Why Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a Key Parameter in Rewire’s Readiness Score

If you are an athlete (of any level) you have most likely tracked your workouts in a number of ways. From subjective metrics such as the rate of perceived exertion (RPE, or how hard a workout feels), to distance, duration, power, heart rate, pace or speed, as well as compound metrics such as Strava’s Relative Effort or Training Peak’s TSS, these can all serve a purpose in our quest to quantify the stimulus we apply with training. 

However, an equally important (or maybe more important?) question we want to answer is the following: how are you responding to training? After you went out for your session, did your body bounce back from that homeostatic disruption? How long did it take? Are you ready for another high intensity session or should you take it easy another day or two?

Being able to answer these questions can help us avoid a potential state of negative adaptation and hinder performance outcomes in the long term. Here is when Heart Rate Variability (HRV) comes to the rescue. 

What is HRV?

HRV is a term that refers to ways to summarize in a number the variability between heartbeats. The variation between heartbeats results from the activity of the autonomic nervous system in response to stress. As the body is continuously re-adjusting to maintain a state of balance, called homeostasis, heart rate, blood pressure, glucose level, hormones, etc. — react to the challenges we face and the autonomic nervous system works to keep everything in balance so that we can function optimally (e.g. do not develop chronic conditions, or improve our performance). Heart rhythm (and therefore HRV) is regulated by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the one in charge of rest and relaxation. Hence, measuring HRV is an effective way to capture how the body is doing while trying to maintain a state of balance in response to different stressors (training, lifestyle, etc.).

Example of a few seconds of ECG data, including detected beats. The time differences between beats are called RR intervals and are the basic unit of information used to compute HRV. We need several RR intervals to be able to compute your HRV. This is why HRV needs to be computed over a certain amount of time, typically between 1 and 5 minutes.

​In particular, a reduction in certain HRV features typically means that parasympathetic activity is reduced, and therefore we have not fully recovered or in general, there is more stress in our lives. At rest, the body is predominantly parasympathetic, which is why HRV analysis today is mostly focused on identifying reductions in parasympathetic activity, captured by features such as rMSSD (the root mean square of successive differences in RR intervals). The use of rMSSD is motivated by physiological mechanisms: the vagus nerve acts on receptors signaling nodes to modulate pulse on a beat to beat basis while sympathetic activity has different pathways with slower signaling. Hence beat to beat changes captured mathematically by rMSSD reflect parasympathetic activity, also called vagal influence. 

This means that when we train or face other stressors, HRV is typically reduced at the acute level (during and right after the stressor). Additionally, if the stressor is particularly large (say, a hard race), or if we are responding poorly to a series of stressors (for example a block of high intensity sessions), HRV can remain suppressed for several days or longer. This is a typical sign of negative adaptation, something we can avoid by better managing and adjustring training, based on our unique physiological response. 

What about non-training related stressors?

One of the key aspects of measuring HRV and using it to gauge readiness or guide training, is its ability to track your stress response regardless of the source. What does this mean? No matter if stress comes from training, work, getting sick, poor lifestyle, or some unexpected event, it will have an effect on our ability to cope with additional stressors and perform. HRV is an overall marker of stress and will be affected by pretty much any factor that has an influence on your autonomic nervous system, making it a great tool for training management.

How can you measure your HRV with Rewire?

HRV forms a part of Rewire’s Readiness Assessment and can be measured live in the background from your Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitor. It can also be read from a health app like Oura or Apple Health. We have seen how HRV is a global marker of stress and also how it is typically impacted acutely by any sort of stressor. This comes at a cost: we cannot just measure HRV anytime and use the data reliably, as HRV will typically reflect changes in heart rate modulation due to a myriad of transitory stressors we might not be really interested in (e.g. having coffee, or walking up the stairs). Timing of the measurement becomes key if we want to assess baseline physiological stress in response to larger acute and chronic stressors, and use this data for daily adjustments. 

