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Be a Better Athlete: Using Heart Rate Variability to Improve Recovery


Heart Rate Variability, or HRV, is the difference in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next.

One would assume that someone with a pulse of 60 would have exactly one second between each heart beat. In fact, a HRV of zero would be exactly a 1 -1 -1 heartbeat, (with one second in-between every heartbeat). That is unhealthy unless it has been taken during exercise or extreme stress.

A heat beat interval of .9 – 1.1 – 1.05, which might score a 70, would indicate a healthier HRV reading, since it shows variation. Clinical research shows that someone suffering from a lower HRV typically indicates a greater level of stress and less resiliency versus someone with a high HRV reading, which would indicate a lower stress level and higher resiliency. The heart is constantly changing its beat pattern as the battle in the autonomic nervous system is taking place.


The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the unconscious bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination and sexual arousal.

There are two parts to the autonomic nervous system:

  1. The Sympathetic or “Fight or Flight” system
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as the “Rest and Digest” system.

female athlete barbell jerk heart rate variabilitySource: Stevie D Photography
female crossfitter barbell jerk in competition

A lower HRV means a high “fight or flight” response (sympathetic nervous system) which means a high stress level.

A high HRV reading would indicate a higher “rest and recover” response (parasympathetic nervous system) or lower stress level.


Here is an example of how we helped a Crossfit athlete hit a new PR after a long bout of what we identified as over-training. This athlete was training 6 days a week but had built up to this level very quickly. He put thought into his diet, sleeping patterns and his training was generally very intense.

What we noticed immediately when we started to measure his HRV was that for his fitness level, his HRV and some other markers were way below normal.

His Sympathetic “Fight or Flight” system was on hyper-drive and his Parasympathetic “rest and recover” system was not working effectively.

We identified a systemic overtraining routine that made him unable to fully recover between workouts. We helped him recover faster by forcing rest when he had low HRV levels, and going for the gold when HRV levels were high. After about two weeks he started to hit PR’s again.


The training schedules of famous athletes like Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet or Katrin Davidsdottir are incredibly intense, but they are programmed by top professional coaches and fed according to the wishes of carefully tailored nutritionists. The volume of training they undertake (often even up to 3 times a day) has been built up over time, and they are trained and coached to cope with it both physically and mentally. Katrin, for example, used to train for hours every day as a child gymnast, so for her, as she moved into the world of Crossfit, this intensity and volume was an aspect of her work she could easily build up over time. Where the Crossfitter that we worked with differed was that they did this too quickly, and by measuring HRV, we could identify that this was negatively affecting his ability to recover.

regionals recap katrin davidsdottir competes with intensity heart rate variabilitySource: CrossFit Inc
Katrin dominate through a combination of intelligent training and hard work dominates

Ok! Enough with the science lesson; let’s get back to how it can help you:


  1. Recover Faster – Using the information provided by HRV can help you recover faster and therefore be able to perform at a higher level.
  2. Identify Overtraining – Using HRV you can identify whether you are overtraining and when you should be taking more rest days or time to recover.
  3. Know when to train hard – By utilizing HRV you can better take advantage of days where you might want to push hard for new PRs. PRs often come when we don’t expect them, but if you can find days when you might be more pre disposed and in a better state (less stressed, well rested etc) then you create favourable conditions for them to occur.
  4. Identify possible sleep issues – By using HRV you can spot problems with your sleep patterns which might cause devastating effects on your training
  5. Address potential food allergies – By addressing potential foods that cause your heart rate to increase and increase inflammation in your body, you will be better able to identify if diet negatively affects your performance in this way.

This touches the surface of what knowing your HRV can do for athletes. HRV should be a big deal if you are an active Crossfit athlete looking to perform better. I will continue to share ways to help a Crossfitter recover in the most effective way possible.

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