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Stressed To The Max
Do you ever have days when you feel so stressed you’re not sure if you can even manage your scheduled run? Of course you do.
But how can you tell if the stress you’re feeling is just momentary or if you actually need to change your run schedule? By listening to your heart. More specifically, by tracking your resting heart rate and your heart rate variability (HRV), or the change in time between successive heartbeats.
Low HRV signals there’s little variability in the space between heartbeats, and can indicate high stress levels, poor sleep, illness, overtraining and more. Meanwhile, high HRV can mean you’re healthy, rested and ready to run.
Thankfully, you can keep tabs on your training readiness just by glancing at your wrist.
New fitness watches—like Garmin’s Forerunner 935—analyze your HRV and heart rate while you rest, providing an accurate representation of the stress your body is experiencing, says a Garmin product manager.
Measuring HRV used to involve a visit to the doctor’s office for an electrocardiogram (ECG). Now, fitness watch sensors consistently measure your heart rate through the pulse in your wrist and determine your HRV from there. The watches also keep track of these measurements to discern trends, offering a helpful indication of how your body is responding to daily stressors.
If you notice your resting heart rate bumps up five or more beats for several days, or your HRV is consistently tracking lower than normal, it could mean you caught that office bug, you’ve been working too many hours or you’ve been training too hard.
“If your heart feels like it has to work harder to keep up, that’s telling us that there is a bigger metabolic demand on the system,” explains Rebekah Mayer, national run training manager for Life Time Fitness.
If you don’t want to cough up the cash for a fitness watch, you can now recruit your phone to help track your stress. Many smartphones have a built-in fitness app (e.g., the iPhone has one called “Health”) that allows you to measure and record heart rate and will sync with other health-focused apps to track your vitals.
For a tech-free option, measure your daily resting heart rate using the old-school method: Apply two fingers to the pulse in your neck or wrist, count beats for 10 seconds and multiply that number by six to find your beats per minute. To ensure your measurements are consistent, test your resting heart rate first thing in the morning, before you’ve even downed your first cup of coffee.
Regardless of how you track stress, the path to sanity remains the same.
One way to reduce stress is meditative breathing exercises. “A simple five-minute meditation can make a difference in how you feel,” Mayer says.
To do it, simply focus on taking longer, slower breaths. Begin by counting your inhales and trying to match them up with your exhales. After a few breaths, stretch the counts out a little longer. For example, if you notice that your inhale takes four or five counts, try taking that breath to five or six counts. Then, six or seven counts. “You don’t want it to get uncomfortably long,” Mayer says, but you do want to focus on gradually lengthening your breaths.
If you need some help with slowing your breaths, download the free Insight Timer, which offers more than 8,000 guided meditations. This way, you can let the app do the counting for you.
Ideally, you’ll practice guided breathing exercises every day, but you can also aim for four or five days per week.
And when your stress levels spike, try not to cut out running altogether unless you’re sick or injured. Instead, Mayer recommends pulling back on the intensity so you can reap the feel-good benefits of running without adding physical stress. Try swapping out that week’s hard runs with easy ones done at a conversational pace (aim for a heart rate of 140 bpm or lower), and keep your run shorter than usual.
Watches To Try
Now that you know how to measure your stress levels, it’s time to put these trackers to the test.
Apple Watch Series 3 (from $329, apple.com)
Apple’s latest tracks your stress levels via heart rate and cues up a breathing app when things get out of control.
Fitbit Ionic ($300, fitbit.com)
Keep tabs on your sleep habits, heart rate and HRV with the Fitbit Ionic. This wrist piece also kicks in breathing sessions when needed.
Garmin vívosport ($170, garmin.com)
Get all the stress-tracking features you need in a slimmer, sleeker design.