Integrating the runner’s mind and body: the role of HRV

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’ [1].   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’.”

Mindfulness

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 [8].  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 [10]; 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 [11], 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.

References

[1]  http://www.elitetrack.com/blogs/details/5343/#When:09:39:23Z

[2] Kabat-Zinn J (1990)  Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body to face stress, pain and illness. Delcorte press, New York

[3] 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

[4]  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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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

[8] Lovelock JE and Margulis L. (1974). “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere- The Gaia hypothesis”. Tellus 26 (1): 2–10.

[9]  http://www.powerbar.com/articles/266/living-the-high-life-training-in-ethiopia.aspx

[10] Asimov I. (1989) The Relativity of Wrong. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14 (1), 35-44

[11]  http://www.chirunning.com/shop/home.php

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16 Responses to “Integrating the runner’s mind and body: the role of HRV”

  1. Ewen Says:

    I’m of the opinion that one can use both science and art (intuition?) when coaching athletes (or when self-coaching). I remain optimistic that HRV measurements will prove a useful guide for structuring training. It’s interesting about your strict procedure for taking measurements — that seems an obvious necessity when one thinks about it.

    Also fascinating that you recall that one 10,000m race from 45 years ago with such clarity — the feelings of grace and power. I’d love to experience a race like that. I guess I had two recent races that were close – the 1 hour, and the 5k cross country a few years back. I bet my HRV was good on those days!

  2. Rick Says:

    PROOF THAT POSE AND CHIRUNNING BASED ON FALSE SCIENCE
    http://runwitharthurlydiard.blogspot.com/2010/09/proff-that-both-pose-and-chirunning-are.html

    • canute1 Says:

      Rick, Thanks.

      As you might expect, I am in complete agreement with all of the points made by Brodie and colleagues in this article.

      I think there is no doubt that the theory underlying Pose (and Chi) is wrong. While I think Dr Romanov has a poor understanding of biomechanics, I think he had some good intuitions about running style, and some feature of the practice of Pose are good. However, I also think that other features of the practice are potentially risky. One potentially risky consequence of the erroneous theory of Pose is that it might encourage athletes to underestimate the true forces that act on the body during running.

  3. Carl Valle Says:

    I have made over 6 posts suggesting the use of HRV with athletes as a nice way to capture some important data. The problem is marketing tries to glorify it to the science to the point it’s not realistic. Just to make sure, I have suggested a handful of options so coaches can use HRM and HRV scoring to get a nice snapshot of the right data. If you look at all my posts you will see my support. I think a balance is necessary because people are placing all of their eggs in one basket instead of have a complete monitoring system.

    Thanks

    Carl Valle

    • canute1 Says:

      Carl,
      Thanks for your comment. I had not seen it until today.

      First, on re-reading what I wrote in my post in 2010, I was initially a bit appalled that I had used the word ‘brash’ to describe your blog post questioning the value of HRV. I was trying to find the right word to capture the self-assured style of a good coach whose opinions are often based on intuition as much as on science. Even now, near 4 years later, I think the word ‘brash’ does capture what I intended. However I should emphasize that I do not think that brashness is a bad thing in a coach. I enjoy reading your blogs. Nonetheless, I usually find them stronger on opinion than evidence.

      With regard to your views about HRV I am aware of some of your posts that are quite supportive of the value of HRV. In particular, I was interested in your post in July last year in which you were strongly supportive of the Ithlete team system, though as usual, I found the post was stronger on opinion than evidence.

  4. Seth Leon Says:

    Great Blog Canute,

    As it turns out I am a 51 year old long time Tai Chi teacher in my spare time (primary occupation is statistician) and am training for a marathon (May 25). I have also had an interest in HRV for some time both from a wellness and fitness perspective. I have used a Suunto watch for many years and even undertook a small pilot study with my tai chi students at one point looking into it’s relationship to tai chi.

    More recently I have moved to using Ithlete since the collection and presentation of the results is so much easier. Anyway I believe to get useful information related to fitness, over-reaching, overtraining etc… it is best to measure HRV in both the supine and standing positions regularly over time with the difference between the two measures probably representing the best HRV indicator of exercise readiness. The ithlete graphs lend themselves nicely to this approach. If you would like to take a look at my approach here is my link:
    http://missingcomplement.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-method-for-monitoring-fitness-and.html

    • canute1 Says:

      Seth

      Thanks for the link to your blog. I found it very interesting.

