HRV for Successful Online Coaching with Dr. Mike T. Nelson
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In This Episode
Implementing HRV or other biomarkers with your coach/client?
Mike Nelson breaks down how to be more effective in both online and in-person coaching when it comes to using data and self-quantifying metrics like Heart Rate Variability.
Mike’s PhD focused on both HRV and Metabolic Flexibility, and he’s known for his successful online coaching of remote clients ranging from elite bodybuilding and powerlifting to general health and weight loss.
- Coaching online clients with HRV
- Blood testing, omega 3s
- Push device, force/velocity measures during exercise
- Pros/cons of 24/7 wearables & sleep trackers
- How to save time while getting good data
- Identifying different metrics to use with different clients
- Why it takes time for clients to understand the value of HRV
- The affect of self quantification on self awareness
- Certain patterns in HRV that people don’t understand
- Patterns of under training
- What to do for clients that only work out once or twice a week
- The fallacy of self diagnosis
- The power of accountability
- Why online coaching makes it easier to over train
- How HRV can measure the “cost” of performance
- What affects HRV more, nutrition, training or sleep?
- Local soreness vs systemic stress
Jason Moore: Hey, folks. Jason Moore here. Today, we’re going to dive in on how to effectively use various tools to enhance the coach-client relationship especially when that relationship may be primarily online or from a distance. These tips also can apply to pretty much everyone from health practitioners to high performance coaches.
And Dr. Mike. T. Nelson is joining us for this show. Mike has a PhD in both heart rate variability and metabolic flexibility. He’s known for his success in online coaching with everyone from average health seekers to pro bodybuilders and strength athletes. He gives a great overview of his background on the episode so I’ll leave that to him. But here are a few of the topics that we cover.
We talk a lot of course training and online coaching using heart rate variability, blood testing, various wearables, sleep checkers, the pros and cons of those devices, identifying different metrics to use with different clients, why it takes some clients a long time to understand and realize the value of heart rate variability, the effect of self-quantification on self-awareness — Mike had some really awesome points about that topic specifically — and also certain patterns in HRV that people just don’t seem to understand and what those are, also patterns of undertraining because overtraining is a topic that comes up quite often so we talk undertraining as well. The fallacy of self-diagnosis, the power of accountability and also why online coaching, specifically, makes it easier to overtrain than in-person coaching and then many other topics. We also talk what effects HRV more, nutrition, training or sleep and a whole host of other things. So I’m really excited to have Mike on the show. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Welcome to the show, Mike. I appreciate you taking the time to join us.
Mike T. Nelson: Well, thanks for having me. It’s always a good time to chat about HRV.
Jason: Yes, I know. I definitely spend a lot of time on the subject and I know you do too. In fact I just watched you on a live stream presenting on the subject which was really great. So I appreciate you take the time. Why don’t we start off with a little bit about yourself and how you got into heart rate variability?
Mike: My short version is I did Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota eons ago. Decided to go into engineering. So I went out and did a two-year post grad stuff at Michigan Tech in the UP of Michigan where all the UPers live there. And then after that I decided to do my Masters there in Mechanical Engineering. So another two and a half years there. And that’s probably as much math as I thought I was going to have in my entire life. So I got done with that.
And I actually started working for a biomedical device company which I worked on cardiology products. So I ended up working there for a total of almost 14 years. Finished, decided that I was never going back to school after almost eight years of full time. And then I lasted like a year and a half. So I was doing a PhD program in biomedical engineering. I took all the classes except for two classes. And I remember sitting in an MRI class and the professor said, “We’re now going to derive all the equations that are used in an MRI.” And he starts drawing — it just looks like hieroglyphics up on the board.
I was sitting there and I’m like — I was the only mechanical-biomed person there. The rest are PhD students in electrical engineering or physics. I asked the guy next to me. I said, “Do you even know what’s he’s drawing up there.” He’s like, “No.” I went, “Oh, my God. If the PhD in physics doesn’t know what’s going on, I’m hosed.”
