How Cyclists Can Use Heart Rate Variability to Improve Their Training

by Marc Lindsay
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How Cyclists Can Use Heart Rate Variability to Improve Their Training

Technology such as power meters and heart rate heart rate monitors make it easier than ever to fine tune and measure training efforts on the bike. But what’s equally important and more often overlooked is how our bodies respond to training when we’re off the bike.

While it’s commonly known that stress, lack of sleep and training load can impact how quickly the body recovers, it’s difficult to know precisely how much recovery we actually need at any given time.

Since adequate recovery is a little more complicated than simply plugging in a day or two of easy spinning following hard intervals, it’s worth investigating a way to track how your body performs from day to day. According to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, measuring your heart rate variability can help you do this.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

The change in time intervals between heartbeats while at rest is known as heart rate variability (HRV). Changes or variances in the time between our heartbeats can be used to determine how well our body is equipped to handle extreme physical exertion.

When measured, HRV can help you determine:

  • A low stress rate: Associated with a high HRV, this is a good indication that your heart rate can adapt to variances in activity quickly.
  • A high stress rate: Associated with a low HRV, your heart struggles to adapt to variances caused by breathing or other physiological stress, which can signal the need for more rest and recovery.

 

A high HRV is a good signal that your body has recovered properly and can respond quickly to stress. For cyclists, this means your body will be able to handle increased training loads needed for long or hard workouts.

A low HRV, on the other hand, can indicate mental and physical stress associated with overtraining. While the body usually shows signs of soreness or fatigue, your heart rate will change too—often becoming harder to elevate during intense efforts on the bike. Unlike a high HRV, your body cannot adapt to stress as it should, and it will impact your training.

How to Adjust Your Training According to Your HRV

Knowing your HRV can help you train more efficiently, and avoid the negative effects associated with overtraining. While a scheduled training plan can be a good thing, what makes one training plan better than another is flexibility. Knowing your HRV will only be useful if you’re willing to adapt your training according to your biometric results.

The first few months will be more difficult to set a training plan in stone—but once you start to see patterns in your HRV levels, you’ll become more aware of how long it takes your body to recover properly between hard efforts. This will make setting up future training plans easier to manage.

Since a high HRV is a good indicator that you can proceed with your training as planned, adapting to a low HRV can be harder for some cyclists to deal with. What a low HRV doesn’t mean is that you need to shut things down completely—but you will need to adapt your workouts, especially if you’ve got intervals or another hard workout on the schedule.

A few steps you can take to increase a low HRV to normal levels:

1. Incorporate more holistic exercises. Yoga and tai chi, for example, can help lower stress through breathing techniques and relaxation. It can also help with core strength, so you won’t have to look at a day off the bike as a total “waste.” If this isn’t your thing, use it as an excuse to schedule a massage, which can have similar positive effects.
2. Get more sleep. If your muscles are working hard, you’ll need to make sure they get plenty of recovery time. Going to bed earlier and sleeping longer can help your HRV levels recover more quickly.
3. Assess your stress. Work, relationships and other stressors in your life will impact your cycling performance. Working on these issues and eliminating negative stress will help keep your HRV at consistent levels.

Tips for Using HRV

Like any other technology, there will be a learning curve when incorporating HRV technology into your training regimen. Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Use an HRV app.

The algorithms for determining HRV can be pretty complex. The good news is there are tons of new apps that will crunch the numbers and make it easier to interpret the results. In addition to the purchase of the app, you will also need a heart rate strap and a specific ECG receiver.

A few of the more popular options available for download on a smartphone or tablet include:

 

2. Be consistent.

To get accurate readings from HRV technology and determine if your HRV has returned to normal levels, you’ll need to be consistent with your measurements. One way to do this is to record your data at the same time every day—first thing in the morning, ideally before you stand up to start your day.

3. Keep a log of your recordings.

Documenting changes in your HRV is important, but keeping a record of why your HRV has changed is more essential. A few questions you should consider when you notice low HRV measurements include:

  • Are you under more stress at work?
  • Has your training routine changed?
  • Are you increasing your mileage or number of hard efforts per week?
  • How much sleep are you getting?
  • Are there other new stressors in your life?

 

This information will help determine patterns in your daily life that may need altering.

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