What does my HRV mean?

Plus - 9 ways to increase your HRV

Tracking your heart rate variability or HRV with a wearable device like Oura or Whoop can unlock a lot of valuable training information. A high HRV generally means you are well rested while a low HRV means you need more recovery.

But just because your HRV goes down for one day doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your planned training and take a day off. The critical thing is to focus on the multi-day trends and not any single day’s value.

Related: HRV - The Endurance Athlete's Complete Guide 

Below is a look at what HRV numbers mean, what you should do with the information, and nine ways to increase your HRV.

One main takeaway: single-day HRV values do not tell us much; the science lies in how your HRV is trending.  Listen to Coach Frank and Ben's podcast on the topic 👇

What is HRV and what drives it?

HRV is the variation of time between consecutive beats, measured in milliseconds.  Just like your heartbeat, your HRV is constantly changing.

HRV is regulated by our autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system and the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system.

Typically, when the parasympathetic system is dominant, we see more variation between heart beats, which means HRV goes up. Higher HRV and being in a ‘rest and digest’ state is a good indication your body can absorb training and recover from it.

When the sympathetic system is dominant, we see less variation between heart beats, which means HRV goes down. Lower HRV and still being in fight or flight state is a good indication that your body is not yet recovered from the stress of training.

These relationships make HRV a good proxy to see how our autonomic nervous system is holding up, which, with proper context, correlates to how our body is coping and adapting with our daily stressors.

Regulating your autonomic nervous system has been repeatedly proven to improve your well-being, amplify your performance, and enhance your mental health. A poorly regulated autonomic nervous system, which is indicated by a chronically low HRV, is correlated with poor cardiovascular health and a predisposition to stress.

What is a normal range for HRV?

The younger you are, the higher your average HRV will be. Average HRV decreases with age just like your max and threshold heart rates. If your HRV falls in line with the population averages, consider your HRV “good.” If it is below, then let’s get to work with the nine ways to increase your HRV below.

HRV values by age

Nine ways to increase your HRV

1. Get good sleep

We know that HRV goes up during the night while you recover, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sleeping longer gives your HRV more time to increase in the night. Getting more and higher quality sleep is our number one way to increase your HRV. Beyond getting to bed early, also make an effort to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, as sleep consistency will boost your HRV by helping to sustain your circadian rhythm and enable you to spend more time in restorative sleep cycles.

2. Train right — Not too much and not too little

You are probably already following a training plan and exercising four to five or even six times per week. If you started a training plan and have gone from inconsistent training to regular training, you may have noticed your HRV has increased over time. You may have also noticed that long and/or hard rides decrease HRV in the short term. To avoid overtraining, it is important to train hard but not too hard. Our new Optimize app incorporates all the elements of intelligent training including HRV to guide athletes with a scientifically proven training plan. Using Optimize to determine rest days prevents overtraining.

3. Do breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are often overlooked, which is why I made breath work number three. Breath-to-movement yoga and breath work during meditation help improve your HRV. If you want to improve your HRV, this is the work to do. I am looking at you, high-stress masters athletes. Breath work helps alleviate stress, which will reduce the likelihood of decreased HRV scores.

4. Meditate

Practicing mindfulness or meditation improves HRV. It works for me and for many many athletes we coach. To get started, listen to our meditation podcast. You can do breath work and meditation at the same time. Both will help you reduce stress. Dedicating just one minute per day to mindfulness exercises can have real benefits. Another easy way to get started is with the Calm app.

5. Eat well — including regular timing

Your body benefits when you eat at the same times each day just like it benefits from sleep consistency by going to bed at the same time each night. It’s no surprise that a smart and healthy diet will benefit your HRV, but many of us may not realize that the timing of your food intake can affect it as well. Try to eat dinner 3-4 hours before bedtime. You’ll improve the quality of your sleep by allowing your body to focus on other restorative processes instead of digestion.

6. Hydrate well, with an ounce of water per lb of bodyweight

Your blood is 90% water and your level of hydration determines how easy or difficult it is for your cardiovascular system to pump blood to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your body. Aim to drink close to an ounce of water per pound of bodyweight every day. That’s 160 ounces per day if you weigh 160lbs. We recommend you front load your hydration in the morning and taper off by dinnertime so that you are not getting up to use the bathroom more than once and disrupting your sleep.

7. Cut back on — or cut out! — alcohol

Alcohol is the number one culprit of low HRV values. We are talking drops of 20-30ms. Don’t believe us? Go alcohol free for a week and measure your 7-day HRV trend. It is a gamechanger. Go alcohol free for a season or life and, well, it's a life changer.

8. Take a cold plunge

Exposing your body to cold temperatures for brief periods of time, such as with a cold shower or ice bath, will stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system and controls heart rate variability. It might sound goofy, but give it a try for three consecutive days and see if your HRV goes up. You can also massage the vagus nerve at the back of your neck if you are not into subjecting yourself to frigid temperatures.

9. Do things that bring you joy

This may be last in the list to improve your HRV but may be the single greatest technique. I have known many athletes who report that feeling happy correlates with favorable HRVs. Similarly, being unhappy correlates with low HRVs. Play with your kids, take a yoga class, volunteer in your community, laugh with friends or even do a fun ride — anything that makes you happy stands a good chance of positively influencing your HRV. Conversely — and this is Captain Obvious Coach speaking here — avoid doing things that make you unhappy. That applies to life in general as well as it does regulating your autonomic nervous system!

if you would like help interpreting your HRV subscribe to FasCat's new Optimize App or Hire an Expert FasCat Coach

Read more about combining your HRV with your sleep and power data in our next training tip about Optimize.

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About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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