So at that point I had been thinking about for many years going back for exercise phys. I dropped out of that program. I started that fall, actually, in exercise physiology program which then later took me seven years to finish that. And the first day meeting, my advisor came in and said, “Okay. We have got two new projects. One of them is on heart rate variability and one of them is on metabolic flexibility.” And he was looking around the table and he points at me and he goes, “You, new math boy, these are your projects now.” Since most people are in exercise phys don’t really take a lot of math, per se, it’s just not one of the prerequisites.” And so here I ran over to the department to run away from math and I ended up getting more math but a lot more physiology too. So that worked out.
And then so I’ve been measuring it using different devices online for about four years now and distance training program I have for clients and then published some research on HRV and energy drinks and some other stuff.
Jason: Very cool. Now you have an online business and you take clients online. Is that the primary way that you use this stuff now?
Mike: Yes. I initially started training back in 2006, so almost ten yeas ago. By training meaning that I actually charge people for services. I’d spent probably ten years before that doing random stuff for free and all sorts of crazy things. And then I stopped online training for a couple of years, probably in the late 2008-2009 maybe because I soon realized that I didn’t know what clients were doing. I personally didn’t have enough experience training people live, in-person to know how they’re going to screw something up.
And basically I just didn’t have any experience, didn’t have any of really measuring out anything other than what they were telling me. And even back then online training wasn’t uber popular like it is now. People didn’t have fancy video cameras and all their phones. You had to buy this old thing called a video camera that was separate. It was even before people had the flip cams. And the flip cam was revolutionary. So I stopped doing it.
And then once I started doing HRV for research — and a few years later you could start measuring HRV on smart phone so I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” So I started doing that on myself and then later went back — probably five years ago now — reinvent all my online training so that I had a way of accounting for mechanical stress. I could get videos. I could now get HRV in terms of stress response. I could do different blood test, that type of thing.
So I just went back and redid everything and I had more experience of knowing how people move, what things they probably need help with, that type of thing. So for me, I think if you’re, even now, training people online I think HRV, as far as I’m concerned, should be a requirement because people will tell you about what’s going on but I think just having the ability to look at a physiologic response of their nervous system I think is just extremely useful because you’re not really seeing them every day.
If you’re in a gym you can probably get by with not having to use it as much. I still think there are some good uses for it because you see the person, you have an idea of their state, their movement, that type of thing. Where online I think it — in my bias opinion — should be more of a requirement for online programming.
Jason: Cool. That’s a really good insight. Thanks. I didn’t even have to prompt you for that because I think it’s really helpful to people to hear that having an online relationship with a client is feasible but it’s even more feasible if you’re actually getting some objective data and feedback. You mentioned blood markers and things. HRV is not the only thing that you look at. What are some of the other things that you look at with some of your clients?
Mike: Yes. I also use at home blood test that looks at omega 3 and omega 6 content. It’ll actually run every single lipid panel. It’s from Dr. Doug Bevis. What I really liked about that is that it tells me their fish oil status, so essential fats. So I do use that. Some people I have used glucose monitoring, things of that nature, that’s not typical.
I record all their training sessions or volume, density and intensity, so basically with different forms of overload. Whether it’s through an app or self-report, they can record their HRV. And then also how is their energy, how is their sleep, how is their mood, things of that nature.
And then in some people that haven’t done a whole lot yet, you can use a push device and actually measure velocity of movement. So if someone is doing more Olympic type lift in variations, then as far as I can get that data and give them a velocity cut off that I want them to meet on each rep so that it ensures that the quality of works is a little bit higher. They also get feedback from it. In some people I found that that’s useful. I don’t use that in everyone.
