QT: Heart Rate Variability for Runners

How do you know if you are fully recovered after a hard workout or race?


Whether you want to admit it or not, most of us humans struggle with recognizing the subtle cues that our bodies provide that can help us better understand what our bodies are actually telling us.

But as technology continues to improve and evolve, we have more options available to us than ever before to measure our biomarkers and understand how our bodies are functioning in real time.

One such metric that we can measure and use to enhance our training as runners is heart rate variability.

What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought our hearts were pretty metronomic.

Whatever our HR happens to be, I always assumed that the heart kept a steady beat at all times.

Turns out…

Well, sometimes that not true.

Heart rate variability is the measure of the different amounts of time between each beat of your heart over a period of several minutes.

And this subtle variance, we are typically talking about nothing more than a few fractions of a second, can tell us a lot about how our bodies are functioning.

(Very) Basic Physiology Lesson

If you can remember back to a biology class you may have taken in high school or college, you may remember hearing about your autonomic nervous system.

This is the part of your brain that controls all the things that happen in our bodies without us thinking about them.

Digestion. Breathing. Cellular repair. Hormone regulation.

If you dive a little deeper into the biology/physiology wormhole, you’ll find that there are two components of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

To try to keep this as simple as possible, here is how you can distinguish between the two levels of the ANS.

  • SNS: Responsible for fight or flight situations.
  • PSNS: The “rest and digest” bodily functions.

In times of stress, our SNS is fired up and ready to go.

When we are well rested and relaxed, our PSNS is much more active.

The Impact on Heart Rate Variability

So, why the quicky physiology lesson? And how does that relate to the topic of heart rate variability?

When our bodies are in a stressful situation and the SNS is dominating, our heart rate becomes much more metronomic. Meaning, the variance in time between beats is almost non-existent.

But when we are able to relax a bit, our bodies shift over into a PSNS dominant state. And when our PSNS is more active, our bodies do a lot of the tasks that are required for long-term health and wellness.

Using Heart Rate Variability to Influence Training

What does it matter if your SNS or PSNS is more active at any one moment, specifically to us as runners?

Before I get into that and explain a bit about how I use heart rate variability in my training, I want to make one thing very clear: I’m not an HRV expert.

I feel like I have a decent understanding of the process and why it is useful to me. But I fully recognize that I have a lot to still learn about heart rate variability and how it relates to me and my training.

As I continue to learn more about HRV, I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

But, if you happen to be a heart rate variability expert and you’re reading this post/listening to this episode, I freely admit that there are gaps in my knowledge and that there is a decent chance I’ll struggle to explain everything in crystal clear detail.

So instead of writing me a scathing email pointing out every flaw, feel free to share your knowledge with me in a less aggressive manner so I can learn from you. Deal?

If you’re monitoring your heart rate variability on a regular basis, that information can help you determine what kind of workout is most appropriate on any given day.

Say, for example, today is scheduled as a day for a speed workout.

But when you wake up in the morning and measure your HRV, you get a really low reading.

What that should tell you is that your body is already in a stressed state, so adding more stress to the mix by hitting the track may not be the best bet.

So instead of doing a hard workout, maybe you would decide to run easy instead. Or, depending on how low your HRV score was, maybe an even better choice would be to skip your run altogether and do some yoga instead.

My HRV Protocol

I measure my heart rate variability every morning.

My routine is simple, once my Pavlok shocks me awake, I get up and head to the living room to grab my phone and put on my heart rate strap.

I lay down on the floor, put my feet up on the couch, and I fire up the Elite HRV app. As soon as it connects to my heart rate monitor, I hit the button to begin my morning measurement while I meditate.

The measurement lasts for 5 minutes, and when it’s finished I look at my results.

The app provides me with more information that I really know how to interpret. All I’m really looking for is my HRV score and where that ranks on the little scale.

If I’m in the green, I’m ready to rock and roll!

When I’m yellow, I go ahead and look at whether it’s on the SNS or PSNS side of the scale.

SNS? Then I’m either going to skip my run completely or keep it really short/easy.

PSNS? Probably still going to run, but still slow it down a bit.

If my HRV comes back red? No run today.

The reason that my heart rate variability really matters to me has to do with my heart rate training.

When the HRV is green, it’s usually pretty easy to keep my heart rate in the desired zone and have an enjoyable run.

When it’s yellow? My heart rate definitely bounces around a bit more. There is a pretty good chance that with a yellow HRV score I’m going to struggle a bit to keep my HR in the zone.

When it’s red? I’ve tried running with a red HRV once and it was a complete disaster.

As soon as I started running, my heart rate would jump way above my max limit for my training. And when I would walk, it would drop back down to 80-90 beats per minute.

Needless to say, that’s a frustrating day at the office. And, quite honestly, it isn’t worth it.

Heart Rate Variability Resources and Sources of Further Information

If you’re thinking about tracking your heart rate variability, here are the tools and apps that I use.

These are hardly the only tools and apps available, but these will at least get you started.

Hear Rate Strap:

You can not use your Garmin (or other wearables) that measures your “heart rate” at the wrist to measure your heart rate variability.

You have to get a heart rate strap, and it has to be a halfway decent one.

Odds are, you’ll be using an app on your phone, so make sure you get a HR strap that is blue tooth enabled.

I use the WahooTicker.


As mentioned above, I use the Elite HRV app, which is free.

Books and Websites:

If you’d like to dive deeper into heart rate variability, here are some options that you can begin exploring:

The basics of using heart rate variablity to guide your training. #runchat Click To Tweet

Have You Ever Measured Your Heart Rate Variability? How Did it Help Your Training?
What Other HRV Questions Do You Have?

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