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Using Heart Rate Variability To Determine Training Intensity, Part II

by Mike T. Nelson
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Part 2: 4 Common Pitfalls When Using Heart Rate Variability To Determine Training Intensity (And How To Avoid Them)

In part I, I went over the basics of HRV to help you get the most of out your training. In this article I will discuss the common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Pitfall 1: Following the Daily Measurement Only

Most HRV programs will also display an AVERAGED HRV trend line. I’ve personally found for strength sessions this is a better indicator than the one day score. If your HRV trend is going down and down, you need to either 1) cut back on training intensity or volume and 2) increase recovery work with some low intensity sessions and 3) sleep a lot more (but nobody wants to hear that one). The averaged trend line appears to be the best indicator or overall stress.

Pitfall 2: HRV as Prediction 

HRV seems to be associated more to “stress absorption” than prediction of performance. I’ve had clients do a very hard training session and perform at a high level; even setting personal records. Critics cry “See, I told you Big Science Nerd that HRV is worthless”

Think of HRV as the tachometer on your car. You can get a higher performance by red lining it, but you will pay a higher cost. If you can get a higher performance over the long run at a LOWER RPM, that is a more efficient adaptation. Higher (better) HRV scores allow the body to handle more stress (all forms). It is best to predict your ability to do REPEAT good sessions back to back over time. If your HRV
tanks (drops), you will not be able to do repeated, hard sessions day in and out without paying a higher cost.

Pitfall 3: Poor Recovery of the ANS

If your recovery is lacking, your HRV score will reflect it the next day (and in the overall trend). One things I’ve found to help recover the ANS is breathing work.

Post training breathing/meditation work appears to help return the body faster to a parasympathetic state and kickstart recovery. We know that the cardiac system is very tied into the pulmonary system as each one affects the other. Just take 5-10 minute post training to focus on a 2-3 nasal inhalation and a long slow 5-8 second exhale through pursed lips (like you are exhaling through a straw). Make sure your stomach is rising up and down, not your upper chest. Your HRV score is normally better the next day compared to now having done the breathing drill.

Pitfall 4: Not Monitoring Training

I have not yet found one single athlete that is in “the best HRV score” contest. HRV score reflects recovery. Better and faster recovery allows you to train more. Make sure you are keeping an eye on performance not just HRV.

The term overtraining needs to be properly defined, but it always sounds better than “lack of results” and sounds more hardcore to say. While overtraining syndrome (OTS) is very real, it is also very rare. If you get OTS you are in severe trouble and will be laying on the couch drooling on yourself for months. If you were an Olympic athlete, your career is probably hosed and your odds of making the next games are worse than Lindsay Lohan staying in spin dry. For the average person to get even close to that state is very unlikely, though. Some may get to a state of overreaching where their results stop, and resting for 2-14 days solves the issue (Fry et al).

Always look at the results! Measure them. Are you making progress towards your goal? If yes, and the cost is acceptable to you, awesome! If not, it may be time to change something. If you are not sure, start by measuring your goals.


Make sure to avoid these 4 pitfalls of using HRV. I had to learn these the hard way and made all of those mistakes and more. No need for you to repeat my mistakes. HRV is one way to monitor the status of your nervous system to ensure you are going in the right direction. Actual training results trump a nice HRV score any day.

Fry AC, Kraemer WJ. “Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. “Neuroendocrine responses. Sports Med. 1997 Feb;23(2):106-29


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