Let's discuss a hot, trendy metric that gets thrown around a lot these days, Heart Rate Variability. Thanks to the gigantic rise of companies like Whoop and Oura ring, HRV has become a popularized biomarker outside the realm of exercise physiology.
You might be wondering why HRV matters and what it is actually measuring. So let’s start there.
HRV is a measure of variation between the time in-between heart beats. Contrary to what you might think, our heart doesn’t necessarily beat to a metronome. We actually don’t want it to either, the higher our HRV is, the more adept our system is to taking on stress; the lower our HRV, the less equipped we are to handle stress.
Genetically speaking, everyone will have a different baseline for their HRV so it’s not necessarily a metric that we want to compare ours to someone else’s. What the research shows is that we can use our understanding of HRV to look at a you vs you progression of stress load. You’ll notice on days where doing hard things are easier, it’s often a result of your HRV being at the higher end of it’s baseline. On the flip side, the days where you feel like you’re really dragging, it’s often a result of a low HRV.
Don Moxley, an exercise physiologist and performance optimization expert, measured the HRV’s of Ohio State’s storied wrestling program for years and what he found was really interesting. He was able to predict the outcome of whether or not the wrestler would go on to win a national title, become an All American or not, based off their HRV trends and where it was measured at the morning of competition.
Through this insight, we understand that HRV is a great indicator of whether or not we can perform at the highest level or not, pretty cool. But what happens if game day comes and you’re off your game? Good news is you’re not at a total loss, it will just be more of an uphill battle for you, not impossible. The last thing you need though is to get into your own head and start doubting your abilities just because your wearable tech might be telling you you’re off. That would be my one gripe with the wearable tech trend is that often times we see a low number relative to our baseline and freak out under pressure. We are better off looking at overall big picture trends than one off scenarios. If you’re typically in the “green” so to speak by Whoop terms, a few days in the yellow or red aren’t the end of the world, in fact they’re part of the training process to improving HRV overall.
Now that we understand what HRV is and how it can be used as a performance indicator, we want to shift our focus to how we can train and improve based off of our baseline.
That begins with understanding our window of tolerance for stress. We all have an upper threshold and a lower threshold for how we handle stress. That’s our body’s optimal state where we can access both reason and emotion, we’re mentally engaged, and we can access flow state with ease. Think of a car for a second and how your car drives so smoothly after it gets a fresh set of tires and engine tune up; that machine is operating within its window of tolerance on cruise control almost. Now within that window, when we experience high degrees of hyper stress or arousal, our engines get revved to a point of losing traction on the road.
You ever take your car to its upper threshold of speed? We call this red lining and just like your car red lining on the speedometer, our body and mind start to get a bit shaky. When we go too far past this red line, we can’t calm down, we become overractive, our thoughts become unclear, and we’re emotionally distressed. As athletes you’ve felt this hyperarousal when you just can’t seem to get a grip on your body and mind connection. You can’t get your mind to quiet down enough to just focus on the task at hand. When this happens, our nervous system is blocking flow quite literally. It’s often a result of spending too much time in the fight or flight mode and the overstimulation has led us to this place of uncontrollable breath, and heart rate all over the place.
Hyperarousal is very similar to upshifting gears too quickly on our car, now most of us drive automatic transmission these days but when we upshift too quickly, we burn lots of rubber and don’t gain the traction that we should. When we find ourselves in this state, we want to turn to mindfulness, grounding practices, breath work, among other release practices to help down regulate the nervous system back into that optimal window. It’s like being in a fight and being able to shake off that punch to the face; once it happens it becomes able getting back under control. One of my favorite ways to down regulate in the moment is through a 1:2 ratio inhale and exhale breath work. The longer exhale allows the heart rate to slow, sending a message to your brain that everything is alright, peaceful even. Having the self awareness to recognize you are above the red line and come back down is critical for your performance. The more time you spend in above that line, the more energy is being wasted by your body and mind acting inefficiently.
On the flip side of the red line, we have the blue line and hypoarousal. This is when the body is shut down and we struggle to get up for what we know we need to. Over time, this could show itself as depressed, lethargic, numb, unmotivated; all those things athletes don’t want to be, but from time to time end up. This is the car stalling out at the stoplight, trying to go forward, but unable to do so. We need just the right amount of gas to get eased into the system for it to catch traction and move forward. When we are hypoaroused, we have trouble getting excited for the task at hand, and that can be for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless, flow is being blocked by this lack of arousal.
The good news is, we can combat this state through practices such as mindfulness, breath work, and physical activity. Think of the times you showed up to a practice or competition and you were feeling eh. How did you feeling after a good warm up session? Odds are you were able to upshift your system to get ready for the practice or main event. Depending on how hypoaroused we are determines the length of work needed to get us out of that state. If this is a one off trend for you, a longer, more stimulating warm up could do the trick. Same with breath work that allows the heart rate to rise, indicating to the brain “hey, it’s time to go.”
