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How to Use HRV for Training

BY Simon Wegerif

Learn more about HRV and how you can use it to make your training as productive as possible.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) analysis is a way to observe the action of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system that controls restoration and recovery. Originally used in the space program and later in elite track athletics, HRV is now a convenient and accessible way for anyone with a smartphone to check their recovery. You can then make training decisions based on objective data about how your body is coping with the combination of training and life load.

There are several good articles explaining HRV, but for the purposes of this article, it’s best described as the variation in heart rate that occurs when we breathe in and out at rest. Higher variability is better, and indicates a well-recovered, calm state, whereas persistently low values of HRV indicate chronic stress. HRV has to be measured at the same time of day to be meaningful, and measures should be compared to the individual’s baseline to show significant changes indicative of temporary imbalances.

Here is how to interpret your HRV data to ensure you’re fully recovered and getting the most out of your training. But first, it’s important to understand how your body responds to training.

How Training Works

By performing a training session, you give the body a stressful stimulus that disturbs its homeostasis. After the immediate fatigue, the body responds by adapting during recovery so that it can cope with a larger training load next time. This is referred to as super-compensation, because when the body’s energy, muscular, and cardiovascular systems rebuild, they make themselves stronger and more capable.

Training, especially High-Intensity Training (HIT), is stressful and provides a powerful stimulus for adaptation. The stressed state of the body persists for many hours, or sometimes days after the training stimulus has been applied. The rate of recovery depends on several factors, including quality of sleep (especially deep sleep), diet, and the level of training to which the athlete is accustomed.

While the body is stressed, the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ branch of the nervous system is more active, and the parasympathetic branch is less active. Performance is gradually restored during recovery, with parasympathetic activity rising to a level above where it started, in line with the effect of super-compensation.

Managing Your Total Life Stress Load

Stress can come from multiple sources. It can be physical stress due to training intensity, or it can come from chemical sources such as poor nutrition or too much alcohol. Stress can also come from mental sources such as work or relationship stress. If the total quantity of stress gets too much, combined with too little (or ineffective) recovery, the downward spiral toward overtraining begins.

blog-hrv-graphicThere are various ways to assess recovery, including subjective measurements of fatigue and muscle soreness, as well as exertion tests such as jump height.  Resting Heart Rate (RHR) is tracked by many people, but the problem with RHR is that it’s an imprecise mix of influences and is not very sensitive, so that by the time it has risen 3 to 5 beats, it may already be too late.

Using HRV to Make Training More Productive

A daily HRV measure can most easily be thought of as an indication of training readiness. You can work harder during training (and will enjoy it more) if your body is in an unstressed state and are less likely to suffer overuse injuries.

In a 2007 landmark study1, 30 club runners were divided into three groups. One was given a coach designed training program, one group served as a control, and the third had their training intensity guided by daily HRV readings.  Although both coached and HRV groups showed improvements in maximum running speed (and speed at aerobic threshold), the improvements were significantly larger in the HRV group, which was also the only group to show an increase in VO2 peak. The HRV group also showed a smaller variation in improvement between group members. This implies that the individualization provided by HRV was more productive than trying to give all members the same prescription.

Several studies have now shown HRV to be a strong predictor of successful training adaptation 2, and a rising HRV trend during pre-competition taper when training volume is reduced is a good sign.

Will HRV Always Reflect How You Feel?

Some users expect their daily HRV to directly reflect the previous day’s training load (TSS) but it often does not, for the following reasons:

  1. Recovery from the previous day’s training may already be complete by the following morning3
  2. Training at lower intensities (aerobic, Zone 1 and 2) produces very little stress even when performed at quite high volumes4
  3. Lifestyle stressors such as sleep quality, nutrition, mental and emotional stresses have an important influence on the total stress load the body is experiencing. High life loads means less capacity for training stress, so HRV will fall more quickly for a given TSS than if the life stress load is low.

However, the accumulation of incomplete recovery will always lead to impaired performance and health, and a downward HRV trend over more than a week should not be ignored5.

Thanks to some solid research and meta-studies6 HRV is now a well-understood phenomenon. Validated mobile apps7 with interfaces to training dashboards such as TrainingPeaks now allow keen recreational and professional athletes to understand just how their bodies are responding to training and make important adjustments to improve their performance and reduce downtime from illness and overuse injuries.


ithlete is now compatible with TrainingPeaks. Sync your account now.


  1. Kiviniemi, A.M. et al. (2007, September 12). Endurance training guided individually by daily heart rate variability measurements. Retrieved from
  2. Buchheit, M. et al. (2009, December 22). Monitoring endurance running performance using cardiac parasympathetic function. Retrieved from
  3. Seiler, S. et al. (2007, August). Autonomic recovery after exercise in trained athletes: intensity and duration effects. Retrieved from
  4. Stanley, J. et al. (2013, August 3). Cardiac Parasympathetic Reactivation Following Exercise: Implications for Training Prescription. Retrieved from
  5. Plews, D.J. et al. (2012, February 25). Heart rate variability in elite triathletes, is variation in variability the key to effective training? A case comparison. Retrieved from
  6. Flatt, A.A. & Esco, M.R. (2013, December 18). Validity of the ithlete™ Smart Phone Application for Determining Ultra-Short-Term Heart Rate Variability. Retrieved from
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About Simon Wegerif

Simon Wegerif is a serial entrepreneur, inventor, and biomedical engineer. He was previously an executive with Philips Electronics in the UK and Silicon Valley. Simon is a competitive cyclist and has also completed a number of triathlons including Ironman distance. He created ithlete, the leading, scientifically founded HRV app in 2009 after identifying an opportunity for using HRV in his own training. He is considered an expert on the topic, having read over 1000 papers and frequently consults with industry experts.

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