In his response to the post in which I presented my daily Heart Rate Variability (HRV) recording for August, Rick provided a link to the blog by Carl Valle in which he raises the provocative question that HRV is the ‘new lactate’ . On the whole Carl’s posting was typical of a coach who brashly denies the value of scientific data yet takes for granted that he/she knows how to advise his/her clients. This implies that there is some mystical source of wisdom that transcends science. I believe a good coach observes, draws conclusions, makes predictions and offers advice, though sometimes he or she cannot put the underlying series of logical deductions into words. The thinking style of such a coach is indeed almost pure science but it is a science that sometimes defies words. This might be called intuition but it is not magic. There is indeed a rich stream of activity in the human mind/brain that defies words yet is crucial for excellent performance in almost any sphere of activity, physical or mental. My own interest in HRV and the question of how it might be best understood and used, is closely related to my speculations about how best to achieve the coordination between mind and body necessary for optimal performance, taking account of the fact that most of the communication between mind and body is non-verbal.
One piece in the kaleidoscope of memories and ideas that fuel my speculation is the most memorable race of my life. It was a very low-key event; a 10,000m in a meeting in my home town, Adelaide, one summer evening almost 45 years ago ago. I had not made any advance plan to run. I had finished work rather late but on the spur of the moment decided that I would see if I could get to the track on time for the start, because in those days there were few opportunities to run 10,000m on the track. It was my first, and so far, only 10,000m race. I arrived in time to line up for the start, but without any opportunity for a proper warm up. However from the moment the starter’s gun fired, I was into my stride. I did not consciously plan my pace as I had never run a 10,000 race before, though I frequently ran distances around 8-10K for recreation, so I suppose my body had a good non-conscious estimate of the magnitude of the task. As the race unfolded, I ran with an amazing feeling of grace and power. I was calmly aware that I was headed for victory, but winning was of little importance. Perhaps endorphins contributed to my transcendental state but any circulating endorphins were not a reaction to pain; I was simply running well and enjoying it. I have kept no record of the finishing time, nor indeed of my PB for any other event run in my youth, but that matters little. The memory I treasure is the feeling of grace and power. I doubt that my family or friends would use words like graceful to describe me, but in fact from time to time since then, I have had flashes of that same sense of grace and power – though sadly, not often in recent times.
Another sparkling fragment in the kaleidoscope comes from a different time and place, Beijing 2008, and a different level of performance entirely: Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100m final, in the world record time of 9.69 seconds. With 15 metres to go he was about 8 metres clear of the rest of the field; his arms spread in celebration; not a triumphant thrust of the arms, but an open gesture accompanied by turning his head to the crowd as if inviting everyone to celebrate with him. It is tempting to think that he might have recorded an even faster time if only he had been concentrating on the race – but I doubt if that is true. In fact his legs still drove powerfully forward to the finishing line. It is more likely that he is such an amazing runner because he does not concentrate on his running in the conventional manner. In the press conference afterwards he grinned: ‘“I was havin’ fun. That’s just me. Just stayin’ relaxed. I like dancin’.”
Although perhaps the differences are more prominent than the similarities, what both of these illustrations have in common is a mental state, a ‘zone’, in which there is time and space to savour the moment; the body does not need to be driven by conscious determination. It is state of unhurried awareness; but not detachment. Perhaps this mental state is a variant of what is known in contemporary psychology as mindfulness: a calm awareness of ones breathing and heart beat, one’s muscle tone and posture, one’s thoughts and feelings, and of consciousness itself.
Although mindfulness-based therapy has recently become a popular form of therapy for the stresses of modern life [2,3], the concept of mindfulness is deeply rooted in all human cultures. The Oxford English Dictionary unhelpfully defines it as “The state or quality of being mindful; attention; regard”, and notes that it was first recorded in the English language as ‘myndfulness’ in 1530. The concept is even more strongly associated with the teaching Buddha who lived around 500 years before the beginning of the Christian era. In the celebrated but perhaps apocryphal ‘flower sermon’, Buddha’s disciples were puzzled as he silently contemplated a lotus flower. After it dawned on one of the disciples that the message was that enlightenment comes through contemplation, Buddha is reported to have claimed that this wisdom was transmitted by some mystical form of communication that transcends time and space and does not depend on letters or words.
