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ithlete Heart Rate Variability App

This season I have been trying a new training tool for both myself and my cycling coaching clients. It is a Heart Rate Variability (HRV) app and basically it can be used to measure recovery and make the final touches to a fully personalised training plan that we offer at Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching. The app is offered by ithlete and more detailed information on how it works can be found here, but basically it measures your heart rate variability to give you a score each day with a Red/Amber/Green rating. The app is really easy to use, all you need to do is get one of the ithlete heart rate straps or finger sensors and use it to take a reading with your smart phone each morning when you wake up. The reading takes 1 minute to take so it’s quick and simple to use.

I have been using it for several months now and so have some of the riders that I coach. It takes a while to establish a baseline as everyone has a different ‘normal’ HRV level but after a couple of weeks you start to get the red amber green scores and the good thing is that the longer you use it for the more accurate it gets.

By measuring HRV we can get a true picture of the stresses your body is under and how good your recovery is. Before using this for this both my own training and for coaching cyclists I was reliant on the Training Stress Balance (TSB) score on Training Peaks to give an indication of fatigue and feedback from my riders. Although this generally works ok the TSB score only considers the training and feedback from athletes can be rather subjective. HRV is a true measure of the stresses the body is under and is influenced not just by the training load but also by all the other things that go on in our lives that can have an impact on us such as illness, diet, sleep, mental health and physical activity that we don’t record (like gardening, work, looking after kids etc etc).

So how does this work in practice? Well the athlete takes the reading each day and if needed the cycling or triathlon training plan is adjusted accordingly. Green means the body is recovered and not overly stressed so training continues as normal, amber means there is some stress or fatigue present so this means either lighter training or continue as planned and red means the body is too stressed/not recovered enough and therefore no training.

As well as the score and RAG rating the app also asks that you input metrics such as stress, sleep quality and diet quality. This is particularly useful as over time I can look at this and see if there is any pattern with my coached riders, for example, they seem to have worse recovery following days of poor diet or high stress. We can then look at how we can improve variables with the aim of getting more consistent and better recovery.

In using this app, myself I have found it really useful in making the final touches to my training plan. You do have to commit fully to what it is telling you but if you do some of the decision making is taken away, which is good. There can be so much uncertainty on how hard to train or whether to train or not when you aren’t feeling 100% but the HRV app takes much of this away. For example, when I have had a virus the number of red and amber days has increased as expected but by resting on the red days and with light training on the amber days I have found that recovery is faster, the Chronic Training Load doesn’t take such a big hit and I haven’t fallen into the trap of training too hard to quickly when feeling a little better and prolonging the virus or getting worse.

The cyclists I coach who are using the app will contact me when they have an amber or red score and I will change their plan if required, either giving them a recovery day, a lighter day or telling them to continue as planned if they are generally well and we are in a period of overload. This ensures that training remains effective and that the athlete isn’t pushed too hard and reduces the risk of overtraining, so it really becomes a fully personalised plan based on the athlete’s goals, strengths and weaknesses and recovery potential.

For any athlete serious about their training and performance I would strongly recommend using ithlete – by following its instructions and working closely with their coach they can ensure that training is right for them and this will lead to much more consistent and successful season.

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