And then just simple stuff like — I have a Basis watch — Fitbit, that type of thing, so daily steps. I don’t really use calorie burn stuff. I don’t think it’s all that accurate. We can discus that later if you want. The step count is super accurate. And then sleep, so even just have an idea of when you went to bed, when they fell asleep. That is something that they’re not recording, per se. They’re just getting it from the device. So those are the main ones I use that I find are most useful.
Jason: Very cool. Yes, we definitely prioritize for our users and whatnot that if you’re tracking HRV, it becomes much more meaningful if you have some other things to compare it to and some other contextual information. So it’s neat to hear that in your actual practice that you’ve come across the same experience and that you find use in doing that.
Mike: And obviously tracking their nutrition through MyFitnessPal or something like that too, of course.
Jason: Cool. So you have a variety of clients that you work with. Do you use all of these metrics with all of your clients? You mentioned some things work better with others. How does that pan out?
Mike: Yes. The answer is no. It depends upon their tolerance for measurements. So I like stuff that collects data without you really thinking about it. So it’s super cool about Fitbit or Basis or whatever watch you use because you put it on and it’ll collect data for you. And if they will allow me access into their system, I can go in and pull that data automatically or you can use API that report into other things, that type of thing. HRV is a little bit more intensive because I actually have to sit down and do the measurement which is fine. It doesn’t take that long. You have to log their food. There are stuff to go in and do that.
Training, I just have them log it in a notebook usually. And sometimes I even have clients just be like, “Hey, log it in a notebook and send me a picture of it. I’ll take it, I’ll write it up, get it typed up, entered in a database for you.” So whatever I can do to make it as easy for them as possible because I want them to focus on doing the correct actions not necessarily trying to track and keep tabs on everything in their life. But we need some basis of how their sleep is, what are they doing for training, did they do the training, what did they do for nutrition and what’s their stress level.
Blood testing, once every couple of months at the most. Velocity based stuff, probably for more advanced athletes only. For someone pretty new, it doesn’t matter quite as much for that, but as far as with technologies and everything is getting easier and easier. And if someone could develop an entire system where all those things would seamlessly cooperate and collected autonomously and I can just log in to one spreadsheet database and I don’t have to go through and pull data from two, three, four different sources, that would amazing.
I don’t have any hopes it’s going to happen any time soon so in the meantime what I do is just put stuff on TrendSheet. So I’ll go in and pull up MyFitnessPal, so we’ll drop that in there. I’ll take their HRV, resting heart rate, we’ll drop that in there. We’ll grab their Fitbit data, drop that in there. So we can see overall. Usually on a once per week basis I’ll go in and review it, how’s their training, how’s their self-report data, where is their macronutrition, what’s going on, and then see what we need to work on.
“Oh, okay. It looks like you’re really low on protein every Monday. Why is that? Oh, it looks like you don’t recover quite as well the next day. Oops, I blew you up a little too much with the training on Wednesday. Sorry. We’ll scale that back a little bit or whatever.” So it’s a cool way because you have accountability.
I’m trying to keep the work as minimal on their part so they’re just focused on doing it. But we can then see all the different trends over time and intervene sooner instead of going, “Well, it’s a 16-week program,” and then you check day 1, and then 16 weeks later you check in, well, it could’ve been who knows where in between. So I’m just trying to make sure that they’re always staying on course.
Jason: My experience corroborates what you’re talking about about the willingness of the client to track a number of things. You could’ve, of course, spent all day tracking everything but at the end of the day that could even be stressing them out to the point where it’s affecting their training or their health.
Mike: Oh, yes. I had one client who’s pretty high level fitness competitor. And when I last talked to her she actually went and did not track anything and was weight stable. So in her case, to me that was a huge positive because she had spent many, many years being very regimented which I totally get, if you’re going to step on stage and that type of thing. At some point you’d probably need to do that. But it was very cool to see that she was able to move away from that and still stay exactly where she wanted to be for her goal weight.