But one does not need to invoke mystical power to account for non-verbal communication. Modern neuroscience provides abundant evidence for non-verbal modes of processing and transmitting information. Since the French neurologist Paul Broca established in the middle of the nineteenth century that the left frontal lobe of the brain plays a crucial a role in the generation of speech, a great deal of evidence has been assembled to demonstrate that logical, verbally mediated goal orientated mental processing is largely the work of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere has a gross structure similar to that of the left hemisphere but the subtle details of its internal and external connections facilitate non-verbal processes. However, it would be simplistic to regard the brain as an organ with two competing halves, one verbal and one non-verbal. The functions of the brain and body are integrated via a complex web of connections, neural and hormonal. Neuroscience is beginning to unravel the principles underlying this communication web to an extent that was inaccessible to Buddha, but the details are complex and for practical purposes we are only a little further than Buddha in understanding how to tap into the power of non-verbal mind-body interactions.
Integration of mind and body
The understanding of the natural world provided by modern science frees us from many of the superstitions of our forebears, but there is a danger that we will lose that intuitive grasp of the wisdom that defies words. There appears to be a contradiction between science that reduces the natural world to laws expressed in the language of mathematics and the intuitions that coach Carl Valle appears to extol in his blog. I do not accept that there is a real contradiction. Science is does not have to be purely reductive and it can certainly encompass non-verbal communication without resorting to mysticism. I believe that monitoring of HRV in combination with the practice of mindfulness, provides one way of using technology to foster constructive non-verbal mind body interaction
One of the communication systems within the complex web that mediates non-verbal mind-body interaction is the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic division of the autonomic system mediates recovery from stress and can be engaged by meditation that encourages mindfulness. In light of the role that acute inflammation plays in the damage to muscles, tendons ligaments and joints that is an inevitable, indeed crucial part of the response to athletic training, it is of particular interest that mindfulness can modify the levels of the messenger molecules, such as interleukins and other cytokines that communicate to the brain information about tissue damage and help to regulate the inflammatory process. The parasympathetic nervous system is intimately involved in the anti-inflammatory process, and HRV, both high frequency variability but also low frequency variability, is associated with levels of cytokines circulating in the blood stream [4, 5].
Reliable measurement of HRV
As I have discussed on several occasions previously (eg 13 July 2010), two studies by Antii Kiviniemi and colleagues from Oulu in Finland demonstrate that adjusting one’s training regime according to a daily measurement of high frequency HRV (such that training intensity is decreased on days when HRV is reduced) can lead to greater improvement in fitness than training according to a fixed schedule [6.7]. However, my own experience is that high frequency HRV fluctuates erratically from day to day unless you adopt a standardized procedure for the measurement.
I have found that the most consistent measurements are obtained by recording HRV during two minutes shortly after getting out of bed each morning. To standardise my physical state, I stand in a relaxed posture while breathing slowly and regularly. To standardise the state of my mind I practice mindfulness. I focus on the flow of air into and out of my lungs, the pulsation of my heart in my chest and the tension of my postural muscles. Although I merely observe my thoughts and feeling in a manner that is not goal orientated, the awareness of oxygen flowing into and out of my body often prompts thoughts along the paths related to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – the proposal that all living organisms can be considered as components of a single self-regulating organism capable of keeping the earth’s environment healthy . Sometimes I am reminded of the lesson that Hilary Stellingwerff learned during high altitude training in Ethiopia; ‘Finally, on all my recovery runs, the Ethiopian athletes stressed the importance of running on soft ground in the forest to make sure you go slow enough to really recover. They don’t worry too much about their pace, but instead about “getting good oxygen” from the trees and “soft ground” for the body.’
I believe that my daily ritual serves two purposes. First, it leads to relatively consistent day-to-day HRV measurements. Significant departures from the usual range of values indicate either excessive stress from training or from some other aspect of my life, as described in my post on 29th August, and help me adjust training intensity appropriately. Second, in light of my hectic lifestyle, I think that starting the day with two minutes of relaxed contemplation makes a small but valuable contribution to maintaining a degree of calm throughout the day. But the value of this is speculative, and I agree with Carl Valle that measurement of HRV is of limited proven value so far. My own motivation is as much driven by a curiosity about what might work as by what is proven.
There is a third and even more speculative purpose in my ritual. To what extent can training in mindfulness create the ability to invoke that mental state in which the body produces its best without the need for potentially obstructive gritty determination; a state in which there is time and space to savour the moment, to feel grace and power while running? Maybe this is an unrealistic romantic goal. It flies in the face of our inclination to believe that it is only by disciplining our bodies in training and while racing, that we can achieve our peak. But perhaps in the attempt to get the most from our minds and bodies we exult the power of discipline and struggle, and we lose the magic that allowed Usain Bolt to celebrate his victory in Beijing 15 metres before the tape.
