Heart Rate Variability as an Index in Sports Medicine


Heart rate variability (HRV) here, is a relatively new metric for a few past years, being actively spread among the general public and general usage. It has been, however, used for quite a while in the vortex of specific sports medicine. They know how to track sleep, measure stress, and what heart rate variability is from a professional standpoint. Perhaps it would be wise to review their experience with the metric and project it upon the common person? Let’s find out. 

The aspects of sports medicine 

Distinctive features of sports medicine:

– In the treatment and diagnostic process,

– Issues of prevention,

– Early diagnosis and preventive,

– Proactive measures.

Perhaps, all of this is more important than, for example, treatment of an injury or rehabilitation of overtraining. High-level athletes always take risks and severe risks since big sports loads are on the verge or even beyond man’s possibilities by nature. Suppose it is not recognized and brought under control by sports doctors in time. In that case, latent pathology’s potential damage can be extremely high: a forced termination of a successful career, trauma, or disability. 

The importance of cardiology 

Naturally, athletes are examined constantly, regularly, and very carefully, just like representatives of other “special” professions. While completing any control examination or admission to the tournament, the athlete is subjected to diagnostic procedures that an ordinary person would not be subjected to, even with the pickiest professional examination or checkup: bicycle ergometry, treadmill tests, gas analysis, lactate pH-meter, and many others.

Rationally, the prime spot in the diagnostic process is cardiology, specifically – diagnostics of functional disorders of the myocardium, overt and hidden in the cardiovascular system. It is the “athletic heart syndrome”, congenital disabilities, sudden arrhythmias that are the main factors in the premature and sudden mortality of athletes, especially compared to the general (and empirically healthier, right?) population.

Heart rate variability as a statistical instrument 

The word “variability” is a statistical term, which refers to the volatility of a variable, the tendency to its random fluctuations, and deviations from an average or a priori specified standard value. There has been a lot of meaningful and fruitful talk about heart rate variability (HRV) for a while. This indicator is calculated from “raw” data, thus being inaccessible to direct measurement, and is attracting more and more attention of sports cardiologists. More and more evidence of its predictive value and potential application fields (in a variety of sports) is accumulated and published.

The variability of an athlete’s heart rate is assessed using statistical analysis of various indicators of a “normal” ECG, Holter monitoring, treadmill test, or other examination like heart rate variability monitor, where the electrical potentials of the myocardium are recorded. Mathematical processing based on the Fourier transform takes into account many individual indicators: heart rate, the standard deviation of cardio intervals, power of high-frequency and low-frequency spectral components, and regulatory systems (an eloquent synonym – “cost of adaptation”), etc.

These things are complicated; they require a cardiologist to command and influence such concepts of mathematical statistics as mode, median, variance, etc. It is almost impossible to calculate HRV indices manually. Still, for this, there are computers and whole software complexes specially designed for analyzing the variability of the rhythm in a variety of modes and conditions.

Practical application of heart rate variability

Experts tend to argue about the correctness, reliability, and applicability of heart rate variability indicators. That is the reason why they are scientists, though – for the sake of our safety up until the hoarseness challenge every new word, a new method, and new result. Anyway, in the influential scientific journals, dissertations, reports at scientific forums on sports medicine, fascinating (and most importantly, evidence-based and reproducible in other studies) facts and trends are voiced.

It has already been proven, for example, that the HRV of athletes is significantly different from the HRV of people outside of sports, even if the latter are engaged in heavy physical work. In optimally trained athletes, heart rates do not vary in the same way as in detrained or overtrained athletes. Also, the HRV of athletes and female athletes is different, and women’s hearts are more resistant to training and competitive stress factors. Additionally, in team sports, the heart rate is different from strength sports, and in a sprint, high-speed sports HRV is not the same as in stayer sports, which require, first of all, endurance. 

Consequently, among athletes, according to HRV criteria, there are several groups:

  • where one group can achieve the highest results,
  • the second will be able to do this only at the cost of health;
  • the unluckiest third is not capable in principle, even if they are maximizing their capabilities.

The analysis of heart rate variability must be sensitive both in diagnostic terms (including latent pathology) and in prognostic terms: HRV at rest and heart rate variability and stress has their specificity in athletes predisposed to the development of crises. 

Application of heart rate variability in “civil” use

Of course, in routine life, you won’t have staff cardiologists constantly checking upon you and providing you with the best feedback – neither do you need them, anyway! Your heart rate variability will be applied to extrapolate the energy and stress levels you will be experiencing. You will need nothing but a heart rate variability monitor and specific blood pressure and heart rate app to calculate HRV indices. Your best bet will be Welltory, mainly due to its immense user-friendliness and freemium model, though you are free to find what app is best for you individually. Just keep in mind not to forget about regular doctor checkups – and always prioritize their advice first. 


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