Tune your body for high performance through HRV

It isn’t always the strongest or smartest who survive; often it’s those who can adapt best to change. As a Warfighter, you probably know how important physical and mental adaptability is in order to navigate complex situations rapidly and efficiently. Did you know you can train your heart to be more responsive and efficient to meet those demands? One way your heart can help you do this is through heart rate variability, or HRV. Learn how to train your heart to help your body adapt quickly, effectively, and effortlessly to changing circumstances.

What is HRV?

HRV is different from heart rate—the number of times your heart beats in a certain amount of time. HRV is a measure of how much time varies between heartbeats. HRV tells you not only how your heart is functioning but also how your brain is coping. When faced with a threat (real or imagined), your body initiates the fight or flight response, cueing your heart to pick up the pace and your breathing to quicken and shorten, which allows you to respond efficiently. Once your brain determines that the threat is gone, that response should turn off, allowing you to relax or return to your status quo.

0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds

Think of HRV like the responsiveness of a car. When you merge onto a freeway, you want your car to adjust quickly when you hit the gas and reach the desired speed as soon as possible after you hit the pedal. Then when it’s time to slow down, you want a car that responds quickly when you hit the brakes, to bring you down to a safe speed. Think of the speed of the car as your heart rate and the ability to accelerate or decelerate quickly as your HRV. While heart rate alone can indicate how you’re functioning, looking at heart rate and HRV together is a better indication of how you’re managing stress and maintaining optimal levels of performance. Many cars can hit 60 mph, but only high-performance cars can move from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.

Why does HRV matter?

Low HRV (less variation in time between heartbeats) is linked to:

  • fatigue during training
  • negative mental health symptoms
  • poorer physical health

Higher HRV (more variation in time between beats) is linked to optimized performance through:

  • improved focus and attention
  • better stress management
  • better decision-making under pressure
  • faster recovery from physical and psychological strain

The higher your HRV, the better your heart is able to adapt to changing demands.

Back to the example of a car’s performance: Spending too much time in high gear causes wear and tear on your engine over time, so it’s important to shift into a lower gear when the situation doesn’t warrant being in high gear. And the more quickly you can downshift, the more you save energy and reduce the possibility of damage. On the other hand, being able to shift into high gear to deal quickly with a threat means you’re able to stay more agile and ready to handle challenges. Higher HRV helps you shift gears quickly and effectively.

Training your HRV

The good news is: You can train your HRV. If you have access to a biofeedback practitioner or cardiologist, you can seek the advice of a healthcare professional to get deeper insight into HRV. One way to train HRV on your own is through controlled breathing. Breathing in a rhythmic fashion can improve your HRV and strengthen your body’s ability to shift between states of tension and relaxation.

Another training tool is progressive muscle relaxation or PMR, which can help improve mental health symptoms, reduce feelings of being keyed up or on edge, increase a sense of calm, and increase HRV by engaging the part of your nervous system that acts as your “brakes” for the fight or flight system. The goal of PMR is to bring awareness to how your body changes between states of stress and tension versus relaxation and calm. As you build this awareness over time, you become more able to notice when your body is stressed and you develop more control over that physical response.

You can use HPRC’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation audio file to try out this exercise for yourself. Training to increase HRV is like fine-tuning your Warfighter engine: You can increase your adaptability, improve physical and mental functioning, and optimize your performance.

Resources

Burg, J. M., & Wolf, O. T. (2012). Mindfulness as self-regulated attention. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 71(3), 135–139. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000080

Ernst, G. (2017). Heart-rate variability—More than heart beats? Frontiers in Public Health, 5(11 Sept 2017), Article 240. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2017.00240

Prinsloo, G. E., Derman, W. E., Lambert, M. I., & Rauch, H. G. L. (2013). The effect of a single episode of short duration heart rate variability biofeedback on measures of anxiety and relaxation states. International Journal of Stress Management, 20(4), 391–411. doi:10.1037/a0034777

Rajendra Acharya, U., Paul Joseph, K., Kannathal, N., Lim, C. M., & Suri, J. S. (2006). Heart rate variability: A review. Medical & Biological Engineering & Computing, 44(12), 1031–1051. doi:10.1007/s11517-006-0119-0

Thayer, J. F., Hansen, A. L., Saus-Rose, E., & Johnsen, B. H. (2009). Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: The neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 141–153. doi:10.1007/s12160-009-9101-z