So I think tracking in general is good. I’m a bigger fan of the awareness that tracking provides. Of course, I’m a scientist guy. I want to see the data from it all. But I’ve had people just track stuff just purely out of awareness because they don’t really know what they’re eating or what they’re putting in their cakehole. And so you’re not going to change anything until you get more aware.
Like stress, most people you ask and you go, “Are you stressed?” “Yes, yes, kind of.” One client, she’s type A, very stressed, “No stress, no stress. I’m not stressed at all.” I’m like, “I think you’re pretty stressed. I can tell by talking to you you’re pretty stressed.” Her measure of HRV, resting heart rate some days would be 81, 79, HRV would be 39-ish, 42. And now she’s doing much better. Now she’s like, “Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, okay. I see that.” So I think that’s what’s most useful.
Jason: Yes, that objective insight really helps a lot. But I do like what you mentioned about awareness. And I think people end up on two extreme sides of that coin. In your experience has the objective measure been more helpful or more confusing for the client?
Mike: I still do it and I’ve been doing it online for, like I said, about fours years. So I think it’s super helpful. Now, some of my clients who they’ve come out and just told me this outright, most of the time they’re like, “I don’t know. This little HRV thing you had me do, I just did it. I don’t really understand it. I don’t get it.” And then a couple of months into the program they’re like, “Oh, that was so cool. I’m so glad that I did it.” So pretty much at the end of it they’re all happy. Most of them continue measuring it.
I think the people that don’t measure it are usually the people that want to wish away everything else. They’re like, “Oh, it just doesn’t tell me anything useful. Oh, it tells me I’m the same all the time.” So, for example, if your HRV is really low and it’s telling you that you’re the same all the time. I would argue that what you’re doing — if you’re trying to get a better HRV or you’re trying to improve other things that result in a better ability to handle stress — are not working. And if you’re not seeing a change in your marker — now, granted we’d still use performance whether it’s endurance performance, resting heart rate, whatever. We do these other markers too.
And consequently if your HRV is good — let’s say you’re at 80 and your resting heart rate is seated at 51 so it’s really good — and it’s just flat every day, you probably pushed your training a lot harder. I’d start out in some higher intensity stuff. I’d look initially to see what is your overload. Are you doing more volume, better density, more intensity or lifting the heavier weight? Because you probably have some capacity to do that and you’re just not using it even though your HRV is not changing.
So I still think it’s useful for myself because I’ve been checking on myself off and on for five, six years, something like that. I was doing it in the lab. I’d run down to the lab in the morning. And when I had the equipment before — we had portable measures — and I would do it then. I find it most useful. It’s almost like a check valve. I was left to my own devices and like, “Oh, I just listen to more death metal, drink more coffee and just lift more weights. Everything would be fine.” And then it doesn’t go so well at certain point.
Today, if I look and go, “Well, today’s average is lower than I want. This overall score is lower than I want. I feel okay,” so instead of doing a harder session I may just go out and just do some lighter aerobic stuff. And then I purposely pull back. And I know that, okay, hopefully tomorrow would be a little bit better and then I’ll go a little bit harder tomorrow instead of trying to drink three cups of coffee and just try to force myself through the session.
And a lot of times you can do that and get good performance but I’ve known because I’ve done this a couple of times now, that if you burn and torch yourself out it is quite a long process to get back from that. And if people really do like to train, the hardest part is to try to get them to modify that a little bit paradoxically that they can actually train more in most cases but you still have to be moderate about it too.
HRV allows me to look and go, “Okay. I just can’t really talk myself out of measurement.” So if it’s stares at me and says, “Okay, it’s low,” I can also then rest assured a little bit that I am making the right decision. And so the little voice in the back of my head that says, “Just drink more and train harder” will be a little more quiet.
Jason: That’s good feedback and good information for people to hear too, is that starting out it can be confusing especially those for a few readings you’re not really sure how to interpret the results. Over the time the more data you accumulate the easier it is to really see the value of those changes. Along those same lines, do you recommend that people only measure on the days that they care about? Because some people only go to the gym twice a week and they’re like, “Oh, I just measured my HRV on gym day and I ignored the rest of the time.” What’s your take on that?
