Heart rate variability (HRV) is a fantastic tool for athletes to use to assess readiness and recovery. Everyone has a baseline HRV number, which serves as a suggestion for how physically ready one is to perform and how recovered they are. For a strength athlete, this number could indicate how prepared they are for a heavy squat workout, or how rested they are for an upcoming meet.
There is a lot that goes into an athlete’s HRV number including things like genes, environment, and much more. Tools like the WHOOP Strap can help athletes understand what HRV scores are normal, good, and poor for their bodies. Generally speaking, a large portion of someone’s HRV score is predetermined by factors out of their control, so are there really ways to improve one’s score on a daily basis?
Yes, and doing so isn’t incredibly complicated.
[Curious about the WHOOP Strap and want to save $30 on a membership? Use code “BarBend” at checkout!]
What Is HRV?
Before diving into the ways to improve HRV, it’s a good idea to fully understand what HRV is and how it relates to health, performance, and recovery. HRV is the slight variation between heart beats, which suggests balance between the autonomic nervous system branches (sympathetic and parasympathetic).
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our body’s “fight or flight” responses, while the parasympathetic nervous system plays a heavy role in our “rest and digest.”
Both of these nervous system branches are constantly checking and balancing one another, and a higher HRV number suggests that both of these branches are highly responsive, which is a good thing. A lower HRV number suggests that there’s an imbalance between the two branches, which could manifest as overtraining or undertraining.
Basically, we want to counter strong sympathetic nervous system responses with equal parasympathetic responses.
Every stressful response should be met with an equally calming, “come down” response.
5 Ways to Improve HRV
When it comes to improving HRV and implementing the methods below, it’s important to remember that every athlete’s goal should be to improve their score based on what’s normal for their body – not everyone else’s scores around them.
For daily HRV monitoring, using a tool like the WHOOP Strap is an excellent way athletes can track their number to ensure they’re moving in the right direction. Mike Lombardi, WHOOP’s Elite Performance Manager, provided depth on these five strategies below.
1. Adequate Hydration
Hydration is one of the easiest ways to ensure HRV numbers are not tanking throughout the day. Studies have shown that as little as 2% of dehydration for one’s overall body mass can negatively impact performance (1). Water plays a critical role in well-being and performance, and consuming enough throughout the day is extremely useful for promoting good HRV numbers and a healthy nervous system.
Lombardi recommends consuming water throughout the day and consuming about half an ounce of fluid per pound of body mass.
2. Better Sleep Quality
Sleep can have a massive influence on HRV, especially for athletes. When asleep, the parasympathetic nervous system is highly active working to help the body rest and recover. Athletes naturally have higher daily amounts of stress placed upon them due to their sports and training, so sleep is even more important to their long-term success.
There are a couple simple ways to sleep better on a daily basis including:
- Sleep Consistency: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is useful to promote the body’s circadian rhythm. This also helps the body naturally prepare itself for a good night’s sleep.
- Limit Food/Fluid Before Bed: Another good rule of thumb for improving sleep is to limit foods that don’t aid in sleep an hour before bed, and to limit fluid intake before bed.
For those confused on how much sleep they need on a daily basis, WHOOP gives athletes realistic sleep goals based on their recovery needs and how they want to perform. Athletes can select to get by, perform, or peak, and their sleep recommendation will scale accordingly. This makes getting the right amount of sleep a bit more achievable for the goal-oriented individual.
3. Quality Nutrition
For athletes working towards specific adaptations like strength, endurance, and power, how they fuel their body is critical for long-term success. When it comes to nutrition impacting HRV, Lombardi says that sugar content and overall nutrition timing can play significant roles.
A few scenarios where athletes can miss the mark with their diet resulting in poor HRV repercussions include,
- Eating heavy foods too close to bed.
- Not planning meals around workouts when in a caloric deficit.
- Eating a plethora of processed food with high amounts of sugar.
- Always opt for whole, organic food options.
- Fuel your body properly pre- and post-workout.
Diet, like everything else, should be individual based on goals and needs. Athletes should strive to manipulate daily eating habits around their lifestyle and training needs, and this in turn will support good HRV numbers.
4. Limit Alcohol
Alcohol in abundance suppresses recovery, the immune system, and hormones like testosterone, which plays a heavy role in muscle growth and training adaptations (2). Limiting alcohol consumption and being mindful of how much one is drinking will allow HRV numbers to be minimally affected. Lombardi states that a hard night of drinking can suppress HRV numbers for upwards of five days after.
However, he also points out that not everybody metabolizes alcohol the same way. For example, some athletes will have a harder time digesting beer versus something like tequila, so when it comes to alcohol and HRV, athletes need to be mindful of their body and what they can handle.
5. Implement Recovery Strategies
Recovery strategies are useful for supporting HRV because they promote parasympathetic nervous system health and activity. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here because everyone’s body will respond differently to various strategies, but some that are useful include:
- Epsom Salt Baths
Lombardi suggested performing 1-2 recovery strategies after hard training sessions to potentially improve HRV and recovery for the next day. Some recovery strategies following a workout could include things like stretching or hitting the sauna.
Using WHOOP to Improve HRV
It can be overwhelming when implementing new strategies to improve HRV all at once. The WHOOP Strap makes it easy to track HRV improvement progress on a day-to-day basis with real-time feedback. Additionally, the WHOOP Strap can be a useful tool to keep athletes objective with themselves when implementing new strategies.
One way to approach improving HRV is to break strategies into steps. Instead of implementing five lifestyle changes all at once, it’s smarter to start slow and build up consistency for better practices. For example,
- Week 1: Make a goal to use three weekly recovery strategies following workouts.
- Then add in…
- Week 2: Make a goal to sleep at least 7-hours a night.
- Then add in…
- Week 3: Aim to consume the proper amount of calories consisting of 80% whole foods.
An easy way to think of these strategies is as compound interest. If you start chipping away with smaller amounts, then overtime, they will add up, be easier to follow, and pay bigger dividends.
WHOOP is incredibly useful because it allows athletes to track data trends with their performance readiness and recovery. It can serve as a compass for how much stress athletes should put on their bodies to achieve their goals without overreaching.
For strength athletes specifically, the WHOOP Strap is great at identifying training trends when a suppressed nervous system may be present.
Athletes should aim to understand the nervous system and when it’s likely to take a hit after certain workouts and intensities, as this will help structure the rest of their training and recovery accordingly to avoid overreaching.
1. Shaun K Riebl, B. (2013). The Hydration Equation: Update on Water Balance and Cognitive Performance. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 17(6), 21. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4207053/
2. El-Sayed MS, e. (2019). Interaction between alcohol and exercise: physiological and haematological implications. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 18 July 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15730339