      I was especially interested in your conclusion that the difference between HRV measured supine and standing (in the morning) is the best indicator of readiness for a hard training session.
      I note from your previous post in March that resting HRV (as measured by RMSSD) appeared to correlate rather poorly with your training load. I think this is similar to the experience of many athletes. So I will therefore be very interested to see if the difference between supine and standing HRV proves to be a more reliable indicator.

      I agree with you that Ithlete is a very convenient device for assessing HRV and it therefore potentially of great use in practice.

      I hope your marathon training goes well.

  5. Seth Leon Says:

    Hello again and thanks for the response.
    I am fairly new to the ithlete package so I m sure my use of it will evolve with experience. I notice that you were emplying a submaximal fitness test periodically and looking for patterns with heart rate, HRV and perceived exertion. I am also aware of some coaches/researchers looking to potentialy employ short-term post exercise HRV measures for the purpose of making real-time training suggestions.

    This interests me a great deal. In the near future I plan to one more measure to the data I am collecting on a daily basis. This will be a short-term submaximal post exercise HRV recovery measure. I actually think the exercise will be fairly minimal. I am thinking along the lines of a 1/2 mile warm-up on flat ground at an easy pace (say 10 min mile for me). Then I will use a consitent short rest period probably 2 or 3 minutes before taking the 1 minute ithlete reading. I want to coolect enough data so that I can statisically analyze the relationships between morning HRV (standing, resting, and thier difference). I am guessing that the size of (mrHRV-msHRV) will correlate well with HRV recovery from an easy warm-up jog. The quickness of HRV recovery is hypothesized to be related to fitness level so I think this will be an interesting experiment. I run pretty much on a daily basis so I just need to work out the best conditions to collect consistent reliable readings. I will be tapering in a couple weeks and then probably going thru light training to recover from marathon but over time it shouldn’t take too long to create a nice little data set for my N of 1.

    • canute1 Says:

      Seth
      Thanks. Your plan to look at HRV during the recovery phase is interesting.

      I plan to do another post in the near future on my recent experiences with HRV. I have started preparation for a marathon in September. I have had some health problems recently and I am eager to find the best way of adjusting my training so that I maximise fitness without over-training.

      I was a little disappointed with my performance last year, though I am uncertain of the cause. Perhaps most likely is the fact that both my muscle power and my aerobic capacity are deteriorating rapidly as I age. Perhaps I should have celebrated my HM performance in 2012 as exceptionally good, rather than focussing on poor performance in 2013. My less good performance in 2013 is in fact more consistent with the general trend over that past 8 years. However my performance in 2012 suggests that it is possible to produce exceptionally good performances when circumstances are right, and I would like to discover how to achieve those favourable circumstances. I think that that testing for levels of stress can be very helpful, but so far the evidence indicates that there is no single measurement that gives a reliable estimate. I think that despite using the submaximal test last year, I probably did develop too much stress – maybe I suffered an excessive accumulation of cortisol due to too great a volume of training; maybe I produced too much leg muscle damage by too many long runs that were a little too fast. This year I will explore different ways of assessing stress and leg muscle damage.

      With regard to HRV during recovery, I think that might be informative. HRV during recovery appears to provide a robust indicator of the re-establishment of parasympathetic dominance during the first few minutes after exercise. I have noted that during the 1 minute of standing following the sub-maximal effort, a very large amplitude HRV begins after about 40 sec. At that time HR is still falling potentially confounding the measurement of HRV. If I wanted to examine this properly, I would first remove the underlying downward trend. I also observe that HRV during very low intensity exercise (eg 30 watts on the elliptical) is substantially higher during 3-5 minutes after exercise than it is at the same power output at the beginning of exercise. I will be very interested to see what your measurements of HRV following submaximal exercise reveal.

  6. Seth Leon Says:

    Very interesting,

    I am a big advocate for the idea that understanding progresses as we learn how to complement our subjective perceptions with objective information placing each into context. Similar to the way that rationality in my view depends equally on emotion and reason. It would make sense that you may have overdone the volume without it showing up on HRV measures as I find HRV is much more affected by hi intensity running as opposed to volume. Yet we know running volume also causes disturbance of homeostasis leading potentially to adaptions. I think any activity that can lead to positive adaptation can also be overdone leading to chronic. If you are not familiar you might want to check out the research on allostatic load (Bruce McEwen).