Mike: It’s one of the objections to HRV. And I understand that coaches are like, “Well, I’ve got a person who’s new to training. They’re only training two days a week.” I don’t give a crap if their HRV is red. I’m still going to train them because we’re only training two days a week, and then I only am for 60 minutes. On the one hand I get that because you can’t just have them come in every day and let’s just go belly breathe in the corner for an hour and call it a training session.
They probably don’t have much of any strength training. Probably the one time they’re going to do it is with you. However, I would argue that you may be able to modify it a little bit more. So maybe you have them do what I call the old school dude, brah bodybuilding, hypertrophy type work which anecdotally doesn’t seem to be as stressful. They’re still getting a response from it. Especially if they’re new, they’re still definitely going to gain some strength. They’re still going to put in a lot of muscular work.
So I would measure it all the other days because there’s probably something in their lifestyle that is only enabling them to train two days a week. And maybe half of them, they’re not even really that good to train that day. So that would tell me that something probably in their lifestyle is completely out of whack — their sleep, overall stress, breathing, nutrition, movement patterns, whatever, something’s going on.
Even the literature supports this, right? If you’re only measuring two days a week, you don’t really have enough information to make any changes at all. I think if I remember the last literature I read said you need a minimum of five or four out of seven days or something like that. But most days I tell people, “Just try to get it every day. If you miss a day here and there, it’s not the end of the world.”
And then I look at what are the lifestyle factors I need to work on. So if it’s, “I only sleep five hours a night,” all right, so now your goal is to be in bed by 11:00 instead of midnight. We’ll watch your behavior on that and we’ll look at your sleep and then we’ll see, “Oh, your HRV is a little bit better.” So if it does, then you have that positive feedback loop and the client goes, “Oh, I don’t feel a lot better but my measurements are getting a little bit better.” So it tells me I’m moving in the right direction.
And that’s what I found for lifestyle change is the most useful especially with things that people just — sleep and nutrition always write off. “Oh, my nutrition is great. Well, I don’t sleep as much as I should but it’s okay. I’m fine.” I did that for many years too. But to have an actual number that stares at you in the face every day that says, “Maybe not so good.” And then vice versa. When you start doing that behavior, most people have such a massive sleep debt that sleeping an extra hour a night, while helpful, may not change their sleep that dramatically so they may not feel a ton different. But if we can show physiology that they are moving in the right direction, then we get that positive reinforcement. They’re more likely then to, “Oh, let me try 10:30. Oh, let me try 10:00. Oh, wow, I’m getting closer to sleeping eight hours a night. Oh, I feel almost like a normal human now. I don’t know what I felt like before but it was horrible.”
It’s so hard because neurology is basically very much like comparison. And if you’ve always moved like crap and felt like crap, you should probably feel better but you don’t know what that feels like. So there’s not as much incentive to really change, per se.
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And that’s something that, to me, was a huge awakening not even related to HRV but just — when I actually first started actually learning how to eat right and how to sleep at night and be awake during the day — because I was a night owl previously — people have these responses like, “Well, if you just told me how it would’ve felt, I would’ve done this from the beginning.” But it’s like, “Okay. We can tell you but you just have no way of understanding it until you actually experience how you can feel.
Mike: I have an idea on that too. I’d hate to interrupt. And I know people are already doing this and someone will take this idea. And if you can make a ton of money of it, by all means, send me a check in the mail, whatever. If you could pull people out of their environment and have them do a three, four, five, seven-day retreat — and there are various different methods of these that already exist — and then get them to feel dramatically different in a shortest amount of time possible, I think — and I haven’t looked at the research on this yet — I think the behavioral changes will stick much better.
