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by Colleen Cannon

Photo by Bill Meehan

The ancient Egyptians saw the heart as an organ of truth.  The heart is going to tell you everything! When you are in love, when you are sad, when you are excited, if you are big-hearted, cold hearted, or half-hearted. It knows! Luckily, I learned to follow the advice of my heart and tune in to what it was saying as an athlete.
I was racing and training in Southern California and had ended up getting injured because of over-training. We did not have training programs or coaches at that time and I would just run as fast as I could down Pacific Coast Highway every day, many days after cycling 100 miles.  The injury taught me so much and luckily it landed me at a Nike Running Camp where I met Dr. Phil Maffetone. He introduced me to aerobic training and the heart rate monitor. Remember, this was 38 years ago.  Back in those days the heart rate monitor was a huge box that fit under your chest area and had several straps to tie it down.  I called it the “White Elephant” and I had to cut a hole in all my jerseys just to see the little numbers on the box. The heart monitor would actually beep when your heart rate was too high and I looked weird with this contraption strapped to my chest.  But it worked and I think I actually had the first heart rate monitor!
In the beginning, the monitor had me slow down a ton and run easy.  I even had to walk the hills because my heart rate was so high when I would run them.  Slowing down embarrassed me to the point that I would run at night because I did not want anyone to see me.  However, the good news is that, over time, I improved. My10K time in the triathlon went from 39 min to 35 consistently.
I ended up having so much fun with my little training partner.  It taught me so much.  It taught me how to listen to my heart, which was the most important lesson.  My heart rate showed me:
When I was dehydrated
When I was a little sick
When I was a little over-trained
When I was going up hills to fast
When I was anxious, nervous or worried
When my form was out of balance
Fast forward now to Women’s Quest 20 years later.  The Women’s Quest retreats are full of bright and delightful women that are always willing to share secrets to improve health and de-stress! I met Dr. Sara Gilman, PsyD. LMFT. CEO of Coherence Associates, Inc and Clinical Director, at our Tuscany retreat.  I was so intrigued by something that she called Heart Rate Coherence and her work with the HeartMath Institute. Sara is an awesome cyclist, swimmer, mom, and just all around Wonder Woman. She has been on our Hawaii retreat and the dolphins just love her, so you know she is doing something right.
Sara showed me how to use this little device (emWave) that measures your heart rate variability and it changed my world forever. I had used lots of mental training techniques like meditation and visualization to chill out, relax and de-stress, but that was all for the brain. I needed to train my heart in a different way.
We often think of our hearts as reliable metronomes of the body with a steady beat, circulating blood with an even, steady rhythm.  It may go up when we exercise or are stressed or down when we are relaxed but, beating away, steady and consistent.  In fact, heart beats are not all that regular and the time in between beats can vary, which is actually a very good thing.  This difference in the time in between beats is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
Turns out the variability in our heart rates is a good measure of how stressed our autonomic nervous systems are.  You remember the autonomic nervous system, the system that controls the auto pilot systems of the body, like breathing, heart beats and digestion.  It also controls our fight or flight systems, which for many in our hyper stressed world, can live in overdrive for much of our days.  The more stressed the autonomic nervous system, the less able you are to deal with more stress and the less variability in your heart rate.
Coaches and professional athletes are beginning to embrace HRV as a great way to assess an athlete’s training and if she or he is in a good state to train hard or back off for a day or two.  If an athlete’s HRV is low, meaning there is not much variation in the time in between heart beats, the autonomic nervous system is stressed and it is not a good day to take on more hard training as this will further stress the autonomic nervous system which can lead to overtraining, adrenal fatigue, and even sickness and or injury.  If your HRV is high, meaning there is a healthy variation in the time in between heart beats, it means your autonomic system is resilient and you can train harder that day.
The most accurate measure of HRV is the electrocardiogram.  If you haven’t had one you’ve undoubtedly seen a doctor on TV looking at the narrow paper with the spikes on it rolling out of a machine with the doctor giving a disconcerting “very interesting.”  Fortunately, there are other ways to measure HRV at home that can be accurate.  My favorite is Ithlete, which is a chest strap and an iPhone or Android app.  Just take your HRV for 1 minute in the morning and it tells you if it is a good day to go hard, go easy or take a day off.  It’s a great way to give you an early warning signal you are overdoing it.
But HRV is not just for athletes.  Since HRV is a measure of the stress of your autonomic nervous system it is also a great way to measure how you are coping with stress.  The more stress is impacting you, the more your autonomic system will be stressed and the lower your HRV.  This means HRV can be a great feedback mechanism to train yourself to dial back the impact of stress in your life or a situation.
Stress is out there and has a very real impact on our bodies and wellbeing.  Fortunately, our bodies come equipped with an early warning system called HRV to identify when we are overdoing it.  It’s a great way to stay healthy, maximize the benefits of training and adapt to the stresses of everyday life.
To purchase HeartMath’s emWave product that gives a visual measurement of coherence   ($229 Heartmath.com) For more information you can contact Sara Gilman at saragilman.com