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Heart rate variability (HRV): the strongest indicator of performance recovery

Heart rate variability (HRV): the strongest indicator of performance recovery

This article has been automatically translated from German. While our little team is working hard to provide you the best quality and resources, our multilingual capacity is still limited. Don't judge us by the Google translation please and head over to the original version in German instead.   

Imagine the match of your life. Tennis match. You hold a racket in your hand and take a few deep and slow breaths to concentrate fully on here and now and whooop, you hit the tennis ball on the side of the opponent and the crowd calls your name. What has just happened? Or think of Shavasana, the state of deep relaxation at the end of each yoga class. Why does it feel so good? High rate variability might have the answer.

Roger Federer, Olympics 2012
Roger Federer, Olympics 2012
A woman in Shavasana
A woman in Shavasana

In both of the situations described above, we do what humans have been practicing in all religions of the world for thousands of years - we use the breath to calm the mind. This can also be measured in our body using heart rate variability (HRV). A higher HRV usually goes hand in hand with mindfulness, relaxation and mental presence. So everything you need to be successful.

What is HRV and why should you care?

The HRV measurement now seems to be on everyone's lips, at least for those who are interested in performance, relaxation, sleep or general health. Many “wearables” now offer HRV measurements as a function and have equipped athletes, health coaches and performance professionals with a very meaningful biomarker. However, the HRV is nothing new. But science and technology do.

The Stone Age was concerned with either suddenly winning a fight with a bear or surviving. The modern homo techno sapiens is more about mastering the argument with the boss or life partner and getting to the finish faster in triathlon than in training camp. A cool head only has to literally save you the most valuable thing in most cases these days, but the trick to preserve it remains the same: reduce the breathing rate to calm the heartbeat and look at the situation soberly and act prudently can.

What is the HRV

The HRV describes the change in the intervals between two heartbeats and is measured in milliseconds. A normal, healthy heart does not beat evenly:

  • The greater the variability, i.e. the more different the individual intervals of the heartbeat are from one another, the better: A high HRV is generally regarded as a sign of a healthy heart, endurance, resilience and stress management and is associated with psychological health, a higher quality of life and less susceptibility to diseases brought.
  • Chronically low HRV is an indicator of poor health.

In the picture below you can see the difference between pulse and HRV. The HRV is the distance between the individual rashes. The pulse, however, is the number of rashes over the minute, no matter how they are distributed.

The time between heartbeats varies from beat to beat, and a deeper analysis of HRV gives a lot of valuable information about the physiological state of the body.  jeremyculpdesign / fotolia
The time between heartbeats varies from beat to beat, and a deeper analysis of HRV gives a lot of valuable information about the physiological state of the body. jeremyculpdesign / fotolia

Increasing HRV improves mental and emotional wellbeing

A Heartmath study of 11,500 people showed the following change after 6-9 weeks of breathing training:

  • 24% improvement in the ability to concentrate
  • 30% improvement in sleep
  • 38% improvement in rest
  • 46% less everyday fears
  • 48% less fatigue
  • 56% reduction in depressive moods

Breathing exercises can be a simple and very effective way to increase HRV. In a project by Richard Gewirtz, the HRV and biofeedback scientist, Tibetan monks, yogis and swamis in India and Zen monks in Japan were asked to "ground themselves" and bring them into a state of calm and resilience. Everyone did the same thing: reduced their breath to a specific, slow breathing rate and put themselves in the state of “mindfulness”: a state in which you no longer judged, but observed what you felt and what you thought.

In the AURUM 6 Minute Guide to Wellbeing ( download here for free ) we wrote that mindfulness is one of the most effective levers for more wellbeing and that it can be effectively “practiced” through meditation and equipment such as muse . Meditation helps to amplify the alpha waves in the brain, which in turn slows down the heartbeat.

Increase HRV: Report from one of our AURUM customers

Tomas, 34, told us about his sharply increased HRV from February to March 2020, which he had recorded with the Oura Ring , but which he also felt clearly in his everyday life: Despite stress in professional and private life, he was balanced, confident and cheerful. What did Tomas do differently to improve his HRV, i.e. the ability to cope with everyday life with less stress and more quality of life?

When asked, Tomas replied in a message:

  1. Meditation with one of the following: Heartmath , Muse or Calm app .
  2. 20-minute AURUM strength training, every 6-9 days
  3. The 20-minute morning routine by Ben Grienfield , one of the world's best known performance coaches
The significantly increased HRV of AURUM customers Tomas, 34, in the past 2 months can be attributed to two main factors: breathing exercise / meditation and (un) regular high-intensity sport.
The significantly increased HRV of AURUM customers Tomas, 34, in the past 2 months can be attributed to two main factors: breathing exercise / meditation and (un) regular high-intensity sport.

