Using HRV to Enhance Sports Performance

TyroneThrough my HRV work I am able to monitor my clients ability to adapt to the stressors in their lives. Not only from week to week, month to month or just to determine the effectiveness of our Mitochondrial Therapy supplements, but also before, during and after a training session to ensure that their body goes through the proper stress/recovery process.

You may be thinking, “What stress/recovery process. I thought exercise is good for you?” Believe it or not, exercise is actually a form of stress. It falls into the ‘Physical Stress’ category (and occasionally mental/emotional stress depending on your mindset towards it) and like any other stress, it’s your own bodies ability to adapt to it that will determine whether it’s good for you or not.

Ideally anybody that’s exercising regularly (and adapting adequately) should be in what’s called a ‘Parasympathetic’ state (this is a repair/ rebuilding state) or at least ‘Vegetative Balance’ (this is where both the Sympathetic [stress – tissue destructive] side and the Parasympathetic [rest – tissue regenerative] sides of the Autonomic Nervous System are balanced) before his or her workout.

This ensures that the individual has the reserves available in the system to cope with and adapt to the upcoming workout.

One major advantage HRV gives me as a coach who uses it for sport/exercise as well as health is that once I’ve determined how an individual is functioning through an initial ‘control’ test, I can then adjust the workout variables (intensity, duration, density, etc) objectively. I do not have to rely on the client/ athlete’s word because I can see exactly how their system is coping through the HRV test result.

Then as mentioned above, I am able to monitor them throughout the workout to ensure their system adapts as it should and also ensure that they return to ‘norm’ within the ideal timeframe of approx. 2 hours.

A few weeks back I took my brother through a basic Strength Training Programme and monitored him before, during and after using HRV. Like myself, my brother (Anton) is a Semi-Professional Mixed Martial Artist (MMA). He trains 6 and sometimes 7 days a week for a total of 9 or 10 workouts per week (5x Gym, 4x 2hours MMA).

Bear in mind I do not train Anton on a regular basis. All of his training is done either by himself or with his MMA Coaches. I trained him briefly a couple years back but I have no real idea of how he’s currently training except for what he tells me so the programme I designed was a fairly generic Deadlift Strengthening programme based on improving his force production on the bar, his technique, and strengthening the ‘Control Areas’ where people are usually weak in when it comes to Maximal Effort Deadlifting.

Before we train, I perform a ‘control’ HRV test. As I know what a well trained persons HRV result should look like, this will give me an indication as to whether or not he’s adapting and recovering as he should be and also indicate how hard I should or should not push him during the session. This test is done under the same conditions as a standard HRV Assessment; No food, exercise, drugs, stimulants, etc for a minimum of 2 hours before the test and the test would last 5 minutes.

The Workout Tests will be 2 minutes and the Post Workout Recovery Test will again be 5 minutes.

The ‘control’ test shows me that he’s doing pretty well and his system will likely adapt well to the training session. He’s a 4 on the traffic light chart, his system is currently functioning with a Marked Predominance of Parasympathetic System, he has a low Resting Heart Rate, Low Stress Index, good Capacity for Regeneration and Plenty of Reserve left in the system for the ‘stress load’ it’s about to endure.

The Programme was as follows:


He eats a little snack before we I start his Warm Up to get him ready to ‘hit’ the Bar.

What I want to see as I test him periodically throughout the training session is a gradual shift from his Marked Parasympathetic State to at least a Moderate Sympathetic State. This will show me that his system has gone into the ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’ response in order to deal with the ‘stress’ of the workout.

Then when I test him approx. 2 hours after the workout, I am hoping to see that his system has shifted back to it’s Parasympathetic State in order to repair any damage that was caused either by the external stressor (exercise) or the internal stressors (energy production, thermoregulation, free radical damage, micro-trauma, tissue breakdown/ damage, etc…).

I run Workout Test 1 straight after his final Deadlift set without allowing him to rest. Already his system is beginning to shift towards the Sympathetic side. For instance, he’s now functioning at a Moderate (rather than Marked) Predominance of Parasympathetic System, his resting Heart Rate has increased and his Total Power has decreased significantly.

I then run two further Workout Tests. One straight after the final set of Barbell Glute Bridges and then one at the end of the workout as soon as he finishes his final set of 45° Back Extensions. In both tests his system continues to shift further into the ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’ response.

By the end of the workout Anton is functioning at Moderate Predominance of Sympathetic System… but only just.

Had Anton’s Performance HF% (regeneration) reading still been below ‘Norm’ as in his previous test he would have shifted all the way to Marked Predominance of Sympathetic (very stressed) System.

We then finish up, leave the gym and go about our business for the next couple of hours because he has to rush off as he’s got things to do. We then met up for a retest. This was to see if his system had recovered from the workout and was back to what is normal for him.

Basically, I wanted to see a repeat of the ‘control’ test.

I run the test. BOOM! It’s almost there. The final test indicates that he’s now back functioning at Moderate Predominance of Parasympathetic System, Heart Rate is back below 60, Stress Index is back below 50 and Total Power is back over Norm.

I won’t lie, it’s not identical to the ‘control’ test but it’s certainly on the way and will likely be there within the hour. What is important is that he’s back repairing and regenerating and his system is no longer in a stressed state.

Below are a few of the readings from each of his HRV tests to give you an indication of the changes that took place within:

readings from each of his HRV tests

Of course I’m not expecting you to understand what each of the measurements means but as you can see, he starts off pretty close to the ‘Normative Data for a Very Well Trained Person’, shifts away from that during the workout and then is almost back by the time we did the final test.

Using HRV it’s very easy for me to monitor an individuals adaptation to exercise or any other stressor. Then using this information I would know whether or not my programme is of benefit or detriment to the clients health and/ or performance goals.

As an example, if Anton was an actual client of mine, one of the first things I would want to ‘fix’ is ensuring full recovery to his ‘normal’ within 2 hours of the workout finishing.

I would ensure a full Warm Down protocol was added to the end of this workout including stretches and breathing exercises as well as a high carb snack straight after the workout followed by a high protein meal within 30-60 minutes of the snack.

The list could go on with tweaks to his training, nutrition and lifestyle suggestions, to promote a healthy and active lifestyle.

So HRV clearly has a place in sports performance and recovery. It’s perfect for ensuring optimal recovery and allows me to push my clients to their physiological limits to get the most from each training session whilst also allowing me to monitor their recovery. This informs me of my clients supplement needs as well as inform me as to whether their nutrition and lifestyle habits may also need tweaking to ensure optimal results.

In Health & Performance,

Tyrone Bray

Copyright ©2014 Tyrone Bray