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Whether you're a seasoned athlete or your first time competing, the key to getting fitter, faster, and stronger is to increase the time and intensity of your exercise routine.
But there's a fine line between constantly challenging yourself and developing overtraining syndrome -- a physical condition often marked by persistent fatigue, irritability, and a marked decline in performance that can take weeks or months to recover.
For years, athletes, coaches and sports researchers have searched for physiological markers that indicate when an athlete is about to cross that line. Heart rate is considered one such sign.
Can resting heart rate predict overtraining?
Coaches typically instruct their athletes to record their resting heart rate (RHR), the number of beats per minute when the body is awake and at rest, and take their pulse first thing in the morning. An increase in your resting heart rate (about 5 bpm) may indicate that your body is under stress—from overtraining, insufficient recovery time, an impending illness, or life stress. The only problem: there's no way to tell which type of stress is to blame.
To counteract the effects of training stress, exercise scientists set out to investigate whether heart rate variability (HRV) -- the time interval between heartbeats -- could be a more accurate measure of overtraining syndrome. "The general premise is that if you're stressed or overtrained, you're going to see an abnormality that's higher or lower than normal," said Dr. Daniel Price, senior exercise scientist at High Performance Sports New Zealand.
In 2012, Plews published a case study of two elite triathletes in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, in which average weekly HRV successfully predicted overtraining in one of the athletes. For RHR and HRV, it is best to compare weekly averages, as non-training factors including sleep and nutrition may affect daily measurements. (To view your weekly and monthly RHR averages in the Fitbit app, click the heart rate graph on the dashboard, then the graph at the top of the screen. Note: Fitbit devices with PurePulse can measure HRV, but currently This data will not be shared with users. If this is a feature you'd like to see, please vote here.)
The best way to predict overtraining syndrome
While professional and elite athletes may benefit from the type of detailed data routine HRV tracking provides, most also use heart rate data as an adjunct to other signs and symptoms of overtraining, says sports expert Eugene Chung, MD. Member of the University of Michigan and American College of Cardiology Board of Exercise and Exercise Cardiology.
"While these data are interesting and helpful, baseline heart rate and heart rate variability can be affected by many factors, and it's hard to tell if you're overtraining on this alone," Dr. Chung said. "It still depends on the overall situation."
The overall picture should include an assessment of whether you are experiencing overtraining and other common signs and symptoms. There are four points to note here:
Fatigue is disproportionate to expected fatigue during training or rest.
Long-term recovery, inability to recover from strenuous exercise in 48 hours or less, proves it.
Decreased immunity (or increased frequency of colds, flus). In the aforementioned triathlon study, the overtrained athletes ended up developing shingles, a reactivation of the shingles virus that often accompanies stress or overexertion.
Insomnia. Not sleeping before a big game is normal, but if insomnia persists for more than a few days, it may be time to retrain — or see a doctor.
If you start to experience symptoms of overtraining, reduce your training load. "It's a good idea to rest and focus on how you're feeling while watching your RHR and HRV," said Paul Lawson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist who, with Plews, founded Plews and Prof Lab to help Individuals maximize their performance at work, in sports and in life. "Begin with a more relaxed cardio session before returning to full training."