When it comes to tracking your physical performance, weight, strength, and speed are great places to start. But for deep, next-level insight and the best results possible, you should track your heart rate variability (HRV).
This article is going to explain why tracking your HRV can help you work harder, recover fully and quickly, sleep deeper, and more.
Personal question: Do you track your progress in the gym?
If not, it’s time to start. Setting goals and tracking your progress toward them is important for many reasons. Tracking your progress shows you when you succeed, and, just as importantly, when you fall short. Tracking helps you refine your workout so that you’re pushing yourself hard enough, but not so hard that you risk injury or lose progress.
Perhaps most essentially, tracking your progress reminds you how far you’ve come. It’s an objective look at your growth. It’s there on the days when you doubt yourself, reminding you that you’re steadily moving toward your goals, even when you feel stuck — or it’s a warning that you’re slipping, and that it’s time to gather yourself and get back on track.
Data is an invaluable part of any workout routine. The better you are at tracking your physical progress, the more you can personalize and improve your training. You’ll grow faster and improve more.
What is heart rate variability?
When you think about your heartbeat, you probably imagine it as being quite steady. There’s the same amount of time between each heartbeat, continuing in perfect rhythm.
But there’s actually a fair amount of variation between your heartbeats. Your nervous system is constantly adjusting your heartbeat, tweaking the time between individual beats in response to the demands of your environment.
Your heart rate variability (HRV) measures those little changes in the time between your heartbeats. HRV is an excellent look at the state of your nervous system. If your nervous system is in good shape, your HRV will be high — you’ll be constantly adjusting to your environment’s demands.
But if you get stressed or you push yourself too hard, your nervous system fatigues, and your HRV will decrease. Low HRV is a sign that you need to rest, or that you need to adjust your routine to help your nervous system get back on track.
Top athletes and coaches have been using HRV for years. HRV provides invaluable insight into an athlete’s performance, helping to track exertion, progress, fatigue, recovery, sleep, stress, and muscle function.
For a long time, it’s been difficult (and expensive) to measure HRV accurately. But these days, a simple wearable device can help you track your physical and mental performance all day, with no effort on your part. Tracking HRV lets you measure exactly how well your body is doing, how quickly and completely you recover, when you should push yourself, and more.
Here’s how HRV tracking can help you hit your physical goals and become a better, faster, stronger athlete.
HRV tells you when to workout hard… and when to recover
Physical progress isn’t all about hard work. It’s essential that you give your body time to repair and build back stronger. If you go too hard for too long, you’re actually slowing down your progress.
With athletics, the key is to have balanced cycles of hard work and recovery where you’re getting the most out of each. That means knowing exactly when to push yourself and when to rest. Otherwise you risk either not working as hard as your body can (and leaving progress on the table), or working too hard for too long and slipping into overtraining, where you’re actively harming your performance by not resting.
You may think that you can tell when you’re overtraining. Your muscles stay sore for days, your energy levels plummet, your mood may start fluctuate, you become ineffective in other parts of your life — these are all hallmark signs of overtraining, and you should absolutely be on the lookout for them.
But ideally, you want to start recovering before any of those symptoms show up. They’re a sign that you’ve already gone over the edge. You’ve left behind the adaptive phase of exercise, where you respond to stress by becoming stronger. You’ve already reached exhaustion — you’re harming your physical and mental performance by not resting, and your body is shouting out for help.
This is where HRV becomes invaluable for top coaches and athletes. If you track your HRV, you’ll see a “drop-off effect” in your numbers. When you reach your physical limits, your HRV score will plummet[*]. That is the exact point where you want to rest for maximum progress and recovery; pushing any more will drive you into exhaustion.
What’s odd is that you may feel incredible when you reach your exhaustion point. Your body is very good at compensating, and it can pull resources to mask your exhaustion and keep you feeling strong, even as you fall into overtraining. Your exterior will be shiny, but your interior will be falling apart.
The opposite is true as well. You may feel like you can’t keep going, but your HRV will stay high and steady. That means you’ve hit a mental block: you still have gas in the tank, but your mind is telling you you’re exhausted. In those moments, you can muster the strength to push through and keep training.
HRV gives you the data you need to wring every last drop out of your training schedule. The benefit may seem small at first — maybe you get 95% out of your workout instead of 85%. But if you compound that effect over time, and you work out more often because you aren’t burning yourself out or getting injured, the benefit becomes huge. Within a year, thanks to your increased efficiency when you train, you’ll be so far ahead of the competition that they’ll never catch up.
HRV helps you sleep deeper (and improve faster)
If you’re an athlete, your time in bed is as important as your time in the gym. Your body does the vast majority of its repair while you sleep.
It’s not just the number of hours you get, either. Quality matters when it comes to sleep.
- Inadequate sleep — either low-quality sleep or not enough hours of sleep a night — significantly decreases physical performance and strength[*][*]
- You release 70% of your human growth hormone (HGH) during deep (stage III and IV) sleep[*]. HGH is one of your main drivers of muscle repair and growth.
- Poor sleep increases cortisol, decreases testosterone, decreases muscle synthesis, and turns on muscle degradation pathways, creating the perfect environment for muscle loss[*].
You can go as hard as you want during training, but if you don’t follow it with deep, high-quality restorative sleep, you won’t see the results you want.
HRV is a good measure of your sleep quality. Your nervous system changes throughout the different stages of sleep, and HRV changes with it[*]. Tracking HRV gives you insight into how well you’re sleeping, how much time you spend in deep sleep vs. shallow sleep, how many times you wake up overnight, and so on.
Over time, you can also use HRV data to figure out what messes with your sleep. Do you consistently sleep poorly on days when you eat before bed? Do you see a dip in sleep quality when you have caffeine after 10 AM? Do you sleep better after a morning workout or an afternoon one? Tracking your HRV gives you the data to fine-tune your schedule so that you sleep and perform better than you thought possible. Biostrap even gives you personalized suggestions based on your HRV, which takes the guesswork out even more.
If you want a more in-depth look at sleep tracking, check out the Biostrap Sleep Lab. We show you exactly how your body’s doing overnight, and what you can do to access the deep, restorative sleep that helps your muscles repair and build overnight. And if you want to improve your sleep tonight, use these 7 sleep hacks to start sleeping better now.
Biostrap’s wearable offers insight into your physical performance
HRV is probably the single most valuable thing you can track for physical performance. But why stop with HRV?
Biostrap measures far more than HRV. It takes a variety of high-definition measurements that can help you reach your physical peak. Biostrap gives you insight into:
- Your muscle activation during exercise (and how good your form is)
- Your gait when you walk or run (and what you can do to improve it)
- Your blood oxygen saturation — how well you breathe, and how much you’re challenging your cardio system
- Your sleep quality
- Your stress levels, and your resilience (how quickly you recover from stress)
Biostrap monitors your nervous system and physical performance throughout the day and night. It even gives you personalized suggestions on how to improve your lifestyle and become a better version of yourself, all based on the data it collects about your unique biology.
Biostrap will help you take your performance to the next level. And with multiple options at multiple price points, there’s a Biostrap monitor for everyone. Give us a try; your progress will speak for itself.