New to HRV? 5 Things To Get You Started

New to HRV? Never heard of it? Here’s what you should do with that cool new feature on your Smart Watch.

The most common way to look at our Heart Rate is the simple number of beats per minute.

Welcome, the new kid on the block: HRV (Heart Rate Variability).

HRV looks at the change in the rhythm of beats throughout that minute. Contrary to popular belief, our heart beat is not like a metronome! The rhythm of the beat is always changing, often only by a matter of milliseconds per beat, and careful interpretation of this data using HRV can provide us with new and exciting insight about the body.

HRV is commonly used for optimising athletic performance, but it also has applications in the rehabilitation world. We use HRV a lot in our fatigue management programs, and it has proven to be a powerful tool which represents the “fitness” of your autonomic nervous system, and therefore the ability of your body to recover.

A healthy nervous system has the ability to alternate between the “fight or flight” system, and the “rest and digest” system – this enables us to take action when needed, and rest appropriately in downtime. If you’re new to HRV and want to nerd out further about what exactly it is, you can check out our previous article:  The Secret Weapon: HRV.  

But if you just want to get on with it, and learn the How To’s, let’s go!


How to use HRV


1. Take a reading first thing in the morning

A reading in the morning can predict your capacity for the day, hence this is a pretty useful time to take a measurement to plan your day ahead. 

It also means that the reading will not be influenced by other external variables, such as your diet/caffeine intake that day, stress levels, or physical activity completed. This means more accurate data!


2. Be Consistent

As with any objective measurement in science and life, for accurate comparison between readings you want to keep the environment consistent. So, take your measurement at the same time, and in the same posture. You may wish to take it while sitting upright at the table, or laying down – it doesn’t really matter as long as it is the same every day.


3. Interpret it

So you’ve taken the measurement, now what?!

Many of the apps these days will take a lot of the interpretation work out, by giving you a “score” to reflect your “Readiness for the day” – calculated relative to your previous HRV readings, as well as other variables. 

A high score generally indicates that your HRV is varying well and therefore your Nervous System is responsive, it’s elastic, it’s awake and ready to respond to the environment appropriately.

A low HRV score can indicate that there is a poor balance between the Action and Rest systems, and the nervous system is leaning more towards one side than the other. 

The apps will typically also give you some general advice on your score, i.e. if your score is low, it will likely tell you to take it easy, and if it’s a good score, you’ll be encouraged to train harder.

If you have a device that gives you specific data about the balance between Action and Rest systems, that’s even handier! You can then use more individualised activities to target changes in that balance – e.g. relaxing activities if your Action system is too high, or energising activities if it is low.

4. Combine the data with “tags.”

You can either keep a manual diary, or many of the devices offer this feature within their corresponding apps.

By doing this, you can easily track how a particular “tag” (lifestyle factor) impacts your HRV.  This can be many things such as stress, alcohol, exercise, medication, meditation, socialising and even nutrition.


5. Experiment

Experiment with your readings. You can take a reading throughout the day after you perform an activity, e.g. an hour after a run, or straight after a meditation and see what happens.

Combining this information with tags allows you to learn which lifestyle variables affect you the most, in positive or negative ways (sometimes it can be surprising!). This then equips you with the knowledge to make educated decisions about how to manage your day, every day. 


Applying HRV to life


Understanding your numbers and taking on the advice from the app helps you to plan for the day.

For example, if you have a low score and are recommended to have a recovery day with lighter intensities and less stress, your nervous system will return to balance sooner if you give it the rest that it needs. If you disregard the reading, and do an extended duration HIIT session instead, then you are likely to burn yourself out and feel even worse the next day because you haven’t allowed the recovery that your nervous system was asking for. (P.S Not only will you feel pretty lousy, the workout probably wouldn’t have the desired effect you intended anyway – the recovery is just as important as the workout!)

Applying HRV to Rehab

We’ve provided an example for general fitness but now, let’s talk rehab…

The Nervous System governs everything, and this includes our brain. Changes in HRV values can also reflect changes in pain levels, mood and even immune system function!

This means that the HRV data can be valuable to improve our understanding of (and therefore help to manage) fatigue, pain and mood symptoms as well as sickness! 

We will be exploring this more in-depth in future articles – so stay tuned!


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Author: Biara Webster
Editor: Yolanda van Vugt