If you’re training for a race or athletic event, chances are you have a strict training regimen that you try to follow — e.g., five days on, two days off per week. But your body, and your recovery, varies day by day. Some days you might be exhausted, while others you feel in top shape.
So what should be your guide — your schedule, or your body?
The short answer: keep a routine, but let your body have a say.
If you want a responsive training plan, start reading your body’s performance capacity directly. Paying attention to your heart rate variability (HRV) with a wearable device like Oura can help you adjust your workouts so that harder training days align with your body’s readiness, not your calendar.
HRV: A Sign of Your Training Capacity
Put another way, HRV indicates how your ANS is balancing its packed daily to-do list.
On one hand, your fight-or-flight system is using energy to maximize short-term performance, demanding resources to respond to mental and physical stressors (e.g., daily stress or a workout). On the other hand, your rest-and-digest system needs energy to prioritize long-term survival, demanding resources to maintain homeostasis, repair your body, strengthen muscles, and support your immune system.
You need both to prepare for athletic feats (fight-or-flight) and to recover afterward (rest-and-digest).
HRV reflects that balance as a holistic measure of your total load. The more you demand of yourself daily, the less you have in the tank to train effectively.
Consider HRV to be your training fuel gauge:
- If your HRV is lower than your average, energy demands are already high from one branch of your ANS. Maybe your fight-or-flight is engaged from chronic stress, or your rest-and-digest is actively fighting a cold. Pushing now is asking your body to expend resources it might not have, putting you at risk of overtraining and stressing your body beyond what it can handle.
- If your HRV is higher than your average, you’re ready to get moving. Your ANS is prepared to respond productively to stress—flexibly moving between fight-or-flight action and rest-and-digest recovery. Pushing now allows you to capitalize on your body’s recovery capacity, helping it bounce back from a hard workout.
READ MORE: Use HRV to Manage Stress
Look for These Patterns
If you’re trying to balance your training and recovery days, it can be difficult to know where the line is until you’ve crossed it. You don’t want to write workout checks your body can’t cash.
By monitoring your HRV, you can clearly see when your body has the bandwidth for intense workouts.
Look for these patterns relative to your baseline:
- A small drop in HRV is normal as you recover from training, alternating between physical stress and recovery.
- A large drop in HRV is an early warning sign that you may be overworking your system. A hard training session, especially on top of accumulated fatigue, will lower your HRV.
- A consistently low HRV, outside of your normal range, is a sign that you’re not allocating enough time to recovery.
RELATED: How to Increase HRV
How to Incorporate HRV Into Your Training
If you’re looking for that extra edge, take a closer look at your HRV metrics in your Oura App. Here are some ways to assess how your HRV is affecting your training:
Establish a baseline: HRV values naturally fluctuate. Give yourself at least 2 weeks to establish a clear baseline before you take the numbers at face value.
Know your own numbers: Your values are exactly that — yours. For resting heart rate, there is a target number in the 40s that athletes can all strive for. But HRV is different. There is no gold standard range for HRV; it is highly personal, and there are elite athletes who have high and low ranges.
Use your HRV to define push days: When your HRV is high relative to your baseline, it’s a good indicator you can train hard and are likely to recover quickly. On days when your HRV is low, be purposeful about your recovery, both mental and physical.
Pair your HRV with sleep data: Hard training days signal to your body that it should prioritize deep sleep for tissue repair. Keep an eye on how that impacts more brain-based sleep stages like REM, which are necessary for optimal mental performance as well.
Look long term: Watch for patterns in your HRV throughout the month, and keep in mind that your daily HRV values may fluctuate as your fitness and resilience improves.