Over-training, free radicals and HRV

Since taking up running again in middle age I have been very aware that my capacity for training appears to be greatly reduced compared to 35-40 years ago.  Once it seemed I could push the weekly mileage up to Lydiard’s recommended 100 miles per week with relatively little specific build-up.  I suspect that was because my general base fitness used to be high as a result of a range of sporting activities in childhood.  However, nowadays, if I push the weekly training volume above 55 Km per week I develop accumulating tiredness.  I have therefore been intrigued as to what it is that causes the accumulation of fatigue, and in my attempt to understand this I have explored the concept of over-training is some detail. 

Identifying over-training

The central features of over-training are relatively easy to define: accumulating fatigue, deteriorating performance, loss of motivation, a range of abnormalities of the autonomic nervous system and various biochemical and hormonal abnormalities.  However despite the range of abnormalities, it has so far proven difficult to identify a reliable laboratory test for the over-training syndrome. 

Purine metabolism and free radicals

Among the tests that make the most sense to me are tests of abnormal purine metabolites generated by the breakdown of the high energy molecule, ATP –adenosine triphosphate.  (Adenosine belongs to the goup of chemicals known as purines). In the process of releasing the energy stored in its so called ‘high energy phosphate bond’ to provide the energy for muscle contraction (and many other energy consuming processes within the body) ATP loses a phosphate group and becomes ADP  –  adenosine diphosphate .   The ADP can be re-used, but some of it gets broken down to simpler molecules and unless it is salvaged, it is excreted from the body in the form of uric acid.   The crucial issue with regard to damage to tissue is that intermediate steps in the metabolic pathway from adenosine to uric acid  result in the creation of ‘free radicals’.  Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can cause damage by oxidation of various intra-cellular molecules.  In principle, this might happen in both heart muscle and in skeletal muscle and hence it is of potential interest to an athlete concerned about possible cumulative damage to either heart or skeletal muscle.  Free radical damage is especially likely to occur in older runners, but should not  be completely ignored by younger runners.

The fact that energy metabolism can lead to the creation of free radicals is the reason anti-oxidants have been popular among health food enthusiasts, though unfortunately there is no convincing evidence that consuming anti-oxidant supplements does any good and indeed might even do harm.  So I simply eat a sensible amount of food rich in anti-oxidants. 

This speculative relationship between purine metabolism and over-training has been given some substance by a recent study by Zielinski and colleges from Poznan in Poland (Eur J Appl Physiol May 29, 2009, Epub ahead of print). They examined levels of various metabolites of adenosine in the blood of young athletes (average age 22 years) and found substantial accumulation of these metabolites after exercise, that varied in magnitude at different phases of the training cycle.  It would be very premature to conclude that a rise in purine metabolites after exercise is a sign of over-training but nonetheless, does provide some grounds for further exploration of the idea that free radical damage may contribute to over-training, and maybe might even sometimes  result in irreversible changes. Whatever the mechanism of damage, over-training is clearly something to be avoided, by both old and young athletes. 

The central conundrum of training

The conundrum is that fitness arises via super-compensation for minor degrees of tissue damage produced by subjecting the body to stress.  Without stressing the body, and then allowing a recovery phase in which super-compensation occurs, we cannot become fit.  Optimal training requires the right balance between stress and recovery.

To a large extent we must listen to our bodies, and take things a little more easily when we experience accumulating fatigue, but it is tantalizing to ask whether or not there might be some physiological measurement to guide us.  So far no reliable biochemical or  hormonal measure has been identified and in any case, for the amateur athlete, regular laboratory testing is impractical.   However, in an era in which heart rate monitors are widely available, it has become feasible to measure the function of the autonomic nervous system, which controls many bodily functions including heart rate.

The autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system governs the way in which we respond to threat or stress, and is sensitive to a very wide range of signals from within the body.  It governs short term responses such as the need to increase heart rate to deliver blood to exercising muscles, and also to ensure blood pressure is adequate to supply the brain.  But it also takes account of the body’s longer term needs, and it apparently acts to prevent us from over-exerting ourselves.  In general terms, all is well provided there is a good balance between the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which promotes fight or flight, and the parasympathetic system which promotes relaxation and recuperation. 

However, if there is too much stress and too little opportunity for recovery, the action of the sympathetic system tends to become dominant – this leads to an over-training syndrome dominated by excessive sympathetic activity.  Potential markers for this include increased resting heart rate, an exaggeration of the normal increase of heart rate on rising from lying to standing (‘the orthostatic test’), and a loss of the high frequency variability (HRV) in heart rate, generated by parasympathetic input to the heart.

However, the body can react to cumulative stress even more dramatically by producing a excessive surge of parasympathetic activity that has the opposite effects.  When this happens acutely, the result is dizziness due to lack of blood reaching the brain, or even an outright faint.  When the excess parasympathetic activity occurs on a more sustained time scale, the result is the parasympathetic form of the over-training syndrome.  It is probable that this represents compensation by the body, possibly driven by a governor located in the inferior aspect of the frontal cortex of the brain that is responsible for regulating the parasympathetic system , to protect us from ourselves. 