Even if it’s for three days. We have a chef that comes and we make all your food. You can do your meditation in the morning. We walk you through your exercise. We teach you about nutrition and stress management, all these other stuff. We maybe measure your HRV. And by the time you leave, let’s say Monday evening, you feel so much better from all the accumulative things that you did. Hopefully you’ll start taking some of those and moving forward on them. I know different things like that already exist. You’re trying to give them that comparative state in a short amount of time as you possibly can.
Jason: Not to go too far on that stuff because it’s such an interesting topic to me personally, but I think that the way you could take that to the next level is have someone go to their house while they’re on the retreat and clean out all those cues that trigger those negative bad habits so that when they come back with that fresh and excited mindset they don’t have all those triggers that are habitually — like maybe the drawer they keep their cigarettes in or something. Every time they walk by it’s like a subconscious trigger. “Oh, normally I reach for one” or something like that, if you could remove all those triggers during that retreat I think that would be the biggest winning solution.
Mike: Yes, I agree. Clean out their fridge of all their crazy foods that they have. And they’d have their little meal plan already set up. I totally agree with that.
Jason: You said a couple of things that I want to recap and I think are really powerful. One is the awareness part of it. You mentioned. “Oh, I sleep fine,” but then when you actually start checking it you can gain some better awareness of, “Well, maybe I actually only sleep five hours max,” and how that affects HRV.
One of the interesting studies that I’ve read shows — as far as following a diet plan goes — that one of the biggest contributors to the success of any diet is just the fact that the person is now actually aware of what they’re eating. So like you said, doing some MyFitnessPal tracking or something, some people get antsy about that because they’re like, “Oh, what does it matter, the exact calories or the exact macronutrient ratios I eat?” or something like that. At the end of the day, depending on your goals, maybe to the gram it doesn’t really matter but the biggest importance is that you’re actually thinking about it.
Mike: Yes. And you work with someone that’s going to hold you semi accountable too, that you would have to show your data to someone else. You’re much more likely to follow through on that whether it’s an online coach, in-person coach or friend you had a bet with or whatever. It definitely increases your rate of success.
Jason: Yes, definitely. I’m a big proponent of coaching. People ask, “Oh, you have this HRV app but then you tell me that I should work with a coach.” And I say, “Well, yes, it’s useful if you measure it yourself especially if you’re the type that really likes to kick out on research and stuff like that. It can be useful to you.” But in any goal, regardless of what you’re tracking or whatever, having somebody else help you and just give you that objective third party trying to help you especially if they have experience working with other people who’ve already gone through similar situations is just huge.
Mike: I totally agree with that. I think without measuring HRV and really plugging it — so if you’re online it’s much easier, I think, to overextend people very fast. So like, “I’m going to guess you can tolerate this amount of training.” And training is probably the one thing in their life that you would have a fair amount of control over. They’re not going to miraculously change their eating and sleeping and all that stuff just because it’s Monday. So I think by having that check of saying, “Oh, wow. We did one day session. You’re pretty stressed out for the next two days after it. I want to see what happens next week. Ooh, same thing happened next year. Now let’s modify it and change it right away.”
Sadly, a lot of online coaches, not everyone but a fair amount are just like “Oh, here’s your program. Just follow it. Suck it up there, buttercup. And just keep working harder.” The person buries himself into the ground. And then they’re all stressed out. The lifestyle choices go to hell and they can’t figure out what happened.
I think it’s useful to see what level of stress their body interprets that as because we may not think that it’s that stressful but in reality if we look at their nervous system they find that things we thought were stressful are not as stressful or vice versa, things they thought that were not too stressful are actually pretty stressful to them.
Jason: Or even that recoverability for that individual just isn’t adequate for that particular stress load. And that corroborates my personal experience when I was trained online by coaches like Ido Portal and Menno Henselmans of Bayesian Bodybuilding. They were phenomenal coaches and my results were fantastic but it was challenging to match my training load with my lifestyles and recovery factors. So I spend a lot of time on the computer and back then I was in a chair all day. And some of my nutrition and sleep weren’t really optimal, so to speak. And the volume of training that was expected of me, especially with Ido, was very high for my joints and connective tissue and recoverability.
