Heart rate variability, or HRV, is a way to summarize in a number the variance in time between the beats of your heart.
"Right, but why do we care?" says Marco Altini, PhD, founder of HRV4Training. “For a simple reason: Measuring HRV is an effective way to capture how our body is doing while trying to maintain a state of balance in response to different stressors, whether that’s fitness training or handling challenges at work.”
Altini is a scientist and developer working at the intersection of health, technology, and performance. He started HRV4Training, the first validated mobile platform to provide reliable HRV measurements using a smartphone camera, in 2012. The app uses advanced signal processing and data analytics to measure physiology and quantify stress, helping athletes of all levels—including you— to better balance training and lifestyle stressors to improve performance. What began as a research project is today a tool that is trusted and used by Olympic medalists and professional teams.
I don’t so much look at HRV as a crystal ball, Altini says, “but rather as a compass or insight into my physiology and beyond.”
When Altini, who’s based in Amsterdam, isn’t racking up degrees (a PhD in Data Science; 2 MSc, one in Computer Science Engineering and another in Human Movement Sciences, with a specialization in High Performance Coaching) or co-authoring research papers (50+ publications), he’s on the run—literally.
"Running saved me from the struggle," he recently tweeted. "Before it was basically just work the whole time (and even worse sleep). I am still the same kind of person, so now of course I go out and run the whole day. ...This means that some days I don't have much time to work.
“At the moment, I’m working on increasing my running mileage to do a 100k race,” he adds. “Though I don’t have much talent I do love the sport.”
What kickstarted your interest and journey to improve your sleep?
Better sleep equals better performance, both mentally and physically. As an entrepreneur and passionate runner, taking care of my sleep is the best way to ensure I can perform at my best.
What's your current health stack? And what are some of your favorite habits that you'd recommend ?
I measure my resting physiology (heart rate, HRV) first thing in the morning using HRV4Training, to determine how I am currently responding to work, training, and lifestyle stressors.
For exercise physiology, I use Polar sensors (H10, Verity).
In terms of habits: daily exercise, which means moving around as much as possible, even outside of training. For instance, walking, for metabolic health. And having a good sleep routine—consistent times, no work or phone in the two hours before bed, and a cold room.
I'm always trying to be mindful and present and in the moment. Writing down future tasks and ideas to free up mental space really helps.
What does having optimal sleep health mean to you and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Waking up rested and ready to tackle the day, both mentally and physically.
What's one piece of advice you'd have for someone looking to improve their sleep?
I think these aspects are hard to generalize, as people differ greatly in what they need and how they can get what can be considered optimal sleep for them. That being said, a consistent routine and reducing late-night stressors—anything from reading the news to working or heavy dinners and alcohol intake— would probably help many people.
Follow Dr. Altini on Twitter @altini_marco