Leaving Hotel California

Leaving Hotel California

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, I am not an elite athlete, and I am not an expert coach. I just like to run and bike, and to keep getting better at it everyday. The blog below is an account of using a new tool in training, with many more things yet to be understood about it. I do not claim to understand it all!

Fitness is the new mantra of today. Yoga, pilates, crossfit, strength training, running, cycling, triathlon, ultra-endurance - the new buzz words, and topics of conversation at the water cooler. Training Load, Super-compensation, Over-reaching - many of us have heard these terms, but just vaguely think of them when actually doing/ planning workouts.

While this new trend is definitely better than smoking, drinking, TV/ movie binges etc. how much of a good thing is good, and when does it become an addiction? The endorphin released post exercise gives a high, which over time become addictive. One ends up wanting that high over and over again, which ultimately could prove dangerous. This is like the figurative Hotel California, from where you can always check out, but you can never leave!

Many articles by sports scientists, and doctors have been written and ‘liked’ about how too much exercise, without sufficient recovery and rest, is bad. This can result in temporary injuries, chronic injuries, illness, and in some very unfortunate cases, untimely deaths. But the common man still seems to pay no heed to expert opinion and advice. Is it because of lack of respect for the experts, or is it because there is no method to figure out how much is too much? ‘Listen to your body’ is something most of us have heard, but then how exactly do you listen? How does one listen to what the body is saying, and adjust their rest/recovery accordingly? There is also guilt that many people feel when they don’t work out on a given day, or miss their scheduled run/ride. How do you justify that to your statistics driven mind? After all, there are no numbers suggesting that you should not work out. So how does one monitor recovery, and readiness for a workout on a particular day?

Anand Hatwalne of Running Potential has been reading about this particular issue for a long time. In his study, he came across a tool called HRV which has been in use by elite athletes for a long time. HRV stands for Heart Rate Variability. In short, it goes deeper into your heart rate measurement data, and determines average variability between two successive heart beats. Increased HRV can indicate better health. It also indicates the balance between your Sympathetic and Para-sympathetic divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System. More on the ANS at:

More reading on HRV and ANS at: http://www.coherence.cz/data/struktura/files/Autonomic-nervous-system-and-HRV.pdf

HRV has been used in the medical profession for a long time to monitor and treat chronic illnesses. It was found to also be useful in monitoring an athlete’s response and adaptation to training. This insight could then be used regulate training load according to adaption. The following paper sheds light on how HRV could be used to regulate training: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4840584/

As a non-medical layman, what I gather is this:
  • HRV is an indicator of cardiovascular health
  • HRV indicates the relative balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS, to indicate the fatigue and stress on the body
  • Depending on changes in HRV, training load for a given day can be regulated: high intensity, medium intensity, low intensity, or complete rest
Factors affecting HRV and readiness:
  1. Intensity: After a higher intensity workout, the HRV next morning showed a lower readiness, indicating the body was not fully recovered.
  2. Sleep: Late nights have a big effect on HRV, since the body is not allowed enough time to recover. This is reflected in a lower readiness.
  3. Daily stresses: Stress at work, and in day-to-day life can reflect in a lower score. Longer and hectic workdays, travel etc. showed a detrimental effect on HRV.
So how can one use this? As adviced by Anand, I used a smartphone app called EliteHRV (https://elitehrv.com/). By taking HRV readings immediately after waking up each morning, the app calculated the HRV, and through an algorithm, indicated a “readiness” score on the scale of 1-10. This readiness score is an indicator of the physiological condition of the body. Higher the score, better prepared the body is for a harder working. Lower the score, more stress, hence an indicator of low intensity activity/active recovery, or the need for rest. The readiness score is color-coded, and also indicates which division of the ANS is more active. Green indicates higher readiness, while yellow indicates lower readiness. Red indicates high stress/ over-training.
How I used EliteHRV:
  • By taking readings over a prolonged period of time, a baseline HRV score was established.

  • When the score was really low (RED), it indicated a high stress level. On such days I just slept in.

  • A lower readiness score on a day was accompanied by a drop in the HRV. When this happened, I allowed myself to a low intensity day, giving the body more time for recovery.

  • When the score was high, the HRV was high. On such days, I pushed myself harder.

  • When the score showed high for a lot of days in a row, it indicated that the training stress put on the body was low enough to recover within the day itself. This probably meant that the body could be stressed further to draw out a bigger response to training stimulus, which could mean bigger gains in fitness. This ties into the supercompensation principle. More details on super compensation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercompensation
  • HRV data should be looked at as a long term trend. Fluctuations or some bad readings may occur. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and decisions should be taken with due consideration.
Race effort and Recovery:
  • Race day: I participated in a 133 kms long road race at the BBCh, on 16 July 2017. This was the readiness reading on the morning of the race. Some stress due to travel, and some anxiety for the event meant the readiness score was a little lower than ideal. The sympathetic activity was high, meaning the body was preparing for a “fight”!

  • The next day: After a 133 km race effort, the readiness dropped the next day morning, and the parasympathetic activity went high. This signified that the body was going into recovery mode. The HRV went up by a bit, and resting HR went up, indicating some stress on the body.

  • Three days post race: There was further parasympathetic activity, and the body was in recovery overdrive. The HRV went up a bit further, and the readiness dropped. But the body was recovering well, and the lower resting HR probably indicated that.

  • Day 4 post race: After 3 days of complete rest for recovery, on Thursday morning, I was ready to start training again. However, the effort would have to be easy, because there was still higher parasympathetic activity. The HRV came down slightly, and the resting HR dropped below 50.


So, coming back to addiction to endorphins, HRV could be a good tool which shows with numbers whether one is ready for a workout or not. By using the tool wisely, one may be able to avoid over-training, and further physical problems. So, maybe this is one way to leave this particular Hotel California.

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