Why is greater variability better?

Every person has a large number of sensors in their body that provide important feedback for the control of the heart in order to optimally supply the entire body with blood. The sequence of the heartbeat is then influenced via the vegetative nervous system. If this influence works well, there is a strong variation in the heartbeat intervals and indicates relief. If this fine control works badly, then the organism is loaded with something.

What can HRV tell us about the physiology of your body?

The HRV data provide feedback to increase performance, make correct training and coaching decisions and improve health: It serves as a monitoring tool for stress and recovery and as an indicator for optimizing training load and regeneration.

You can "experience" your HRV when you feel your pulse and take a couple deep breaths:

  • As you exhale, the intervals between beats become longer - the pulse slows down.
  • As you breathe in, the intervals between beats become shorter - the pulse gets faster.

In addition to breathing, HRV is also heavily influenced by training, hormonal reactions, metabolic and cognitive processes as well as stress and recovery.

Strength training according to HRV

On days when your heart rate variability is high, you can train everything - from light regenerative units to intensive intervals to strenuous strength training. If your HRV is low, you may want to do light to no training. To measure, you can wear a wearable like the Oura ring . You can also recognize overtraining by the fact that your HRV just doesn't seem to increase over weeks, even though you train at low intensity. So you know exactly whether you should spend more time for regeneration. The Vitalmonitor Portal also seems to be interesting because it offers the possibility of clearly displaying your data.

HRV as a stress indicator

In health management, HRV is used to measure stress levels. The stress resistance of different people is very different and the HRV apps use a mixture of heart rate variability and a breathing exercise. Here it is determined how long it takes the organism to adapt the heartbeat to the breathing requirement: the faster and stronger the coupling of the heartbeat to deep breathing works, the more relaxed the organism is. You can try the Heartmath mentioned above .

BioAge as a measure of lifestyle

Another common value is the BioAge. It says how good your own HRV values ​​are compared to other people. The lower the HRV, the higher the biological age. The HRV generally decreases with age. The essential thing is that you can lower the BioAge through exercise and sport, nutrition and relaxation.

How you can manipulate your HRV positively

The biofeedback therapy is worth mentioning for the breathing exercise already mentioned . Biofeedback is the feedback of physical signals that normally run unconsciously and are regulated by the nervous system. Biofeedback is about measuring biological processes and at the same time “training” them. It is essentially the targeted learning of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. By measuring and giving feedback on body functions via HRV, one can learn to influence them. Regular biofeedback exercises can increase HRV and strengthen stress resistance.

The connection between HRV and nervous system

HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.

The friendly side of the ANS:

  • is active in stress and helps us to be active and efficient (" Fight or Flight ") to cope with the different situations that daily life throws in our way (think of dealing with the bear, the boss or the life partner and the tennis match)
  • releases stress hormones and increases heart rate and blood pressure (cardiac output) and decreases HRV, which is necessary during training and mentally or physically stressful situations.

The parasympathetic side of the ANS:

  • allows the body to shut down and recover when the effort is over (" Rest and Digest ")
  • reduces heart rate and increases HRV to restore the body's homeostasis after the stress is over, of course

This natural interaction between the two sides of the autonomic nervous system allows the heart to adapt quickly to different situations and requirements.

HRV and stress

Typically, HRV should increase during relaxing activities. For example, during meditation or while sleeping, when the parasympathetic system dominates. On the other hand, HRV naturally decreases in stressful situations when the sympathetic side helps the body deal with the demands. Therefore, HRV is typically higher when the heart is beating slowly and lower when the pulse is increasing. The HRV level changes from day to day, depending on the activity level and stress.

However, when a person is chronically stressed or overworked - physically or mentally - the natural interaction of the two systems can be disturbed and the body can remain in a sympathetically dominated state of stress, with low HRV and increased stress hormone levels. This is stressful for the body and can lead to numerous mental and physical health problems.

Therefore: Whether before the tennis match, in Shavasana, in front of the screen, when dealing with the boss or partner, during AURUM strength training or meditating, with or without a measuring device - breathe deeply and slowly, increase the HRV and master the existing situation like a world champion .

Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ...


Richard Gevirtz, Ph.D, on the fascinating results of his studies on heart rate variability:

What is heart rate variability (HRV) and why is it important? Tiina Hoffman:

The HRV: Everything you need to know, Bernhard Schimpl:

Heartmath: https://www.heartmath.com/

The AURUM 6 Minute Guide to Wellbeing(download for free)

Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being, Marcelo Campos, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School:

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