Here’s where it gets good; we can actually train to raise our ceiling on what is perceived as stress on our system, aka expand our window of tolerance to take on more stress without it feeling like a terribly heavy lift. Let’s use weight training as an example of how to do this. We want to warm up the engine a bit and get out of hypoarousal so we would start our training session with some light to moderate weight, get some activation work in, and then back off before going into the main lift for the day. Remember your flow cycle here? The activation work and warm up allow for the nervous system and other body systems to go through a bit of a struggle phase here. The release or back off in this case, primes the body to get into flow for the main lift of the session. When we are in flow, we are then able to flirt with the red line a bit more at a higher weight than if we weren’t. This means putting some more weight on the bar and moving that around. We want to train some at that upper limit, but not over train because our resources are limited. Flow itself is a high, high, energy burning state and it can go through fuel pretty quickly. You know the difference that one extra rep will make at that upper threshold, so once we’ve flirted with the red line, we want to back off. This is the start of our recovery phase, allowing our body to decompress from the stimulus that it just took on and get ready to do it again the next day. As any gym rat athlete would know though, the heavier you go one day, the harder it’s going to be to go heavy again the next day. Understanding how much we put on our cognitive load each day yields the same effects on our mental capacity to perform.
A healthy nervous system means a healthy human and we obtain that through intentionally taxing the nervous system, not by avoiding stress altogether. When we are the ones who control how much stress gets put on our systems, we are training for when stress gets thrown at us beyond our control. That’s how a healthy nervous system allows you to be more adept to major life events that get thrown your way and you’re able to roll with the tides of life. Choosing to make hard choices can make for an easy life.
We have a handful of tools that allow us to train our nervous system window of tolerance. Each play a critical role in our toolkit, so being well versed with a Swiss army knife nervous system training allows you to pull out the right tools at the right time. Here are some that I regularly implement with the clients I work with:
- Diaphragmatic breathing box breathing (5 second inhale, 5 second hold, 5 second exhale, 5 second hold). This calms the nervous system in times of stress and raises your ability to handle hard shit thrown your way. Try some box breathing the next time you’re feeling that red line approaching or you’re about to head into that important meeting and you’re a little overanxious.
- Ear massages, my mom introduced this to me at an early age and I overlooked the power in the simplicity here. This stimulates our vagus nerve as we rub our thumbs along the backside of our ears, working our way from the top down to the lobe. Another great way to down regulate the system to be back in that cool, calm, collected state we operate best in. Who knew a simple :30 ear massage would give you your driving power back?
- Exercise is fantastic as a willing way to help bring the nervous system close to that red line. Aim to get 2 to 3 sessions in a week where you’re really pushing towards that upper limit and then balance that with lighter or moderate training to allow for proper recovery between sessions. Training both ends of the spectrum is critical to ensuring we make progress without overtraining and reaching a place of burnout.
- Belly laughter and time with loved ones has been shown to increase HRV. Life is meant to be lived and a good time, we don’t have to be alpha, macho man energy all day every day to see health benefits on our HRV. Get some good laughs in with good people and you got a better quality of life, and an boosted HRV as a benefit.
It’s important to understand that we will all experience red line and blue line symptoms throughout our emotional roller coasters of life. Having the self awareness to understand where you’re at and what you need is critical for optimal performance. It’s also important to recognize the trends of frequency between the two extreme states; that’s where HRV ties back into the discussion.
HRV trends over the meso and macro cycles of your training, both physically and emotionally, can indicate how well equipped we are to handle a stress (regardless of it’s origin). It can also point us to what steps we should take to either increase our stress load or decrease it.
Knowing when to speed up and when to slow down is critical for sustainable optimal performance.
When we are chronically stressed or burnout, we need to take our foot off the gas and do some serious maintenance work on our system. Often times we see this in athletes who are overtrained or in the corporate athlete who has become overworked. The benefit of becoming aware of our HRV trends specifically, we can catch these ups and downs well before they happen. Allowing us to be proactive in our game planning rather than reacting after it’s too late.
Mindfulness practices allow for us to get in tune with what our body needs, but that’s not just limited to meditation, it can be journaling, grounding practices, or even something as simple as being present for making our morning cup of coffee. Mindfulness is just another trendy way to say we can single task at the task at hand because our mind is quiet enough to do so.
Knowing our HRV baselines, trends to watch out for, and strategies/techniques to steer the ship into the optimal performance window is what it boils down to. That is the main benefit behind these new wave wearable trends like Whoop. Building out our self awareness, getting to know our body, allows us to give it what it needs when it needs it. That allows us to live an optimized life, more days than not. If you want to check out your HRV, you can get started with Whoop at join.whoop.com/corycamp and redeem a free month and free strap on us here at Forever Athlete. Our body has it’s own built in GPS and road map trying to tell us where to go, ultimately it’s on us if we choose to look at it, listen to it, and honor what it requires.
This was a deep dive but I want you to recognize the bridge between the mindset/spiritual world and our physiology. Heart Rate Variability is the bridge that can connect our mental health with our physical health. Reinforce your bridge starting today by looking for ways to improve your HRV through your mental and physical training.
If you found this helpful, share with a friend, family member or teammate so they too can strength their bridge and live a life filled with less overwhelm, healthy stress, and optimal results. Leave a review on Apple Podcasts with your favorite way to improve your HRV, I’d love to hear how this episode helps you make a change for the better in your life.
Remember, if you can change your mindset you can change your life, one heartbeat at a time. I’ll see you all on Friday!
Yours in Flow,