A woman bent over recovering after a hard run

Athletes often track heart rate variability measurements as a performance optimization tool. In postpartum, we can hack that tool to navigate our recovery and comeback.

After giving birth, we’re itching to jump back on the proverbial horse before all of our physical wounds have healed. But frequently, our minds are ready to return to exercise before our bodies. This disconnect can make it hard to make an objective decision about our own capacity or readiness for exercise.

As a coach, it’s my job to occasionally pull on the reigns. But it’s also my job to teach you the skills you need to check your own readiness to exercise.

Many of the tools I teach are quite subjective. How does your body feel (pain, pressure, leaking etc)? How did you sleep last night? How is your nutrition/hydration? What is your life stress like?

But, what if I could offer you a more data-driven or objective tool? One that can help your eager brain better hone in on your body’s day-to-day recovery needs?

Stealing a tool from the world of endurance sports (at least, that’s where I picked it up), I offer you heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV is a quantitative measure of your nervous system balance. It’s a way to put a number to how stressed or how recovered your body is. It gives you an idea of whether your body needs more rest or if your body has capacity for exertion.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

As your heart beats, there’s a gap in time between beats. And that gap is variable beat-to-beat. HRV is a measure of the variability in that beat-to-beat gap. While HRV is a function of your heart, it actual reflects your nervous system balance.

Specifically, HRV reflects the interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. To simplify, it’s the balance between the processes controlling “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”.

If you’re an athlete (especially if you’re a postpartum athlete!), it’s extremely valuable to have this data. It’s a literal window into your body’s readiness for sport.

In general, a high variability is good, and signals a favorable nervous system balance. This means you can easily toggle between your “rest and digest” or “fight or flight” processes as needed. Your nervous system is adaptable.

A low variability is less good, and signals your body is stressed or in recovery from something strenuous. Even more important than the absolute number (which can vary based on age, gender and genetics), you want to know if you’re trending up or down relative to your own baseline.

Your body is impacted by stress, whether that comes from exercise (e.g. a tough workout or it’s been too long since a deload), lifestyle (nutrition, alcohol, sleep or stress) or biology (illness). HRV is a non-specific measure that integrates stress accrued across these areas of your life.

Whether your body is in a state of stress because you were up all night with your baby, you have a health condition, or you did a really hard workout yesterday, the impact on your body is similar: It reduces your capacity to manage additional stressors. If your HRV is declining, you know you you’ll be better served by restorative activities and movement rather than high intensity exercise.

How do you measure HRV?

To get a measure of HRV, you have to wear a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor capable of measuring HRV. Health trackers like the Oura ring or Whoop strap (examples only, no endorsements!) will measure and report your HRV and even help you interpret the data alongside things like resting heart rate and sleep quality.

HRV is an asset for postpartum recovery

As a scientist, I live for data and I’ve learned so much about my body from tracking my HRV and other biometrics.

Personally, I’ve used HRV in the past to optimize my performance during triathlon training. I’m currently using it to track my recovery and physical capacity between chemotherapy treatments.

If only I had used HRV to track my recovery after having my kids…

Faced with the demands of my first year postpartum, I was so sleep deprived and stressed, I forgot what normal felt like. It would have been an amazing asset to have a tool that could help me evaluate my readiness when my objectiveness was compromised. And it’s a tool that I’m starting to share with my clients who need a little help deciding when to push and when to rest.

Beyond it’s correlation with capacity for phyisical work, HRV is also a powerful indicator of your psychological capacity. People who get stuck in a sympathetic-dominated state in the early postnatal period are at a greater risk of postpartum depression. Research has shown that postpartum people who actively manage their HRV are at a decreased risk for depression.

There are a number of variables that you can personally manage to improve your HRV and capacity for life and exercise. Quality sleep, mindufulness and breathing work, limiting alcohol and balancing restorative movement with intense exercise are just a few ways you can intentionally manage your HRV. These are all healthy habits most of us know we should be better at cultivating.

A great HRV is not an end goal. The end goal is a balanced nervous system, healthy lifestyle habits and a stronger postpartum. HRV can give us a digital kick in the butt to address these goals consistently.

Have you used HRV to track your recovery? I’d love to hear your experience.

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My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I also offer personal training services and consultations to folks locally (Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and online.

Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach and Postnatal Fitnesses Specialist.