Heart rate variability, or HRV, is an exciting and relatively new measurement tool for use in athletics. Describing what it actually is would make most people’s eyes glaze over, so in the interest of not putting you to sleep I’ll keep it simple. HRV is not the measurement of the heart rate itself, which is what a standard heart rate monitor can tell you, but rather the variation in the interval from one beat to the next. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, investigators wanted to know if it's a helpful measurement tool for combat athletes.


You might be wondering about the purpose of measuring HRV. It’s obvious that the heart has the ability to respond to different situations. Recline a bit and relax, and your heart slows down. Exercise and it speeds up. But it’s not just physical activity that changes your heart rate - stress does too. And heart rate isn’t the only way the heart responds to physical or psychological stress.


The variability of heartbeat to heartbeat reflects the function of the nervous system. When different parts of the nervous system experience stress, they respond in different ways, which affects the way your heart works. HRV is a measurement of these changes.

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Now that you understand what HRV is, you may want to know why there is a particular interest in it for combat sports. In this study the researchers looked at judo players for a specific reason. When you go into the gym and do a lift, you have a built-in measure of how much you’ve done. You count the reps, sets, and the weight you used. In sports like soccer, you can measure the distance covered. But when you engage in combat sports like judo, there’s no simple way to measure the work done.


The researchers wanted to find out if HRV was a good measure of stress for judo. You can actually take the HRV of an athlete at any time, including the day after a training session, to tell how much stress they endured and how much they recovered. Indeed, in this study the researchers discovered HRV was a good measurement tool for combat athletes.They could even tell the difference between how hard the athletes had worked and the different phases of stress and recovery by using HRV.


HRV measuring devices are available now, and require no lab setting. You may even be able to find free online resources for HRV. However, the results may still be too confusing for most athletes or coaches. With more automation, HRV will be a tool that will become more readily available in the future.


Although the advantages are clear with sports in which the load is difficult to quantify, it seems that monitoring HRV may be helpful for any athlete. While many athletic endeavors may be easy enough to figure out in a lab setting, or by clever coaches, in the real world most athletes and coaches play it by ear and hope for the best. With a tool that determines the degree of stress and subsequent recovery an athlete has achieved, the future looks bright for HRV.



1. José Morales, et. al., “The Use of Heart Rate Variability in Monitoring Stress and Recovery in Judo Athletes,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000328


Photo courtesy of by David Brown Photography.