Toolbox: Heart rate variability may be useful as a guide to your recovery and readiness for training, and that it may improve fitness compared to a traditional periodization plan. How does it compare to a block periodization approach?
Jai Hindley – Keeping finger on the pulse in the Giro
In my toolbox article last month, I introduced the concept of using your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – the difference in timing between subsequent heartbeats – to provide insight into how you are personally responding to your training program. In this month’s article, I am going to follow up on those same researchers who wanted to compare this novel HRV-Guided (HRV-G) approach to a block periodized approach.
If block periodization sounds familiar, it may be because you have previously read about it from my mentor and friend Dr. Stephen Cheung in his first-person testing of the front-loaded periodization concept.
Heart Rate Variability
To recap last month’s article, we talked about how the variations in timing between each heartbeat can indicate stress on your autonomic nervous system, based on stress levels, fatigue, alcohol, etc. With the use of a chest strap HRM and a smartphone app, these changes can be tracked, and a rough indicator of performance readiness can be presented to an athlete, allowing them to make changes to their training, based on how they’re responding to the training and other life stresses.
In that article, I talked about how Dr. Javaloyes and colleagues had a group of athletes follow an adaptive training plan based on a daily measure of their HRV. Depending on the trend in their HRV, they would perform a workout based on the following flowchart:
HRV-Guided training decision-making schema. Taken from Javaloyes, et al. 2020.
These athletes completed 8 weeks of training using the HRV-G plan, and were compared to a control group, who completed 8 weeks of a traditional training plan [TRAD]. Interestingly, Javaloyes, et al. found that the HRV-G group improved significantly more in terms of max aerobic power, power at VT2 (FTP), and 40 min TT power. The authors noted that the HRV-G group had a slightly more polarized approach, compared the TRAD training group.
Full-gas for Zakarin on l’Alpe d’Huez
As mentioned above, Dr. Cheung has previously written about his personal experience with a Block Periodized training plan, which researchers have shown to improve performance significantly more than a Traditional Training Program: Front Load Periodization and Front Loading Periodization Results. In short, block periodization entails performing concentrated and specialized workloads. Typically, the vast majority of HIIT training for a four-week mesocycle is performed in the first week, rather than being distributed evenly across each week. Typically, the following weeks include a smaller amount of HIIT training and larger number of easy/endurance rides. A diagram of the BP protocol used in the present study is shared below:
Description of the Block periodized training program during the 8 training weeks. Taken from Javaloyes, et al. 2020.
Since previous studies have found that Block Periodization was more effective than a traditional training program, it makes sense that the next logical comparison for the HRV-G group would be the block-periodized training program. Let’s take a look at the study!
Participants and Research Design
Two groups of athletes participated in the study, one group followed a block periodized training program (BP, n = 8) and the other followed the HRV Guided program (HRV-G, n = 7).
Like the previous article, the study was broken into two parts – a Baseline period of 2 weeks and an 8-week training period. In the baseline period, all athletes followed the same training regimen and initial testing, then were divided into the two matched groups.
The researchers reported no significant differences between the time spent training, nor in the total distribution of training between the BP and HRV-G groups, suggesting that the two groups trained a comparable amount with a similar distribution of Low, Moderate, and High Intensity training. This is important because it shows that any differences in performance are not related to the training itself, but how the training was structured. And this is where it gets interesting – the researchers found that the HRV-G group had statistically significant increases in all testing assessments, including VO2peak, Peak Power Output (highest 1 min power from ramp test), and 40 min TT power. In the BP plan, improvements in fitness were observed, but only one of them reached statistical significance.
Only 1 athlete in the HRV-G group showed a decrease in 40 min TT performance after 8 weeks of training, while 3 athletes in the BP plan reported decrease in performance after the training intervention. Furthermore, the individual decreases in performance in the BP group were generally larger in magnitude (-11.6%, -9.1%, -2.7%) compared to the HRV-G group (-0.5%).
With each article that I write for Pez, I like to not only include the results of the study, but hopefully some practical/applicable advice to use the information gleaned from the study to improve your training. After all, isn’t that the point of reading these articles anyways? Similar to the previous study that we looked at last month, the results of the present study highlight a couple important things:
Firstly, it is relatively cheap and easy to take a daily morning recording of Heart Rate Variability each morning. The readings only take about 2 minutes, and some apps have already been validated in peer research (HRV4Training is one example).
Secondly, this study shows (yet again) the importance of having adaptive feedback into a training program. Despite both groups of athletes beginning at a similar level of fitness & performing a similar amount of training (duration and distribution of intensity), this study highlights the importance of tracking how an athlete responds to training, rather than blindly following a plan.
That’s all for this month – see you next time! Ride fast!
You also have to rest
Javaloyes A, Sarabia JM, Lamberts RP, Plews D, Moya-Ramon M. Training Prescription Guided by Heart Rate Variability Vs. Block Periodization in Well-Trained Cyclists. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Jun;34(6):1511-1518.
Javaloyes, A Sarabia, J M, Lamberts RP, & Moya-Ramon M. (2019). Training Prescription Guided by Heart-Rate Variability in Cycling, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 14(1), 23-32.