Menno took a much more hands on approach to the online coaching. And he even took into account my heart rate variability readings. So the sustainability was definitely better. But I’m the type of person that can easily push myself beyond my limits, and then when I get burn out I get demotivated. And so having the objective feedback has personally helped me avoid burnout. And on the flipside, it also let me know when I was undertraining and when I have excess capacity and energy that’s available for use which, as you mentioned earlier, HRV doesn’t only have to be about putting the breaks on, it can also tell you when you can handle more or when maybe you should be doing more if you actually want to reach your coals.
Mike: Yes. A cool part on that too is that your performance may not change but your HRV may not change too. So, for example, I have a distance client and we have her do Cooper run test which we use to determine the aerobic capacity. It’s how far you can run in 12 minutes. So she did it again this past week before her new program a couple of weeks ago. And she did good. She got just a little bit better than the one she had done before. But she said, “I felt easier.” Her heart rate was a little bit better.
And then the next day she usually said, “Oh, but my HRV is normally pretty bad the next day” because it’s a pretty stressful test. It’s not like a walk in the park type thing. You’re going all out for 12 minutes. And the next day her HRV was pretty good for the following couple of days where in the past it’s always –not always tanked pretty hard.
So even though her performance was a little bit better, probably right about the same, her cost of performing that now is a lot less. And we had also done some stuff where she’s now doing it primarily fasted, before she wasn’t. So we’re changing fuel source, that kind of stuff too.
So I think that’s another thing that HRV is useful for is it tells you cost and efficiency also. So even though in this case her performance was about the same, she’s now able to do it fasted and it doesn’t also crush her HRV. So her stress response to that same event is not as high as it was. So therefore, if we wanted to push up that capacity we would be able to program that much more frequently now where before we were not able to.
So I think performance, obviously, matters. And I’m a huge fan of tracking all metrics in terms of performance. But the cost that it took you to do that performance also matters. And that’s where, I think, HRV can be useful in helping you determine what that cost was of that session.
Jason: I’ve never heard it put that succinctly before. So I hope people pick up on the importance of that. Yesterday, I did some Olympic lifting. It’s been awhile since I’ve done so —
Jason: I was a little rusty and I was good to shake off some of that rust. And I’m a little bit tender on my receiving position here. Last night, I got a really good night sleep. And I’ve been doing a lot of variety of training lately. So systemically I’ve been increasing my capacity. Today, I’m pretty good. I felt good waking up. HRV shows me it’s good. I’m sore locally in a lot of places but overall, feeling pretty good.
I even had the thought of asking you about this today when I woke up with that experience, is that as far — training definitely can affect heart rate variability and systemic stress levels and recovery levels. But would you say that nutrition or sleep has a greater impact on the recovery — on average? I know everyone’s in an individual spot.
Mike: So what I found after measuring a whole bunch of people for four plus years, nutrition from one person to the next will vary a lot. Training stress will vary a lot in terms of their capacity to handle it. Several years ago I worked with a guy who’s a natural pro bodybuilder. And he had had some movement issues, some shoulder issues and stuff we were working around. And we’ve been to multiple PTs, basically it’s cleared for exercise even though he’s got horrific pain, nothing structurally wrong in the shoulder.
So we would have him do some heavier strength-based exercises. And his HRV would just tan, and it always feels like, “Oh, man. I don’t feel very good. I don’t want to train the next day.” But we’d have him do more volume-based stuff, the dude, brah bodybuilding type stuff, even single-joint exercises, 10 to 15 rep range, 30,000 pounds of volume day in and day out. Probably five days a week HRV was almost even. At the end of the week we’d try to drop off a little bit.