Measurement time

Almost the entirety of research up to date has been carried out with morning HRV measurements, hence this is typically the preferred protocol and also what is implemented in Rewire, where you can also set reminders to help you make the morning readiness assessment a part of your daily morning routine

The Readiness Assessment should be taken first thing in the morning, while in a rested physiological state. While in the past subjects in clinical studies were asked to go to the lab, avoiding eating, drinking and exercising in the 2 hours preceding a measurement, waiting between 10 and 30 minutes before the measurement to get back into that relaxed state, things are much simpler now due to the technological improvements that allow users to measure simply using their phones. Ideally, measurements should be taken as soon as a person wakes up, while still in bed. The morning routine, or having a standard measurement protocol should sound familiar in many situations, for example measuring weight before breakfast, measuring blood pressure in standard conditions (sitting, arm position, etc), and similarly, assessing readiness to determine the impact of training and lifestyle on physiological stress and recovery needs.

Body position and measurement duration

In terms of body position, lying down, sitting or standing are good alternatives, but in case you do not lie down, make sure to wait a few seconds before measuring, and use the same body position each day. Several studies have also shown that for time domain features representative of parasympathetic activity, such as rMSSD, the most commonly used metric in today’s tools, 60 seconds are sufficient. 

Measurement Frequency

Measuring Readiness daily is best to obtain useful data as it establishes a strong baseline for HRV. It also means you can check in regularly with your readiness, allowing you to make smarter training and recovery decisions. Since Rewire also collects a range of cumulative data points such as training load and mental load, checking in daily ensures that there is a more complete data set involving the highs and lows of your training and work. Measuring daily is also often easier to remember, since it can form a part of your regular morning routine.

What to do (and not to do) while measuring 

During the assessment, movement should be avoided, but there are also other aspects that can trigger artifacts and require a little more attention. In particular, yawning and swallowing should also be avoided, the latter for example causes a sort of instantaneous bradycardia that can affect the measurement. 

Breathing

HRV is affected by breathing. The question of using controlled or paced breathing or breathing naturally needs to be analyzed in the context of our target application, which is measuring physiological (chronic) stress first thing in the morning, longitudinally within an individual. One of the main reasons behind using paced breathing is that it is supposed to make the measurement more reliable and improve measurement repeatability. In our experience, this is not the case and letting people breathe freely feels much easier to most. In our tests we have highlighted how self-paced and paced breathing result in the same differences between consecutive measurements, hence proving that one way or the other is as effective. Thus, Rewire does not use paced breathing as part of the readiness assessment. 

How can you use the data to adjust training?

At the beginning of this blog, I covered the physiological underpinnings of HRV measurement as well as key aspects of data collection: context and best practices. By following best practices meaningful data points truly representative of physiological stress can be collected. As technology today allows for easy data collection, many of the basic physiological mechanisms behind applied use of HRV (for example the acute drop in HRV after hard workouts) have been successfully identified in user-generated data. These types of analysis provide further evidence of the effectiveness of today’s technologies in capturing individual responses to stress. ​It’s important to remember that physiology is complex, and while acute stressors (such as a hard workout) and the resulting HRV changes are often repeatable and easy to understand, there might be other factors behind the relationships that we are seeing (or not seeing) in our data. No stressor acts in isolation, there’s always something going on with our lifestyle, training, health, and so on. 

Let’s look at how we can use the data to adjust training. In the past decade, we have seen how HRV has been used to capture changes in training load, fitness and performance. In a landmark study, Kiviniemi et al. proposed a first protocol to guide training based on HRV readings, and analyzed changes in training load and VO2max in recreational runners following an HRV-guided program, compared to controls following regular periodization. The authors state that the basic idea of HRV guided training was to decrease the training stimulus when HRV decreased and maintain training stimulus high when HRV remained the same or increased. Often, HRV-guided training results in lower frequency of high intensity exercises compared to the control group. This is a common theme as most protocols aim at avoiding the application of too strong a stressor (e.g. a hard session) when the athlete is not physiologically ready (e.g. when HRV shows high stress present on the body). Based on this data, HRV guided training may adjust both the timing and amount of high-intensity exercises at individual level. Yet, in these studies, performance for the HRV-guided group improved, showing how the timing of the high intensity sessions does matter. Rewire uses HRV as well as other objective and subjective measures to provide you with training and recovery guidance. Readiness-guided training aims at providing the most appropriate training stimuli in a timely manner, when the body is ready to take it, so that positive adaptation will occur, leading to better health and performance outcomes.

