The biology of performance: answering your HRV questions

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Being able to make the right choices, at work and at home, requires clear thinking. And if we want to be able to think clearly, we must pay attention to our biology.

At Complete, we’ve been tracking the biology of leaders during a normal working day using heart rate variability (HRV) technology for more than 20 years. By measuring a leader’s biology before and after a coaching intervention we can demonstrate objective improvements in a whole range of biological phenomena, many of which underpin a leader’s ability to deliver improved results. For example, we can quantify the amount of energy a leader has as well as the quality of that energy.

Our HRV white paper gives more details on the biology of leadership and summarises some of the scientific evidence on how HRV relates to energy, emotions and leadership. This rapidly growing area of scientific study means that questions about the link between a leader’s biology and their performance or quality of thinking still arise. In this blog, we answer some of the commonest questions we’ve received from clients and coaches alike.

If you have a 24-hour HRV assessment on a really ‘bad’ day, are the results irrelevant to your normal day-to-day life?

Measuring an individual’s HRV for 24-hours is a little like taking a chest x-ray. A lot of the data relates to what has been going on over the previous few months not just what happened on the day you took the picture.

Our report provides insights specific to that day and beyond. For example, it can reveal whether a leader has too much or too little adrenaline in their system. Such a finding is independent of which day the heart rate monitor is worn. At least half of the information generated from a 24-hour recording relates to the underlying patterns in a leader’s physiology and are therefore independent of the day on which the recording takes place. In addition, we now minimise the impact of a typical day by recording a leader’s biology for 72 hours. 

How can you get so much information from just analysing heartbeats? Can you really tell how long someone will live and how clearly they think?

HRV has become a much more widely studied parameter in medical and scientific circles over the last 15 years because it provides a powerful window onto many dimensions of human functioning and vitality. In tracking the performance of a complex system, like a human being, the ideal metric is one that is sensitive to changes in your life, but not so sensitive that the tiniest fluctuation in life circumstances causes a massive convulsion in that metric. It also needs to avoid being so insensitive that it would take an earthquake to create a discernible change in the metric. Thus, something like skin conductance or ‘sweatiness’ is probably too variable to be useful. On the other hand, most hormonal measures are too invariable. Heart rate variability is just about perfect. There are many research studies that correlate HRV with mortality and morbidity. We can therefore use HRV to quantify your health risk. HRV will not tell you how clearly you think but we have seen over the last 20 years that someone who has a chaotic HRV pattern tends to be less perceptive, whereas someone who is more coherent often reports that they are more clear thinking and make better decisions.

How is HRV related to blood pressure?

The relationship between HRV and blood pressure is a complex one and because each individual’s cardiovascular control mechanisms vary it’s difficult to generalise. For example, in some people breathing can significantly change heart rate. In other people, breathing has less of an effect on heart rate and HRV. Similarly, some people’s heart rate and HRV is closely coupled to changes in blood pressure, in others less so. There are many other cardiovascular variables that affect both blood pressure and HRV such as blood volume, ejection fraction, cardiac motility, adrenaline levels and so on.  

Having said all that, over the years we have noticed a relationship between Low Frequency (LF) and Very Low Frequency (VLF) changes in HRV and the evolution of high blood pressure. In short, VLF often rises in the early stages of hypertension. This is then followed by a drop in VLF and a consequent rise in LF. LF eventually falls as the hypertension progresses. This observation is anecdotal and unpublished. It’s not a formal research finding.

Is poor coherence a precursor to high blood pressure?

We are not aware of any published literature or evidence linking coherence and blood pressure. However, we do believe there is a link between coherence and HRV, and HRV and blood pressure. We often see low levels of coherence in people whose HRV deteriorates faster than would be expected. And poor HRV has been repeatedly correlated with high blood pressure. Encouragingly there is some research to suggest that high coherence can improve HRV. Since it’s possible to increase coherence and HRV through rhythmic breathing and rhythmic breathing has also been shown to improve blood pressure, coherence may be the mechanism through which breathing improves blood pressure.

How long will it take for my HRV data to improve (and for me to become more coherent) when I start working on the techniques you teach?

When we measure an individual’s HRV we normally don’t retest their HRV again for three months. This is because it takes at least six weeks to see a significant improvement in HRV. After three months, any gains should be quantifiable. The HRV whitepaper has shown that people can significantly improve their HRV and effectively ‘wind the clock back’, regaining the physiology they had eight to ten years earlier. In some people, we have seen incredible improvements in HRV in six months. 

If you’d like to find out more about how HRV assessment could help your performance, get in touch.

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