, Volume 33, Issue 12, pp 889-919
Date: 04 Sep 2012

Heart Rate Variability in Athletes

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Abstract

This review examines the influence on heart rate variability (HRV) indices in athletes from training status, different types of exercise training, sex and ageing, presented from both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. The predictability of HRV in over-training, athletic condition and athletic performance is also included. Finally, some recommendations concerning the application of HRV methods in athletes are made.

The cardiovascular system is mostly controlled by autonomic regulation through the activity of sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways of the autonomic nervous system. Analysis of HRV permits insight in this control mechanism. It can easily be determined from ECG recordings, resulting in time series (RR-intervals) that are usually analysed in time and frequency domains. As a first approach, it can be assumed that power in different frequency bands corresponds to activity of sympathetic (0.04–0.15Hz) and parasympathetic (0.15–0.4Hz) nerves. However, other mechanisms (and feedback loops) are also at work, especially in the low frequency band.

During dynamic exercise, it is generally assumed that heart rate increases due to both a parasympathetic withdrawal and an augmented sympathetic activity. However, because some authors disagree with the former statement and the fact that during exercise there is also a technical problem related to the non-stationary signals, a critical look at interpretation of results is needed.

It is strongly suggested that, when presenting reports on HRV studies related to exercise physiology in general or concerned with athletes, a detailed description should be provided on analysis methods, as well as concerning population, and training schedule, intensity and duration. Most studies concern relatively small numbers of study participants, diminishing the power of statistics. Therefore, multicentre studies would be preferable.

In order to further develop this fascinating research field, we advocate prospective, randomised, controlled, long-term studies using validated measurement methods. Finally, there is a strong need for basic research on the nature of the control and regulating mechanism exerted by the autonomic nervous system on cardiovascular function in athletes, preferably with a multidisciplinary approach between cardiologists, exercise physiologists, pulmonary physiologists, coaches and biomedical engineers.