After the initial studies by Kiviniemi et al. most researchers shifted their approach to one less coupled to day to day variability and acute stressors, trying to look at medium and long term trends and more significant stressors that might affect physiology chronically. With the new approach, we do not really care if a single daily score is below baseline, what we care about is that the baseline itself does not go below normal values. Intuitively, for the baseline to go below normal values, we need quite a few “bad days” (low HRV scores), therefore adjustring training less often and only when a stronger negative response is present.

​Vesterinen et al. were able to show improved performance for the HRV-guided group using this protocol. In particular, the number of high intensity workouts was lower for the HRV-guided group, but despite the lower amount of high intensity exercise, the group was able to improve running performance over a 3000 m time trial. In a similar study, Javaloyes et al. examined the effect of training prescription based on HRV in road cycling performance. After 4 weeks baseline measurements, 17 well-trained cyclists were split into two groups, HRV-guided and traditional periodisation group. The training program lasted another 8 weeks, and performance measures were taken before and after the 8 weeks in both groups. In the study, the HRV guided group improved peak power output (by 5%)  and 40 minutes time trial performance (by 7%), while the traditional periodisation group did not improve in any metric. The authors conclude that daily training prescription based on HRV could result in a better performance enhancement than a traditional periodization in well-trained cyclists.

Rewire‘s algorithm builds HRV into it’s readiness scores alongside a range of additional subjective and objective measures to provide a holistic approach to readiness. HRV impacts both Rewire’s Overall and Physical readiness score and training recommendations are provided accordingly. Rewire also provides a Personalized Recovery Session that isolates particular weak points in your state and selects a session tailored to your goals for that day. This combination of training and recovery recommendations allows you to perform at your best.

Wrap up

In this blog, we have covered the basics of HRV, and why it matters. We have also provided useful tips and best practices for your morning Readiness Assessment, so that you can collect high-quality data representative of changes in baseline physiological stress, using the Rewire app.

Needless to say, HRV is not the only relevant marker to quantify readiness, and should be integrated with information related to training load as well as subjective metrics such as stress, frustration or muscle soreness, all aspects that might independently indicate potential issues. Rewire offers an integrated approach to readiness that combines all of these parameters to provide you with a comprehensive view of your readiness to train.

Athletes like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Simone Biles and others taking time off due to mental and physical stress & burnout

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, 6-time cycling world champion, has ended her 2021 season early.

Less than a month after retaining her European title in cross-country mountain biking, the Frenchwoman shared an emotive post on social media as she announced the end to her racing for the year.

“I feel deeply tired, mentally and physically. I don’t have energy and my body is clearly not recovering from training. I decided to stop my season before I make too much damage to my body.

“I’m happy with my decision because I know it’s the best one. I will come back stronger next year.”

After leaving top-tier road squad Canyon-SRAM at the end of 2020, the 29-year-old had produced some strong results in the year to date.

Starting the season with mountain bike team Absolute Absalon-BMC, Ferrand-Prévot secured bronze in a sprint finish at the inaugural Short Track Cross-country World Championships, and sits third in the World Cup standings for cross-country even after her withdrawal from racing at the fifth round in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

The versatile cyclist, who has previously won world titles in three different disciplines, joins a host of athletes recently in opening up about struggles surrounding their performance at the top level, with mental and physical fatigue often leading to further issues.

Such was the case at the Tokyo Olympics, when strongly-favoured American Simone Biles felt unable to compete in the team final of the gymnastics, with mental health her primary concern. A quadruple gold medallist the Olympics prior, the Texas-based athlete only returned for the final of the balance beam, winning bronze to equal the record for medals won by a US gymnast.