The reason for laying out all these speculations is to dispel the idea that it is likely that any simple measure of heart rate or heart rate variability will prove to be a universally useful indicator of the over-training syndrome. 

1998 – a new heart rate test!

Among the FAQs on the website of Polar, the company that pioneered the manufacture of wireless heart rate monitors, is an article entitled ‘The new heart rate based test gives a pre-warning of an overtraining condition’.  This describes a test based on measuring heart rate variability on waking and after rising to maintain a standing position for several minutes. 


The test was developed by Dr. Arja Uusitalo, at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Jyväskylä, Finland.  The article on the Polar website proclaims optimistically: ‘The most demanding task for the coach and the athlete is to find out the cause of the overtraining condition and how to control it. What makes it easier, is that a new test will tell whether the condition was fatigue, caused by an acute stress situation, or an athletic burn-out as a result of too heavy training.’  The data on which that article was based was published in Dr Uusitalo’s PhD thesis in 1998.  

What has happened since 1998? 

Surely if the optimism implied by the article had been fully justified, many of us would have by now invested in an advanced Polar HRM and use this test to monitor our training.  In fact, since 1998, Dr Uusitalo, together with her colleagues from the Institute for Olympic Sports in Jyväskylä, has published a number of important articles on HRV and over-training.  The findings are only moderately supportive of the value of HRV measurements, though overall, I interpret these articles as providing support for the hypothesis that HRV is potentially a useful indicator of over-training.  However, it would be far too simplistic to expect a single test, such as that proposed by Dr Uusitalo in 1998, to provide a reliable answer in all situations.   In light of the complexity and variability of the over-training syndrome, one might predict that any test of HRV would have to be interpreted in light of individual characteristics and circumstances.

What do Polar offer in 2009?

Polar now offer a test procedure called the Own Optimizer which is based on five heart rate and heart rate variability measurements: two of the five values are calculated at rest, one while standing up and two while standing. It is not clear to me exactly what these five measurement are, though it appears likely that both the orthostatic test (change in heart rate on standing) and change in HRV on standing are included.  Unfortunately, Polar present very little evidence regarding the utility of Own Optimizer.  On the Polar discussion forum, a moderator named Mico refers to evidence from a study of  endurance training guided individually by daily heart rate variability measurements, performed by Antti Kiviniemi and colleagues from Oulu in Finland  (Eur J Appl Physiol. 101(6):743-751, 2007) [the reference given on the Polar website was not quite accurate, but this appears to be the relevant study]

Training guided by HRV

The study by Kiviniemi reports a comparison between a 4 week training program guided by HRV and a pre-defined training program   The predefined program entailed two sessions at low intensity and four at high intensity each week, for the 4 weeks.   The HRV guided  training program was based on individual changes in high-frequency HRV,  measured every morning.  If there was an increase or no change in HRV, the athlete performed high-intensity training on that day. If there was significant decrease in HRV (below reference value or a decreasing trend for 2 days), low-intensity training or rest was prescribed. 

VO2max improved significantly from 56 to 60 ml/min/Kg in the HRV guided group, but only showed a non-significant increase from 54 to 55 ml/min/Kg in the group who followed the predefined program.  Furthermore, running velocity in a treadmill test  increased by a significantly greater amount in the HRV guided group than in the predefined training group.  The authors concluded that cardio-respiratory fitness can be improved effectively by using HRV for daily training prescription.

The report by Kiviniemi is intriguing and indeed a cause for optimism.  However, it needs to be interpreted in light of the many other studies of HRV and training (or over-training) that have been published in the past decade. I will attempt to review some of the studies that I think tell an interesting story, in future postings on my blog, though at this stage, the overall conclusion is that HRV might potentially be useful  to monitor training, but no reliable simple test has yet been developed, and the data must be interpreted in light of individual circumstances.


4 Responses to “Over-training, free radicals and HRV”

  1. Andrew(AJH) Says:

    This is so true. I often wonder if I am over-training, but my training load does not vary a whole lot when looked at over a longish period. I’ve often wondered if a closer look at my heart rate for similar exercises might be a good indicator, but this is difficult without also keeping track of a lot of other variables that might make one training session different to another (eg temperature, wind etc.).

  2. Ewen Says:

    It would be great to have a definitive test for over-training. The HRV-enabled heart rate monitors look like a very useful tool for optimising training. Better than running easy days until you feel ready for a hard session.

    Do you have any thoughts on which is the best brand/model of heart-rate monitor? I’d just be looking for basic HRV I guess.

  3. Before and After: Rest, Recover, Regenerate « UltiTraining.com Says:

    […] to explain HRV, but just to link out if you’d like to learn more. Check out the various HRV training methods based on biofeedback, from HeartMath to other biofeedback-based […]

  4. Ingeborg Minecci Says:

    Cool entry I just Love it, Keep adding more like this! Web 2.0 Videos

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