By Coach Laura Henry
I started taking daily Heart Rate Variability (HRV) readings last February when my coaching company, Team MPI, partnered with ithlete. I hadn’t ever heard of HRV before, and I was curious to see what it was about. I was interested in learning about what it could tell me about me as an athlete, but more importantly, I wanted to see how it might enable me to more effectively help the athletes who I coach.
Over the last eleven months, I’ve taken enough readings to come to the conclusion that HRV knows me better than I know myself.
I’ve received more than a handful of yellow “proceed with caution” readings, and thinking I knew better than the software, I proceeded as normal. Almost every time I completed a workout on a yellow day, I could feel a difference in my Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This was confirmed by comparing the data (both “real” and subjective) from repeated workouts that were completed on both yellow and green days.
Prior to using HRV, I would go about my days based on how I felt when I woke up or how I felt at rest throughout the day. Some days I would have workouts that felt sluggish and where I performed poorly, and other days would be normal or even breakthrough days. Once I started using HRV, I was able to correlate that subjective data with concrete information from my daily readings to paint a more complete picture of why my performance might not be maximized or why I felt so fatigued on particular days.
My personal triggers – travel, sickness & stress
Most notably, I found that I would receive yellow readings on days following travel and on mornings following stressful days. Typically, I might feel a little “off,” but not so significantly that it would cause me to alter my plans or my training schedule. Having the HRV data helped me develop an awareness of life factors that could be triggers for acute fatigue and therefore enabled me to plan my training schedule better. For instance, I now ask my coach to plan workouts a little differently when I know I’ll be traveling by altering intensity and duration to a load that is more tolerable for me during those time periods.
One of the most interesting weeks of HRV data collection happened in December 2017. For a couple of days, my resting heart rate was elevated from its usual range. It started off about 10 bpm higher, and then climbed to 20 bpm higher on the next day. On both of those days, I received green HRV readings. On day three, my resting heart rate was almost 40 bpm higher than normal, my HRV dropped by 24 points (which gave me a red reading), and I received a warning that my reading was so off that the software thought it might be caused by a hardware malfunction. This was not the case; I had sustained acute fatigue due to illness and needed to rest immediately if I wanted to keep this case of acute fatigue from becoming a case of chronic fatigue. On day three, I did feel sick, but I hadn’t felt sick prior to that day. What I found most fascinating about this block of data was that my heart knew that I was sick before my brain knew it.
Justified rest days
I, like so many endurance athletes, am a “Type A” personality. I like “checking off all of the boxes”, and I like to think that I can do all things that I set my mind to. Skipping workouts or altering training plans for “invalid” reasons is not something I like to do. Feeling a little tired was never a “good enough” reason for me to request a workout modification from my coach or for me to skip a workout altogether. Having such a significant amount of HRV data has enabled me to change my mindset slightly on this and take unplanned rest days with a bit less guilt when the data tells me that I’m accumulating too much fatigue and not recovering well enough. Full disclosure: my guilt over staying “off-plan” is not 100% gone; I’m still a work in progress when it comes to that, but it’s certainly reduced now since starting to use ithlete.
HRV as a coaching tool
Collectively, my experience with ithlete and HRV readings as an athlete has enabled me to be a better coach for the athletes who I work for. I expected that my experience with ithlete might allow me to help the athletes who choose to take HRV readings use this tool to their advantage, and that expectation came to fruition. For those athletes, I’m able to correlate their subjective notes in workouts with the data from ithlete to track trends over time so that I can develop more effective training plans even more specifically tailored to the athlete. Additionally, I’m able to see trends that might indicate impending illness, and the athlete and I can talk about how best to modify things to keep them healthy and engaged in their training. However, what I didn’t expect was that my use of HRV data would enable me to help all of the athletes who I work for, regardless of whether or not they take HRV readings.
Using ithlete has given me an increased understanding and healthy appreciation for just how many variables can factor into an athlete’s overall total stress score. I no longer treat seemingly insignificant, relatively “normal” occurrences such as altered daily nutrition, a late day at the office, less-than-ideal-sleep, longer travel days for work trips, etc. as insignificant. I recognize just how important each of these pieces are in completing the whole puzzle of maximizing an athlete’s potential, and I take them into consideration when planning microcycles and mesocycles of training.
Helping athletes be the best they can be and reach their goals
After almost a year of using ithlete, I can say with certainty that it is an incredibly valuable tool for athletes, but an even more important tool for coaches. Using it personally for themselves can enable coaches to have a deeper understanding of just how valuable the data can be, and it can allow coaches to become more effective at what they do best already: helping athletes be the best they can be and reach their goals.
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who coaches with Team MPI. She is an IRONMAN Certified Coach, USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and NASM Certified Personal Trainer. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success. She can be reached at email@example.com.