With an extended five year Olympic cycle in the lead-up to the Games, Biles was the poster child of the event for many at home. Expected by many to equal or improve on her medal haul from the Rio Games, the Ohio-born gymnast was philosophical after her withdrawal.

“We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do… We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

Despite the mental effects of sport being at the forefront of debate for the first time in recent years, such topics have been present for a significant period of time.

6-time snooker World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, whose experience of burnout and stress has been well-documented, has abandoned matches and skipped tournaments due to the demands sport has placed on him.

More recently, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open after winning her first round match, refusing to participate in press conferences throughout due to the strain on her mental health.

Despite taking a break from competition and skipping the Wimbledon Championships, the 23-year-old announced a hiatus from tennis after an early loss at the US Open, stating that, “[W]hen I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad.”

No matter the level of competition, participating in sport creates fatigue, both mental and physical, with training placing significant demands on the body, and stressors from all areas adding to the cognitive demands involved.

We created Rewire to help athletes that are looking to combat mental and physical fatigue in and out of competition.

Whether it is assessing readiness for competition or training, or training the brain to cope better with mental fatigue, the Rewire app has you covered.

Start your free trial with Rewire today to maximise your potential, and improve your resilience to mental fatigue.

Collins Cup 2021: Hanson and Kanute in Team US

Rewire Athletes Matt Hanson and Ben Kanute tackled the inaugural staging of the Professional Triathletes Organisation’s Collins Cup in Šamorín, Slovakia on Saturday, a team event featuring squads from the US, Europe, and the Internationals, formed of those hailing from outside the two geographical powerhouses of triathlon.

Matched up against some of the best the rest of the world had to offer, both finished second in their three person matches, with Kanute less than two minutes back of the leader in the gruelling three hour long event, bringing home 3.5 points for Team US, while Hanson ceded a longer gap to the first-placed athlete in his match, gaining 2 points.

The overall team result saw Europe take victory with 42.5 points, winning half of the 12 matches, including four straight in the middle of the competition, with the US finishing on 31.5, and Team Internationals languishing with 25.5.

Both athletes had qualified for the US team by virtue of their PTO World Rankings, and they joined four other men and six women to form the US team, led by six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen, and dual ITU World Champion Karen Smyers.

Three days prior to the event saw a televised draft to decide which athletes would contest each of the 12 matches that made up the unique event format, rewarding athletes with points for both finishing position, and margin of victory.

Match 10 saw Team Europe pick first, selecting Daniel Bækkegård. In response, Captains Allen and Smyers selected Kanute, who sat one place behind Bækkegård at eleventh in the world rankings coming into the competition. Australian Max Neumann was the final athlete selected, the world number 17 representing Team Internationals against two athletes with the capability to produce a swim leg up there with the best in the world.

“I think a lot of people underestimate Daniel, we did not, but we are going to put somebody against him who is absolutely fearless, and willing to put everything he has out there and a little bit more to make it super exciting and to bring home the win.”

The following match saw first pick back with Team US, and Matt Hanson was their penultimate selection of the draft, as the captains emphasised the quality of the 36-year-old’s running. The response from Team Internationals was to field Braden Currie, winner of Ironman New Zealand at age 35 on home turf earlier this year, and Team Europe chose German Patrick Lange, also 35, for one of the oldest matchups on the day.

Kanute was first out of the water in his match, his 25:20 for the 2 kilometre distance only being bettered by two other athletes all day. Unfortunately for Matt Hanson, however, those two athletes were both in his match, and so his time of 27:00 gave him a deficit of just under two minutes going into T1.

Coming off a fourth consecutive win at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, Kanute made up time in transition over the long course specialists, to stretch a lead of a solitary second coming out of the water to over 10 seconds entering the bike leg.

Shortly after the pair made their exit from the Danube, the US had the first win of the day delivered by Taylor Knibb, who had put seven minutes into her nearest challenger on both the bike and run legs to finish with maximum points and a lead of over 15 minutes.

