Heart Rate Variability – How to Improve It

By Jiri Kaloc

Heart rate variability shows how well you deal with stress. Measuring HRV can reveal a lot about your health, lifestyle, and training. You can use HRV to track improvements in all of these areas. Let’s take a look at ways to improve your HRV.

What are normal HRV numbers?

As you know from the previous articles in the series, HRV differs a lot among people. It’s almost impossible to predict what yours will be before you start tracking it. But there are some trends that we can see. For example, research shows that HRV declines as people get older. HRV tends to be the highest for teenagers, on average between 70 and 80 milliseconds (ms). It then steadily declines until it stabilizes between 25 and 35 ms when people reach their 60s. We also know that on average, active people tend to have higher HRV than sedentary people and professional endurance athletes tend to have the highest HRV.

What does your HRV number say about you?

In general, a high HRV number signals that your body is able to handle stress and adapt well. It means you will be able to benefit from a hard training session and more easily overcome other stressful events life throws at you.

Low HRV numbers tell us that the body is working hard to deal with something. This could be fatigue from previous training, dehydration or illness. Adding more stressors may lead to problems down the line.

HRV and your mood are closely connected

As you know, HRV is essentially a measure of your autonomic nervous system function, which is directly associated with mood states. Research confirms that HRV is strongly connected to perceptions of well-being and the ability to regulate emotions. In fact, a recent study in cyclists finds that the higher the training power on one day, the lower the mood and HRV the next morning.

Factors that affect your HRV

To understand how to improve HRV, it helps to know about all of the main factors that impact it. We can divide them into three main categories.

Training factors

  • Training volume (how much time you spent cycling)
  • Training intensity (how hard you ride)
  • New stimulus (trying a new sport, adding a new strength training routine, etc.)
  • The balance between rest and exercise

Lifestyle factors

  • Diet (overeating, undereating, lack of essential nutrients in the diet)
  • Alcohol intake
  • Sleep (total sleep time, sleep quality, sleep regularity)
  • Chronic stress (social isolation, financial issues, toxic relationships, etc.)

Biological factors

  • Age (HRV decreases with age)
  • Gender (women tend to have slightly lower HRV than men)
  • Genetics (your baseline HRV numbers tend to be inherited)
  • Chronic health conditions

Ways to improve your HRV

Just reading the factors that impact your HRV, you can probably guess a lot of ways to improve your HRV. Let’s summarize the most effective ones.

  • Train smart – Having a training plan and sticking to it, even if you’re just a cycling enthusiast. A sufficient number of rest days and easy days to balance out high-intensity exercise is the goal.
  • Improve sleep – Going to bed and waking up at regular times, winding down before going to bed, and sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet place are all things that will significantly improve HRV.
  • Avoid alcohol – A single night of drinking can decrease HRV for as long as 5 days. Keep your alcohol intake in check and avoid consuming it close to sleep time because it reduces sleep quality too.
  • Hydrate – The better hydrated you are, the easier it is for your body to bounce back from stress. Always keep in mind the temperature and your sweat rate when estimating how much to drink.
  • Eat well consistently – Eating at regular times and making consistent good dietary choices is key. Binging on the weekend and trying to balance it out by being too strict during the week becomes more of a stress than a benefit.

It’s important to keep in mind that HRV is mainly a metric that should help you see the progress you’re making. The goal is not to have a higher HRV number than your friends. Improving HRV is only about getting rid of things that are stressing your body unnecessarily so that you can be ready for more cycling and the challenges that life brings.

The next article will go into more detail about how you can use HRV to guide your training.