by Jan Birkmyre

How To Handle An Unexpected ithlete HRV Reading

Thanks to ithlete I have been tracking my heart rate variability (HRV) via a reading taken every morning since 2012.  It is so much a part of my routine these days that it sets the tone for my day.  Using the ithlete Pro version of the app I can track my HRV, heart rate, training load (via a sync with Garmin) and sleep (from Fitbit), as well as subjective measures of stress, fatigue, mood, muscle soreness and diet.  Together this is solid gold for my coach Steve Cronshaw who might see me only once every four weeks.

A good reading for me is in the mid-80’s, so when I see a reading in this range, I breathe a sigh of relief and think about getting my work done, so that I can really attack the training session that has been prescribed for me.  But of course, there are times when the reading is not what I want to see – it might be higher or lower – and an unexpected reading always gives me cause for thought because I take the time to understand the anomalous reading so that I can choose the appropriate action.

HRV on race day

There are a number of reasons why a reading might be out of the expected range, the most obvious of those is a pre-race reading.  For low key races the reading on the day of the race is usually a sharp drop from the ongoing trend, while the readings in the lead up to a big meeting like the World Masters can look “off” for a full week.  This is simply a reflection of the anticipation, the natural pre-race nerves and anxiety that I feel – the day I do not feel those emotions is the day I will hang up my wheels.  I know from experience that if I have done the training, banked a good taper and keep to the process I have practiced then I have no need to fear the race day reading.  Some people may prefer not to take a reading before a race but personally I like my morning routine and now know how to process the likely downturn in my HRV.

HRV and life stress

HRV readings are sensitive to life stress and I know mine will decline following a big travel day for business, especially when I am staying away from home overnight, or perhaps when I have compromised nutrition – there is only so much I can take with me on the road.  These days I have confidence in interpreting an amber warning in this context.  Usually I will have shared my work commitments with my coach Steve in advance and he will amend the plan to allow me to train appropriately.  These are predictable breaks from the trend and anyone who monitors their HRV over a longer period will be comfortable understanding whether they are simply a reflection of life stress or a warning to back off to avoid illness.

Unexpected high HRV readings

It is more challenging to know what to do when I see an HRV reading that is unexpectedly high.  This could be an indication that I am in great form and I always like to see how the readings respond to planned recovery and adaptation time.  Often, when I have a high reading and I have a big session or even a race planned, I will get a message of encouragement from Steve telling me to get out there and smash it but we rarely change the plan.

Steve agrees, saying “From a coaches’ perspective, HRV is a very valuable monitoring tool but it is just one marker that needs to be put in perspective by the coach to assess the overall training load.  Both high and low readings are a red flag for me to pick up the phone and talk to the athlete to evaluate how they feel and if any underlying issues need to be addressed.”

Usually Steve has worked the training plan to allow me to peak around two or three major goals in a season and there is a logic behind the periodisation that needs to be respected.  So while the implications of a low reading would always need to be considered and might be a good reason to back off a little, a high reading is usually a sign that things are good and I can really push on but not a reason to change the plan.