Knowing Your Heart Rate Variability Can Help You Make Better Workout Choices

·2 min read
Photo credit: staticnak1983 - Getty Images
Photo credit: staticnak1983 - Getty Images

This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

You’re likely familiar with the practice of using a heart rate monitor (HRM) for cardio workouts. Tracking your beats per minute during exercise with a chest strap, arm band, or watch-based sensor can help you gauge not only how many calories you’re burning, but also how hard you’re working, allowing you to adjust your effort on the fly for maximum results.

What you might not know is that keeping track of your heart rate—or more specifically, your heart rate variability (HRV)—between workouts can bolster your training as well.

As with almost every other aspect of fitness, variability is a good thing when it comes to your heart rate. High variability suggests that your body is healthy, balanced, and primed for intense activity. The measure is an indication that you’re ready to hit the accelerator in your workout without increasing your risk of overtraining.

Low variability, on the other hand, is a sign of physical stress (e.g., sickness, a poor night of sleep, or that you’re still recovering from your last workout), and that you might want to swap the heavy lifting session or HIIT workout you had planned for yoga or another low intensity exercise instead.

Photo credit: Men's Health
Photo credit: Men's Health

Just a few years ago, you would have had to buy a separate HRV device to monitor this key training metric, but today it comes standard on most high-end fitness trackers, including the Apple Watch and Fitbit Charge 4, among others. Nearly all of them are comparable in terms of accuracy, so the specific device you use is less important than how—and more importantly, when—you read your HRV.

Your move: Take your HRV reading as soon as you wake up in the morning (i.e., before you start moving around and definitely before your first cup of coffee). Just like your heart rate, your HRV fluctuates throughout the day, so always taking it at the same time is crucial, and first thing in the morning tends to give the steadiest reading.

Also keep in mind that HRV is highly individualized and depends on a handful of factors, including age, sex, and fitness level (to name but a few), and monitoring it consistently will help you discover what’s “normal” for you. When your reading dips below that number, you’ll know it’s a good idea to give your body more time to recover before your next hard effort.

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