Heart Rate Variability: Advice from Spartan Director of Sport, Joe DI

By Joe DI Sep 29, 2016

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Your heart is at the heart of your health. So today, on World Heart Day, we asked our friend, and Director of Sport at Spartan Race, Joe DiStefano, better known as "Joe DI," to share his take on Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is rapidly gaining popularity.

In his fourth installlation as a guest writer on our blog, Joe breaks down what HRV is, and shares how he uses it to deal with his hectic travel schedule to perform “damage control” on the road, and how he monitors his biomarkers...

Are you overtraining?HRV has been a game changer.

What is it, you ask? In short, HRV is the measurement of time between heart beats. This interval is not consistent, and the variation of time from beat-to-beat determines your HRV. Makes sense right? Heart rate variability.

In 2013-2014 I was on well over 100 flights, logging God knows how many hours in the air. Between international travel and trying to keep up with training, it did not take long for my health, my mind, my body – everything, to start spiraling out of control, even under the guise of a “healthy diet.”

I started telling obstacle athletes years ago to beware of overtraining syndrome and adrenal fatigue. It’s not if, it’s when, especially when you are racing and training hard at peak capacity all 12 months of the year, flying around the country every week to compete. Business folks, same deal. Stress is stress, whether it’s business deals or deadlifts.

So, over the past year, with the help of guys like Ben Greenfield, I really bought into the notion of HRV tracking and let objective data dictate my training and work schedules.

My top “damage control” recommendations:

  • Track and listen to your HRV, every single morning. After a few weeks, you’ll have a pretty strong understanding of what’s “good” for you and what’s not – because everybody is a little different. If I had to generalize, for competing athletes, I would say 85-100 is ideal if you want to train hard, and that’s where you should be on a race day. Fluctuating between 75 and 85 is likely where most athletes tend to be during a hard block of training or competing. If you are consistently beneath 75 for 2-3+ days in a row definitely take it easy, maybe cut volume and intensity in half until you rebound. Under 70 means stop everything, go get a massage, take a nap, meditate, do some tai-chi, anything you want but do NOT train hard today. Also note that the general population may have substantially lower norms than athletes do.

  • Bring your own food. Not sometimes, ALWAYS. Epic Bars are a personal favorite of mine; I routinely travel with an entire box. I also pack MCT oil and always have sprouted almonds and high-quality dark chocolate on hand. With these in tow, I just buy salads and baked potatoes everywhere I go with none of the low-quality meats or cheeses they may want to toss on there. Load up on fruits and veggies.

  • Hydration is ridiculously important. Avoid tap water at all costs. I even usually spring for the expensive water: Fiji, Evian, and the like, when I travel. If I want to save a few bucks, I’ll just bring my own Himalayan Sea Salt that I add to flat water, – one way or another, you want the electrolytes in there.

  • Travel with Vitamin C and Oregano Oil. Vitamin C is an amazing immune booster and antioxidant, and helps to reduce inflammation. I take Oregano Oil tabs pre, during, and post flight. This stuff is a hardcore natural antiseptic that will kill any bad bugs that may sneak into your system while leaving the good ones alone. It’s remarkable.

  • Always do something. If you’re traveling for a race, you obviously know what to do, but when you’re traveling to teach, as I do, or for business, always get some sort of workout in each day – even if it’s easy. My go-to daily practice is either a three-mile easy jog or just a rolling sequence I do on the floor, followed by crawling, kettlebell get ups, and dead hangs or pull-ups. Sometimes, I barely even sweat. Other days, when HRV is high, I’ll hit it hard with a circuit, heavy lifts, sprints—whatever.

So you’ve been doing blood analysis for a while now. When reviewing your results, how do you set goals for improvements? Do you solely focus on the at-risk markers, or do you take a more comprehensive approach?

I have been recording my biomarkers every two to six months since 2007. The big thing for me is always putting the results into context. In particular, hormones fluctuate quite a bit day-to-day and week-to-week, so you really never know whether you are catching XYZ hormone at the peak of the wave or the bottom.

I once tested my cholesterol four Mondays in a row—fasted, at the same time of day, in the same place, the same everything—and had a 15-20 point spread. (If I were a bit older, this would have been the difference between going on statins or not.) So, it is important to watch for hormones. Then again, if something like cortisol is high on a single test, there is no harm in adding a few more recovery practices and watching the results.

HRV plays into this as well. If I have an appointment with InsideTracker on Wednesday to test my blood, I am going to watch my HRV and make sure I avoid intense, mind-numbing workouts for a few days before the test. HRV allows a person to know his or her internal physiology, which is invaluable.

Nutrients, like Vitamin D, B12, and magnesium, are less affected by hormonal fluctuations. Therefore, you do not need to look for trends and can take action based on a single test. For instance, if my iron is really high, I would immediately make a plan to fix it. I would not make a fast plan if my B12 were only slightly low. Nutrients are far easier to adjust than hormones. It is easy to eat more red meat and more leafy greens, get more sun, maybe pop some D3, K2, or magnesium, and give away some blood all in a short time span.

Whether you add monitoring your HRV into your training regimen, be sure to take a minute to care for your health and your heart today. And don't forget to follow Joe (around the world) on Instagram.

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