted from an original article by Ian McMahan, which first appeared on, published 22nd March 2016

A Very Warm Welcome To The Peak Health Online Blog… and our first ever post!

Perhaps a brief introduction would be in order right now, to tell you what we’re about and what you should expect from us in future and so, without further ado, here goes…

Portrait of Caucasian teen boy holding blank sign above his head standing against red background.Peak Health Online was established in 2016 as an internet shop with the prime objective of bringing a select range of home-use, health and well-being products to health professionals and the general public alike.

The rapid advances in digital and other technologies over the past few years has made possible the development of a wide range of health devices for home-use which, until recently, would only have been available for use in hospitals and specialist clinics.

This has resulted in a proliferation of devices and gadgetry onto the market, many within range of most people’s budget. But how can anyone wishing to benefit from these technological advances decide which of the many products might by effective and which fail to live up to the marketing hype?

Well, before Peak Health Online offer any products for sale, we consult with our health advisers. They use their medical and psychological knowledge and expertise to review each product’s details, the clinical research behind them and their likely efficacy. If a product receives our experts’ seal of approval, then we will add it to our stock list, and if it doesn’t make the grade, then you will never see it on our website.

This review process means that our product range is small, but then our objective is not to sell “all things, to all men” (and women), but to bring only the best in home-use health technology to our clients.

And this blog…?

Well, our aim is for this blog to serve as a health and well-being news and education resource, not only for our clients but for the public at large. No doubt we’ll occassionally post reviews about products too, though rarely so, and only if these are newsworthy. This is not a “selling” blog; so if you want the latest on health gizmo’s and that kind of thing, then you’ll need to pop-over to the the main Peak Health Online website when  you’ve finished here.

We’ll carefully choose what we post about in this blog, if only because (as we all know by now), just because something makes a buzz on the internet or the TV news, it doesn’t mean that it’s worthy of serious consideration.

Health fads come and go, and so we’ll take care to try and ensure that the only articles, research and developments you’ll ever read about on our blog are the ones that pass muster with our clinical team, whose yardstick for approval depends on clinical evidence and robust data.

So do drop-by every now and again and catch-up with health news that’s worth keeping up with.

The Best of Health To You!