    I am drawn to the (resting minus standing HRV) measure because it seems to correlate much more closely with my subjective sense of fatigue and readiness then do either measure alone. For example on Saturday I ran a difficult long run 18.5 miles with 12 at marathon pace. My resting HRV was coming back pretty well yesterday but I still felt a lot of fatigue from Sat. My standing HRV was very close to my resting measure suggesting little parasympathetic withdrawal. This corresponded with my subjective sense so I went easy yesterday. Today I felt fully recovered and this was confirmed with a mrHRV of 84 and a msHRV of 59.

    Thanks for the tips on your experience post exercise HRV. It may take me some experimenting to determine if there is a fast and useful way to get a quick assessment that is predictive of exercise readiness.

  7. Seth Leon Says:

    Hello again canute1,

    I looked over your post on ‘efficiency assessments’ a second time. I notice that with regard to standing HRV you find opposite relations to over-reaching as those I experience. You see higher standing HRV with improved fitness.

    In this study (led by Catherine Grant) the opposite was found:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22816541

    “However, this study also clearly demonstrates the novel relationship between HRV indicators and indicators of physical fitness during an orthostatic stressor. Participants with greater physical fitness showed increased responsiveness (indicated by increased sympathetic activity and vagal withdrawal) to the orthostatic challenge.”

    Similarly see tables 4&5 (pages 33,34) of study by Esa Hynynen:
    http://www.dcbiomed.com/proimages/news/HRV_in_Chronic_and_Acute_Stress.pdf

    Overtrained athletes vs Control appear to swap their ratios (LF/HF) in supine vs standing. Although it wasn’t tested HF drops from 4680 to 192 in controls compared to 2704 to 210 in overtrained, and RMSSD drops from 98 to 27 in controls compared to 76 to 22 in overtrained (bigger gaps for control). LF/HF also suggests more parasympathetic withdrawal in the healthy controls standing so the trend seems to be in the direction that fits my subjective experience.

    This dissociation is one area I would like to explore more.

    • canute1 Says:

      Seth
      You raise an important issue about orthostatic drop HRV which I have also wondered about, but hitherto I have not assessed it systematically.

      If you look at the data regarding HRV that I presented in my post of 17 July 2013, you will note that I reported HRV in the standing state but I did not report the orthostatic change in HRV becasue I did not measure it. I reported standing RMSSD of 51, 30 and 57 in weeks one, two and three. I noted that I showed some signs of stress in week two, although it is also important to note that my overall fitness increased steadily over the three week period so it does not appear that I was over-trained, but merely over-reaching. Higher resting HR in week two supported my conclusion that I was mildly stressed in the second week.

      Overall, my own data indicate that increased fitness is associated with increased standing RMSSD, mild stress is associated with decreased RMSSD and serious over-training is associated with increased RMSSD accompanied by tiredness and/or increased effort to achieve a standard power outut. I interpret this as indicating that increased fitness is associated with increased parasympathetic activity at rest (whether standing or lying), mild stress is associated with a shift from parasympathetic to sympathetic dominance while serious over-training is associated with excessive parasympathetic activity.

      You quote data from Hynynen showing decreased gap between supine and standing RMSSD in over-trained individuals but note also that both supine and standing RMSSD were decreased in the over-trained individuals relative to controls. Although they describe these individuals as over-trained, I think they were suffering over-reaching, with a shift towards sympathetic dominance at rest. Hynynen’s observations of decreased standing HRV in stressed individuals are similar to my own.

      So far, I have only seen the abstract of the paper by Grant to which you referred, but I note that in the abstract they report an increase in the orthostatic difference between supine and standing HRV. However, in the abstract they do not make it clear whether standing HRV actually decreased with fitness, or merely increased less than supine HRV, so until I have read the full manuscript, I have little reason to expect any contradiction to my own observations.

      Simon Wegerif of Ithlete also proposes that resting HRV increases with increasing fitness. He recommends that it should be measured standing in fit athletes, though sitting is better in less-fit athletes.

      The really important question at this stage is whether or not the orthostatic change in HRV is a more reliable indicator than either supine or standing HRV alone. Although I have emphasized that I see increased standing HRV with increased fitness, and decreased standing HRV during over-reaching, the measurements are not always consistent. I quite often see very large values of RMSSD (in the range 150-180). Sometimes I see this when I am quite fit and very relaxed but other times I am concerned that these large values indicate parasympathetic over-training.