On a damp course, which featured multiple bike leg crashes and missed turnings, both Rewire Athletes managed to keep on track, and rubber side down, with Kanute extending the gap to Bækkegård to over a minute early on in the 80 kilometre ride.

Kanute’s lead did not hold, unfortunately, with Bækkegård reeling the Rio Olympian in towards the end of the leg, as the American finished in a time of 1:47:23, holding a slender four second lead as the athletes entered the final 18 kilometres of the race. Ahead for much of the early running, Kanute eventually relinquished his lead to the Dane, generating a time just over the hour mark of 1:01:10 for his leg, which featured an impressive sprint finish.

Hanson clocked 1:51:59 for the bike leg, and emerged from T2 with a slight lead over Team Europe’s Lange, though with a four minute gap to Braden Currie ahead. The former professor’s buffer stretched to over a minute mid-run, and he finished in 1:03:25.

For Kanute, a total finishing time of 3:16:49 garnered him 3.5 points, courtesy of a significant margin over Neumann in third. However, the American could consider himself unfortunate, with the fastest non-winning time of any of the matches, and the fourth-fastest time overall behind two members of the world rankings top 3 in Jan Frodeno and Gustav Iden, and Bækkegård.

Hanson’s 3:25:46 generated 2 points, as an irrepressible Braden Currie stormed to victory in match 11. The Colorado-based athlete did well to hold the gap to Currie under six minutes, avoiding the Kiwi bringing home maximum points for Team Internationals.

Ben Kanute wins Escape from Alcatraz 2021

Rewire Athlete Ben Kanute finished as the first athlete home at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon yesterday, leading a field containing more than 1500 athletes.

Returning to the San Francisco-based event after a pandemic-enforced hiatus in 2020, Kanute came to California searching for his fourth consecutive title, having improved on a 3rd place in his first appearance in 2016 to win each edition from 2017 onwards.

Contesting the win and $25,000 prize pot with seven other pros, the American fought for the win over a course featuring a 1.5 mile swim in the San Francisco Bay, and waterfront bike and run legs lasting 18 miles and 8 miles respectively.

Starting with an iconic leap from the San Francisco Belle, the swim leg saw Kanute enter the first transition 46 seconds back of fellow pro Greg Harper, sitting in second with a time of 33:16.

Showing strong leg speed out of the water, the Rio Olympian pushed through a half mile long swim-to-bike transition to halve the gap to Harper, and pull further away from the chasing pack behind ahead of the bike leg.

On a hilly and technical route that took athletes along the leafy San Francisco coastline, Kanute took the lead from Harper and never relinquished it, completing the 18 mile loop in 46:50 to lead by 49 seconds going into the bike-to-run transition.

Eventual third-place finisher Bradley Weiss had made up 11 seconds on Kanute through the bike leg, but the gap stretched to over a minute after T2, where the Arizona-based athlete again was the best performer of the professional field.

Despite the benefit of a buffer of 1:07 from second place, and over two minutes’ gap to the remainder of the pro field, Kanute needed no such advantage on the run leg, as he put together the fastest run leg of the pro field in 45:44.

The result was a convincing one, and Kanute was rewarded with a finish time of 2:10:11 (and a top prize of $10,000) for his efforts, more than two minutes ahead of second place.

That second place was taken by Jason West, who also performed well on the run leg. The world #95 put together an 8 mile time just two seconds slower than Kanute’s to finish second (2:12:16) ahead of a fading Bradley Weiss in third (2:12:41).

Next up for the US international is the Collins Cup later this month, where fellow he and fellow Rewire Athlete Matt Hanson will take the best the rest of the world has to offer, in the form of combined European and International teams, over a course that consists of a 2 kilometre swim, 80 kilometre bike, and 18 kilometre run.

Rewire Podcast #5 – Building a Resilient Mind with Laura Kline

In this episode, the Rewire team chat with Laura Kline about how she has built a resilient mind and how it helps her when performing at all levels from in training to on the world stage. Laura Kline has achieved national and international success in Triathlon, Ultra Running and Duathlon, a sport in which she became a World Champion.