Visually Understanding Recovery

FirstBeat Stress Assessments

Many of you won’t know I recently partnered with FirstBeat HRV to provide detailed Lifestyle Assessments. FirstBeat provides the analytical power that runs health trackers like Fitbit, Garmin and Suunto watches. They also have a more professional service where you wear a dedicated monitor for 72 hours, for minute by minute HRV analysis that is far more accurate than a watch can be.

What is HRV?

HRV stands for Heart Rate Variability, and this is a window into your stress and recovery responses. We spoke last time about how the way you feel in your daily energy is vitally important to knowing how you can manage recovery. Heart Rate Variability allows us to visually understand this through your stress and recovery system, by reading the time between heart beats (in milliseconds).

The time between beats varies widely when in a relaxed recovery state and becomes less varied when stressed, or exerting yourself. FirstBeat HRV gives us a visual on this data, taken over three 24 hour time blocks.

The Green represents recovery within the nervous system, called Parasympathetic and has a more varied time between heart beats. Ideally seen throughout the night and occasionally during the day.

The Red represents stress within the nervous system, called Sympathetic and more consistent time between heart beats. It should be seen soon after waking and be the majority of your waking hours. Ideally fluctuating in its strength from high stress to lower stress states. 

The Blue and Light Blue related to exercise. Light blue is from light activity like walking or gardening. The dark blue is for vigorous exercise and is often followed by an area of white as you either remove the device for a shower or get readings that are hard to measure but are normal. 

You can see from the chart above that this 24 hour reading (Mine. Damn I’m good!) is pretty perfect. Stress is low during the day with the odd spike, the night is a solid and even block of green and there are some green bars dotted through the morning for extra recovery. There is also a good exercise block that should help improve fitness.

Now look at this one…

Much different. Still me though! This was taken when I was still feeling exhausted a couple of weeks after recovering from a virus. I was getting tired early in the day and any exercise I did just gave me a little boost, then hammered me later. 

You can see from this chart that I wasn’t getting good recovery during the night, even though I was sleeping through. The red wasn’t indicating that I was awake. It was indicating that my body was working hard in a stress state whilst I was sleeping, probably still dealing with the aftermath of the virus. 

Why is this important to see?

The importance of this is in one small detail. “This was two weeks after recovering from a virus”. 

When we think about recovery we tend to be impatient. The second you think you’re past a virus, you get back to work, regardless of how you really feel. And this depletes your resources over time. 

Here’s a graph to show the difference in resources over the measurement time period. 

Feeling good:

Two weeks post virus:

The dotted line in the middle of the graph shows my resource starting point on day one. It’s an arbitrary value but it gives us a baseline. The solid black line shows stress depleting me and then rest rebuilding my resources back up.

You can clearly see that I could have pushed myself harder in the top graph because I was ending each 24h period with excess. Whilst the bottom graph showed the opposite, leaving me with a lot of catching up to do. Just imagine if I carried on this way for several weeks, ignoring how I felt. 


It doesn’t just apply to a virus. Check these out.

Here is a chart of someone over training:

Here is a chart of someone training hard in the evening:

And here is a chart of someone drinking Alcohol into the late evening:

The take home

We all react very individually to stress and recovery. Yes, there is general advice that can be made because of common reactions. For example, Alcohol almost always results in poor recovery during sleep. But everyone has a multitude of different stressors in their life, so it really has to be measured individually.

For example, I really didn’t think I was handling stress well when I took the really good reading I showed you first. As it turned out, I was physically managing stress well, so I probably wasn’t managing so well mentally. That’s good to know because feeling tired can be as a result of mental angst too.

The important thing to know is how your own body reacts to stressors like work, exercise, family, food, alcohol, late night TV or computer work etc, and try to find a good balance. Some may tolerate working on a computer until 10pm, whilst others wouldn’t. The challenge is to be truly honest about whether you are really adapting well to it or not.

Having adequate rest gives your body a chance to rebuild its energy reserves and resources. Without it you’ll be more prone to injury because stress hormones are tissue destructive. You’ll heal more slowly when stressed.

But don’t look for a zero stress life, like some people in Forest Row seem to think is the Holy Grail. My “perfect day” example at the start of this article actually showed that over time I was under stressing my body. Under loading makes you weaker because you have nothing to adapt to. It may feel good in the short term when you are overloaded but long term it can be as detrimental as being over stressed.

Stress, both physical and mental, is hugely important for developing and keeping healthy. We just need to balance it with adequate recovery. If you can learn to balance both you’ll adapt well and give the body the best chance of longevity and health.

I hope you found this interesting. I’d love to hear your comments.

Book a FirstBeat Stress & Recovery Assessment by clicking here

About the author

Chris has been helping people in pain since 2005. Over the years he has developed a deep understanding of the many contributing factors to pain and enjoys helping people work out solutions that work for them as an individual.

Chris Newton

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