Let’s start with a quick reminder; what exactly is heart rate variability (HRV)?
HRV is a measure of the variability between heartbeats, a function controlled by your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). HRV is not the same as heartbeats per minute. Say a heartbeats 60 beats per minute; the space between these 60 beats isn’t consistently one second — it varies. The variance is HRV. Here’s a link to a great review article by two HRV experts for a deeper dive if you’re interested.
Think of HRV as an indicator of general well-being and resilience to stress.
What is HRV training?
HRV training is training our mind and body to be as resilient as possible to stress. Learning these skills maximizes our innate ability to adapt to changes as fluidly as possible and recover as quickly as possible whenever we can.
Another way to look at HRV training is flow state training — the goal is to train yourself to be in a flow (or peak) state as often as possible, allowing us access to our greatest human potential and our highest level of functioning at all times.
Why is HRV training important?
Bruce Lee said it best: “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot; it becomes the teapot.”
Does this feel far-fetched? It’s not. Bruce Lee’s sentiment reflects the ancient Buddhist idea of letting go of resistance and giving in to change around us. If we resist change in a state of fear, we perpetuate suffering. Water forms to its natural surrounding, and as humans, we can too. If we learn to flow with change, we’re closer to achieving our fullest, most whole potential. HRV training is training our mind and body to flow with the changes in the environment.
Our environment and surroundings are changing quickly in an unprecedented fashion. Change is new and new can be frightening, particularly if we are already overwhelmed and underslept. If we cling to the old, it creates blocks and creates resistance to the new. The ability to train ourselves to better adapt to change has always been a theme in many ancient Eastern cultures, and now we have the data and science to back this up. The higher our HRV is, the more fluidly we’re embracing this idea. HRV is a measure of how smoothly and fluidly we adapt to change; in other words, how quickly and effectively we are to overcome and bounce back from challenging or stressful situations.
Elite athletes, medical professionals, and military personnel now recognize that we cannot sustain peak performance without peak recovery training. HRV training is doing precisely that. We want to maximize our ability to transition into peak recovery between stressors. Uncertainty is a stressor. When we focus on uncertainty, we’re focusing on something that we cannot control, triggering a sympathetic fight-or-flight-or-freeze stress response. By focusing on what we can control (ie. our breath), we put ourselves back into the driver’s seat of our lives (where we all too often feel like a passenger along for the ride), with the recognition that we are in control in this moment (starting with our breath), which reminds us that we are safe. Breathing in this way, and other similar practices result in balancing our often over-activated, over-sensitized sympathetic system with safety signals (ie. breathing) that boost parasympathetic rest-and-digest activity that can be measured by HRV improvements within minutes or overtime if breathing is practiced on a routine basis.
Who should do HRV training?
HRV training is truly for everyone. No matter your job, family life, past, or any number of the experiences that make our situations unique, everyone would benefit from being more present more of the time. After all, it is within the present moment that most of the wonder and magic of life hang out. There are many of us who find that our minds tend to occupy a space in time where they’re continually dwelling in the past or predicting the future based on the past, despite knowing deep down that the most critical opportunities to make choices that improve our lives exist only in the present. Thankfully, our bodies are always present in the here and now moment, which is why techniques that center our minds back in our bodies like breathing, soothing touch, meditation, music, and Apollo are such important tools to integrate into our lives. By training ourselves to flow with change, we’re becoming more present, freer to just be.
HRV is also a measure of how well we’ve recovered from past stresses, whether it’s emotional, physical, or spiritual. When we’re engaging in HRV training, we’re training our body to recover from the impact of change, or the stressor, as quickly as possible. We’re achieving a balance between peak performance and peak recovery. It’s becoming abundantly clear from the scientific literature and clinical studies that we can’t sustain peak performance without peak recovery. This notion is respected and adhered to by elite performers of all types including athletes, medical professionals, and military personnel.
When we consider who has the lowest HRV, we see the overworked, stressed, sleep-deprived, physically over-trained; those who have PTSD, physical or head trauma, chronic pain, or anxiety. These people tend to benefit significantly from HRV training. People with higher HRV (>80ms) are less likely to get sick and more likely to sustain peak athletic and cognitive performance, and more likely to get better when they get sick.
There’s no debate that our society values productivity over well-being and just being. We choose to measure worth by productivity. It’s essential to build your toolbox of skills that help you just be, many of which are the same tools for HRV training.
Ready to get started?
Head to Part 3 in our HRV series on how to do HRV training.