So we modified it and said, “Okay.” So Monday, Wednesday, Friday he’ll do squat, bench or deadlift, he’ll work up to maybe a set of three to five reps, do some work there, and then just do some volume accessory stuff, Tuesday, Thursday is — one day was arm day, one was lower body day or something like that but much more high volume bodybuilding type stuff. His HRV was great, made great progress, got his shoulder sorted out, that type of thing.
Another guy that I worked with qualified for Raw Nationals. He could go into the gym even under his lifestyle being pretty stressful. Pretty much four to five days a week, pretty heavy reason like a DUP type organization for his lifting, so daily undulating periodization. And his HRV most of the time was pretty good and his outside stress was pretty high. If I did even half of that with most people I’ve ever tried, it just utterly crashes them. For whatever reason, he can handle that.
So what I noticed though with sleep is that I haven’t seen a single person yet who is not adversely affected by sleep, meaning that if they’re doing good at six hours a night, if you can have a seven or eight hours a night, they even do much better. And so sleep, I have noticed, the least amount of “variability,” And that seven and a half to nine hours a night, probably somewhere in there — for some people, it’s even a little bit more — is pretty good.
The other ones, definitely, I think there’s a lot more variability there too. But you can also still move in a better direction, you just may not see as much return. So if you got someone coming in, I’ll first look at how can I set them up with training so that their HRV is relatively stable. And, again, training for their goals. Then I may use some nutrition stuff to try to mitigate their big stress state. So for someone like me who doesn’t tolerate as much lower rep work, per se — meaning my HRV will normally drop for 48 hours — I’ll cram as many carbohydrates around that session or that day as I can. And that seems to help mitigate that stress response a little bit.
So there are things you can do with the interplay. And again, you’re looking at probably single digits type things here that can help you get the adaptation you want and then try to lower the overall stress. So, therefore, you can increase the frequency of training a little bit more.
Jason: Okay. That makes a lot of sense.
Mike: Kind of long winded answer but —
Jason: No. it makes sense. And sleep is something that I find is one of the hardest things to train yourself if you’ve been in the habit of not sleeping for more than five or six hours a night for most nights. Getting into the habit or figuring out how to tweak your circadian rhythm or whatever it is you need to do be able to get that eight hours is very difficult for a lot of people.
Mike: Yes, and that’s the hard part. And the studies show this too — especially talking with my buddy, Dan Pardi, who also knows lots of very cool sleep research that the more sleep deprived you are the worse your awareness is of how sleep deprived you are. You’ll probably go, “Yes, I’m kind of tired but I’m doing all right, I’m doing pretty good.” And they put these people in labs, they make it dark and they do boring repetitive tests, and half of them fall asleep in ten minutes. So you start removing stimulus around them and they just fall asleep. They were pretty sleep deprived. They don’t report it that way though. So that’s the tricky part.
Jason: Mike really knows his stuff inside and out. And he and I have already decided to do a round 2 with deeper dives into metabolic flexibility and the specifics on nutrition and HRV. In the meantime, you can find more about him personally at miketnelson.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. And he’s also active on Twitter and Facebook as Mike T. Nelson. Links to Mike and the show notes will be posted over at elitehrv.com/podcast.
And if you found the information in this episode useful, Mike and I would definitely love to hear about it. So one way that you can really help us out tremendously is to stick a short review over on iTunes even if you listen on another app. Simply search Elite HRV on your iPhone podcast app and then tap that reviews tab or hit up EliteHRV.com/review, and that’ll take you there right away. And I personally read every single one of those. And they really help attract more experts to the show to continue to share their knowledge with us.
Next up, we’ve got Dr. Eldred Taylor who’s President of the American Functional Medicine Association and 20-year HRV veteran, followed by none other than Andrew Flatt himself who will also be sharing his knowledge working with elite athletes and sports teams, of course, using heart rate variability and a lot of other neat things. So with that, many thanks from all of us on the Elite HRV team. This is Jason Moore signing out.