Improving your numbers: the athlete’s guide

Fitness technology can be incredibly powerful and deliver better results…or it can be a complete waste of time and money. The difference lies in understanding how to make it work for you. To get the most out of heart rate variability, follow these five simple and effective tips and watch your fitness transform from the inside out

Tip #1: Train easier, but more often

When it comes to getting in better shape, one of the first things most fitness experts suggest is to simply “train harder.” While increasing training intensity can be an important tool when used appropriately, people often totally underestimate the importance of training frequency.

When it comes to increasing HRV, one of the easiest ways to approach it, particularly if you’ve been stuck within a certain range, is to increase how often you train. Once you have an average HRV score in the low 80’s or so, you’re going to train at least five—and preferably more like six—days per week to see a continued increase.

If training that often sounds too difficult, it’s probably because you’ve been training too hard.

There’s simply no way to train five or six days a week with high intensity, as many CrossFitters have found out the hard way. The answer is mix up intensity and follow a high/low type system as discussed here.

Try upping your training frequency while simultaneously decreasing how hard your training. Chances are you’ll increase your HRV by at least 4-5 points within a few weeks.

Tip #2: Use nutrition to break the inflammation cycle

If you’re stuck with consistently low HRV (anything below 70) despite your best efforts to improve it, odds are good that you have some chronic inflammation that’s at least partly to blame.

This is because one of the roles of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that’s being measured by HRV, is to regulate and turn down the inflammation that’s driven by the sympathetic nervous system.

When there is simply too much inflammation being produced by the sympathetic nervous system, the result is chronically low HRV. This is a big part of why HRV is such a powerful predictor of overall health, wellness and your longevity.

Chronic inflammation is at the heart of some of our most common killers, like cardiovascular disease and stroke, and It’s even linked to weight gain and obesity.

So it makes perfect sense that those with higher HRV, and thus a better ability to regulate and turn off inflammation, are going to be healthier and life longer lives.

Aside from managing your training properly, another simple trick to increase your HRV is through the power of nutrition. First, and most obviously, reduce/eliminate any existing high fat, high sugar junk foods and replace them with healthier ones.

People often fail to realize the impact of even a small amount of food that they react particularly poorly to. However, eliminating it can cause an immediate increase in HRV.

Starting with some sort of elimination diet, or using an intermittent fasting strategy is a good place to start.

Next, try the following anti-inflammatory supplement stack: Omega 3’s, Meriva SR and Wobenzyme. Together, these three supplements can help reduce inflammation and work alongside your diet to stimulate an increase in HRV.

There are also a few key supplements you can use to increase mitochondria function, another essential component of increasing your HRV. 

Tip #3: Improve your sleep quality

Without question, one of the biggest influences on your HRV is the amount and quality of sleep you get each night. Aside from the obvious “get more sleep” lecture, there’s a lot that can be done to improve the quality of your sleep regardless of whether or not you actually get any more of it.

Investing in some blackout blinds in your bedroom is highly recommended. They are inexpensive, generally easy to install and if your room tends to get a lot of sunlight in the morning, they can make a huge difference in your sleep quality.

Next, and again this may seem obvious but it’s amazing how few people actually do it, do everything you can to minimize any noises that might wake you up. Personally, I always turn my computer volume off and set my phone to silent.

Nothing is more disruptive to your sleep quality than constant little notifications making noises all night. Even if they don’t fully wake you up, they can make your sleep much lighter and reduce HRV. Do yourself a favour and make a nightly “silent mode” ritual.

Finally, and this is a big one, invest whatever you can into a quality bed.

It’s amazing to me how much money people will spend on training, supplements, workout clothes, gym memberships, food, etc., in an effort to look and feel their best, but they’ll spend 8 hours a night or more sleeping on a terrible, cheap mattress.

Think about it: you’ll likely spend close to 1/3rd of your life lying in bed. The right bed can literally make a life-changing difference and is one of the best investments you can make in your health and fitness.

Tip #4: Improve your aerobic fitness

There is a reason that your HRV is directly correlated to markers of aerobic fitness like VO2 max and anaerobic threshold. It’s because the more mitochondria (the energy power plants of our cells) you have and the better they function, the higher your HRV will be.

This is why endurance athletes with huge aerobic engines have the highest HRV scores.

Now, you may not have any desire to be an endurance athlete, but without question, the fastest way to increase your HRV is to improve your conditioning.

Something to consider here is that people often think they can improve their strength and power, i.e. lift a lot of weights, and improve their conditioning at the same time. This really only works if you’re starting from ground zero.

Once you’ve reached even a reasonable level of fitness, your training program needs to become much more targeted. When trying to stimulate an increase in HRV, your goal should be to maintain your strength. For most people, this is generally possible with 3 days per week of 40-60 minutes of strength training.

Anyone that tells you that you can improve all areas of fitness at once is either used to training couch potatoes or selling you something, because the truth is that the human body simply doesn’t work that way.

Your body is genetically wired to make faster improvements when training is targeted towards one side of the strength and endurance continuum. If your goal is raise your HRV, then put strength into maintenance mode and focus your efforts on aerobic fitness.

Tip #5: Chill out

Considering that all the physiological changes that ultimately lead to better fitness, bigger muscles, less body fat, etc., don’t happen when you’re training, but rather when you’re resting, it’s amazing to think about how much work people put into their training and yet how little they put into resting and recovering.

Because of this, one of the golden rules in training for any purpose should be to pay as much attention to recovery as to training. When it comes to increasing HRV, this means you need to spend at least a few hours per week making a concerted effort to improve your recovery.

So, how do you do this?

Well, first, you have to find ways to mentally relax. That may mean doing some sort of quiet meditation in the mornings, getting a good massage, jumping in a hot tub, or do some Wim Hof breathing.

The important thing is to realize that relaxation doesn’t happen by itself; you have to actually make an effort to relax and it’s surprising how few people actually do this.

To start, make a list of 3-4 things that you personally find particularly relaxing. Next, just as you would look at your schedule and make plans for when you’re going to work out, schedule recovery sessions.

If you don’t actually block off time in your schedule, chances are that you simply won’t do it. Instead of thinking of this as optional, you should consider it just as important as your training sessions. In reality, they are.

Too much stress, whether it’s from training or from life in general, can be extremely detrimental down the road. Doing whatever you can to reduce stress and increase recovery and relaxation is not just important for your HRV, it’s important for your life…

What Should Your HRV Be?

What your HRV should be depends on your particular goal. Although everyone is different and not every single person will fall within the same ranges, some general guidelines of where your RMSSD score should be:

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Keep in mind these are general ranges that your average HRV should be in the majority of the time. It’s normal to see daily fluctuations that may fall outside these ranges, but your average should always stay within them.

If your HRV is already in these ranges, work to improve strength, power and other areas of performance while keeping HRV from dropping below them. If you’re consistently below them, however, the most important thing is to get it into the right range as quickly as possible before focusing on anything else.

Follow the 5 tips above and watch your HRV…along with your results, improve dramatically.