My own experience provides some limited evidence that mindfulness can improve running performance. When running intervals, my breathing rate increases to around 85 breaths per minute when I become anaerobic. If at this point I focus on the distance still to be run, my breathing feels laboured and painful. If instead I focus on the sensation of powerful expulsion of air from my lungs and then the subsequent surge of air back into my lungs, the feeling is usually an exhilarating sense of power. When I employ a similar exercise in mental focus during intervals on the elliptical cross trainer (which has a power meter) my power output increases by an extra few percent without a corresponding increase in conscious effort.
Why not simply listen to the body?
One might argue that there is no need to invest in a heart rate monitor with the capacity to record R-R intervals in order to learn how to listen to the body. I accept that the findings of the studies of HRV guided training by Kiviniemi and colleagues [6.7] are encouraging but not compelling. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that HRV can be a good index of autonomic nervous system function if interpreted appropriately, and that autonomic nervous system function is a useful index of the interactions between mind and body that mediate inflammation and recovery. Perhaps the autonomic system also plays a key role in producing the optimal interaction between mind and body while running.
My own experience suggests that achieving optimum consistency in measuring HRV requires development of the skill of mindfulness – the objective awareness of one’s own bodily and mental function. I suspect that this mindfulness has some similarity to the state of detached contemplation advocated by Buddha, though I suspect Buddha might have concluded that any concern with quantitative measurement was alien to his concept detached contemplation. However, Buddha did not have the benefit of our current knowledge of physiology and neuroscience. I believe that both the traditional oriental understanding of the interaction between mind and body, and the understanding provided by modern neuroscience, are useful models of reality. Like all scientific theories, both are only models. As outlined by Isaac Asimov in his famous essay entitled ‘The Relatively of Wrong’ charting the development from mankind’s belief in a flat earth to our current understanding of a slightly pear shaped earth, all scientific models are wrong ; most have some utility within a certain domain in which they fit the observed evidence. Better models provide a more accurate description over a wide range of circumstances. I believe that it is likely that a traditional oriental understanding of the interaction between mind and body can be very helpful in creating as situation in which mind and body harmonise to produce maximal performance, but if this is the case, the traditional understanding must also harmonise with the evidence from modern science.
If we adopt the simplistic view that the goal of training is merely to improve physiological quantities such as aerobic capacity or strength, we might miss out on some of the wisdom embedded in traditional oriental understanding of mind-body interactions. Some approaches to running, such as that advocated by Danny Dreyer in his method of Chi running , appeal to traditional oriental wisdom. Insofar as such approaches encourage harmony between mind and body they might be helpful, though I think that ultimately it is likely to be more effective to integrate traditional wisdom with a realistic application of knowledge of physiology, mechanics and neuroscience. Chi running, like Pose, assigns a mystical role to gravity that is contrary to the laws of Newtonian mechanics. Hence, while Chi and Pose might be useful for many recreational runners whose major goal is avoiding injury, especially for individuals prone to knee injury, these methods are unlikely to be of much use for elite runners who need not only to harmonise mind and body but also need to maximise the efficiency of movement.
I think that the skill of mindfulness might play a useful role in helping integrate traditional oriental wisdom into an approach to training that also takes account of modern science. Hence, I believe that curiosity in this concept is well justified, even though I cannot at this stage claim compelling evidence that it is worthwhile. I am not trying to sell snake oil. There is no point expecting that simple mental exercise will abolish the need for training. Without well developed aerobic capacity and adequate strength, running is unlikely to be either graceful or powerful, but neither will it be so without good coordination between mind and body.
 Kabat-Zinn J (1990) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body to face stress, pain and illness. Delcorte press, New York
 Williams M, Teasdale J, Segal Z and Kabat-Zinn J (2007) The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. Guilford press, New York & London
 Haensel A, Mills PJ, Nelesen RA, Ziegler MG, Dimsdale JE (2008) The relationship between heart rate variability and inflammatory markers in cardiovascular diseases. Psychoneuroendocrinology 33, 1305—1312.
 Taylor AG, Goehler LE, Galper DI, Innes KE, Bourguignon C. (2010) Top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in mind-body medicine: development of an integrative framework for psychophysiological research. Explore (NY). 6(1):29-41.
 Antti Kiviniemi, Arto Hautala, Hannu Kinnunen & Mikko Tulppo (2007) Endurance training guided individually by daily heart rate variability measurements. Eur J Appl Physiol. 101(6):743-751.
 Kiviniemi AM, Hautala AJ, Kinnunen H, Nissilä J, Virtanen P, Karjalainen J, Tulppo MP . (2010) Daily exercise prescription based on Heart Rate Variability among men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 42(7):1355-63
 Lovelock JE and Margulis L. (1974). “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere- The Gaia hypothesis”. Tellus 26 (1): 2–10.
 Asimov I. (1989) The Relativity of Wrong. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14 (1), 35-44