  8. Seth Leon Says:

    The Grant study indicates an inverse relationship between supine and standing HRV as they relate to fitness. Hence the qoute I posted. I have read the full-study. They found more significant associations with fitness in standing as opposed to supine condition. All significant associations between HRV and fitness in the standing position were negative accepting the LF/HF ratio and LF power. This was indicative of parasympathetic withdrawal and sympathetic activation on the standing condition. For example in the standing position correlations with Vo2 max were -0.30 for RMSSD, -0.3 for HF power, 0.3 for LF power, and 0.3 for LF/HF ratio. In the supine condition the reverse was true for LF/HF power with correlation=-0.32 and LF power=-0.32. The recognize these correlations are not especially large but the direction fits my experience.

    Another Grant study looked directly at change from supine to standing at different standing times and fitness. Findings indicated similar conclusion for RMSSD in the 1st 3 minutes although I think the finding disappeared in the longer standing sessions. I will look this one up again as it may be informative.

    You are correct that the Hynynen paper is not conclusive as there appear to be large standard errors, and the fact that change across condition was not tested. but the swapping of LF/HF ratios was suggestive to me.

    I am not claiming open and closed case here. I am in fact intrigued that you interpret opposite directions in standing HRV changes subjectively to what I experience. I have been following supine to standing HRV for about a month (1st with sweetbeat app), and so far my experience is a very strong correlation with low standing HRV (along with big supine to standing difference) when I am rested and ready to go, and small difference following difficult workouts. I do not have to over-reach for this to happen. If I exclude Saturdays (which have different sleep and diet), I do not recall a single outlier in this month from that pattern.

    Perhaps there is some other interacting variable explaining this dissociation. I am only taking 1 minute readings standing so that may be one factor since usually the readings are at least 5 minutes.

    Again, thanks for engaging me on the topic and I will continue to explore it trying to keep an mind. 🙂

  9. Seth Leon Says:

    I apologize if my posting is getting out of hand , but I think this one may explain a bit of what we are seeing.

    The second Grant study I alluded to can be found here (not sure if you have access to the full study:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1542-474X.2012.00511.x/full

    This more directly looks at the issue as subjects are tested pre and post exercise intervention and the change between supine and standing is tested (and at multiple standing periods).

    Supporting what you find RMSSD is higher in the standing condition after exercise intervention period. Yet supine measures increase more than do standing measures. When looking at change from supine to the first 3 minutes of standing, as I indicated the significant RMSSD drop in the standing position was associated with change after fitness intervention (table 3). This finding did not hold when standing 3-6 minutes. Interestingly however, HR change supine to standing was higher at all standing time periods (0-3,3-6, and 6-9 minutes.

    These are of course accumulated changes over a significant training period. Daily changes related to over-reaching perhaps may involve some different dynamics. It does suggest that both higher raw standing HRV and bigger (supine minus standing) differences are each related to fitness gain. Also this was a young population (18-22) moderately active before the intervention.

    • canute1 Says:

      Seth
      Thanks, I do have access to the paper by Grant et al in Annals of Noninvasive Electrocardiology. As you note, the data they present in table 2 demonstrates that standing RMSSD increased significantly from 33.2 to 47.1 after training. This is in accord with the finding I reported in my post in July 2013. Furthermore they reported a decrease in standing HR in accord with my findings.

      But as you have emphasized, the really interesting thing is that supine RMSSD increased from 57.35 to 83.95. So the increase in supine RMSSD after training is greater than the increase in standing RMSSD, and the orthostatic difference in HRV increases from 24.1 to 36.8 . Therefore it is possible that the increase in the orthostatic difference between supine and standing RMSSD might be a good indicator of increased fitness.

      I very rarely measure supine RMSSD, though I do have quite a lot of R-R data recorded in sitting and standing positions. I usually only examine the orthostatic rise in HR. I find that this tends to be high when I am fit, though interestingly my HR usually falls about halfway back to the sitting level after about 20-30 seconds of standing. In light of the very interesting data from Grant’s study I will examine my data to see if the size of the decrease in RMSSD on standing from a sitting position increases when I am fitter.

  10. Seth Leon Says:

    Yes, I agree with your I interpretation. I would also emphasize the likely importance of the length of standing reading. I have been looking at ultra short one minute standing readings. Five minute readings may be quite different and the Grant study that found an effect on change to standing in the first 3 minutes but not at longer durations. Perhaps ultra short parasympathetic withdrawal standing is related to good fitness response, while in longer standing periods parasympathetic return reflects good fitness response.

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