Of course we all start out with the best of intentions. That's why we join a gym right? To perform better and feel healthier. To look good naked and put that mirror selfie on fleek. Afterall, nothing says motivation like joining a pack of like minded Fit family all on their own pursuit of a better life. There is no question that our quest for a better life is noble but what happens when the process backfires? When the soreness from one training session begins to bleed into another and our lifestyle begins to take a hit because of constant fatigue? Dealing with lower back pain at work after you rep out 45 deadlifts isn’t exactly a huge win in life. Torn hands from countless pull ups don’t exactly feel like a win either once the adrenaline from the workout begins to wain. There are time when soreness and ripped hands can be somewhat of a badge of honor and I can understand that as much as the next guy but in reality, these things get old fast. Even if you don’t mind dealing with soreness, it is all of the other ways that fatigue beats you down over time that start to creep on your lifestyle. Sleep becomes disturbed as you body uses valuable resources for recovery instead of rest. As your body tries to keep up and adjust, elevated cortisol levels become the new normal, and so does irritability. So what is the answer? Take your foot off the gas and train less? I’d rather not personally. It’s obvious then, that the answer lies in recovery but what if we took a different approach to recovery? What if we set up our entire training schedule so that it aided in recovery and was the most conducive to performance. I know, it’s a bummer you may not be able to hit the gym every Mon-Fri at 5pm and wait in line for the elliptical but taking a risk and trying something different might be the key to a much better life. That something different in Heart Rate Variability Training (HRV.)
Most people think about our hearts as if they are a metronome, steadily beating to the exact same rhythm day in and day out but this just isn’t true. When you exhale, the brain sends a signal to the heart slowing it slightly, when you inhale, the signal drops away causing a slight increase in heart rate. This is all done via your nervous system. The parasympathetic, (known as the rest and digest component of your nervous system,) is responsible for the slowing and your sympathetic (known as the fight or flight,) is responsible for the speeding up. it is completely normal and not something you would ever really notice. This small degree of difference in rhythm is your heart rate’s variability. This back and forth essentially provides a look into whether your body is recovering and repairing still or whether it is at rest. The greater degree of variability, the more your rest and digest is involved. The lesser degree in tone being due to the dominance of your sympathetic nervous system.
Ideally, our bodies are able to exhibit an acute sympathetic response during high intensity activities like training and then also a good parasympathetic response when we are done which will allow us to recover. A study done by Potterat et. al. compared Navy SEALs to "non elite" men from a conventional military group. The SEALs had higher heart rate dipping, which means that during sleep, when the parasympathetic system takes over to induce recovery, their heart rates dropped by an average of 29%, whereas the non-elites dropped by only 21%. (Source: Tnation.com) This shows you how HRV should work; the more trained and adapted to your fitness regimen that you are the better your body is able to go into repair mode when you are finished.
Another study looked at the HRV of special forces candidates in school and found that the highest performers also had no HRV right before they were to train again. Meaning that the people who were still trying to recover when they went to train obviously did worse. This is what you and I feel when we walk into a gym and the barbell immediately feels like a thousand pounds or when we take off for a run and our legs are heavy right out of the gate.
Countless other studies have been done for HRV on everyone from middle distance runners to power lifters and special forces to olympic athletes. They have concluded that HRV is a factor in testosterone production, stress levels, immune health, soft tissue injuries and altered glucose management. Put simply, everything that gets in our way on a path to a greater life.
So how the hell can I apply this to my life?
Most studies have found that your actual heart rate only dips about four BPM so resting heart rate really isn't a good factor in determining nervous system health, meaning you actually need to look at HRV. Luckily, capitalism has come through for us on this front. Instead of buying the machines they use in labs that can cost thousands of dollars, there are two smartphone apps that can help you get the job done. Ithlete and BioForce. They are user friendly and don’t take long to get going. Ithlete even uses a color coded system so you can just look at the color and know weather or not today is the day that you go ham in the gym.. Or not. The only downside is that you need to establish baselines levels, which means that you have to spend a few weeks deloading, a few weeks going hard and then another few weeks deloading so that you can figure out where your body like to operate. You can go off normal baselines but anyone that has spent any time studying human biology will tell you that normal really doesn’t exist when it comes to each individual person. This sounds like a lot of work but truthfully it is minimal in contrast to feeling good all the time and maximizing all of your time that you spend in the gym.We all want to improve body image, fight obesity and improve functionality so that we as humans can be capable of so much more in our everyday life. The bottom line is that when you have fitness on your side, you open up tons of doors to wherever life may take you. You can say yes to gnarley hikes for breathtaking views, you can commit to paddleboard excursions and camping trips without a second thought and you can do all of these things much later in life. You just have to work your training in a way that it actually aids your lifestyle and doesn’t hinder it. Recovery and smart training are a hell of a step in the right direction.