MIND 9th November 2016

The next frontier in self-quantification


When it comes to fitness tracking, the wearables market is soaring. Set to be worth an estimated $34 billion by the year 2020, we are obsessed with quantifying results. But what about readiness? How do you know when your body is primed for peak performance? You can now tell by measuring what’s known as heart rate variability: the key to maximizing your potential without burning out.

HRV in a nutshell

Heart rate variability (HRV) measures your body’s recovery rate. It provides feedback data you can use to plan your next intense workout.

It does this by way of measuring the pattern of your heartbeat. For example, if your pulse measures sixty beats per minute, the typical assumption would be that your heart beats at a rate of once per second. However, this isn’t technically true as some beats may last 1.03 seconds while others last 0.90 seconds. They may average out to 60 beats per minute, but each one varies.

This variation is controlled by your autonomic nervous system: the part of your nervous system responsible for controlling involuntary activities such as breathing and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is made up of your sympathetic nervous system (speeds heart rate up) and your parasympathetic nervous system (slows heart down). The interplay between the two gives rise to the variability.

Why tracking HRV means better performance

A high HRV reading is indicative of a good nervous system and a healthy body. It means your body has recovered well and is ready for another challenging workout.

A low HRV reading is symptomatic of stress, overtraining and inflammation in the body. You would be better off with a brisk walk or some gentle yoga.

Without this data at our disposal, many of us (this writer included) have fallen into the overtraining trap, pushing our bodies every day in the name of ‘if it doesn’t’ challenge you it won’t change you’ mantra. Too much pushing and not enough rest and recovery can lead to adrenal fatigue, a condition that can wreak havoc on your body’s health, in some cases leaving individuals bedridden for weeks.

How to measure HRV

HRV levels differ for everyone, but typically anything above 70 is considered optimal. Anything below that suggests you may want to take a day off the gym.

The good news is that you don’t need shell out hundreds of dollars to stay ahead of the game. HRV trackers range from $65 to $200 and are widely available on sites such as Amazon.com. Even the latest Fitbit now features HRV tracking, a good indication that next-gen trackers will follow suit.

In fitness, knowing when to take your foot off the pedal is easier said than done. HRV is a useful tool that helps you avoid the overtraining trap and subsequent injuries it can bring, because we all know they suck!

As always, pushing for health.