Detailed heart rate variability analysis in athletes

Clin Auton Res. 2016 Aug;26(4):245-52. doi: 10.1007/s10286-016-0360-z. Epub 2016 Jun 6.


Objective: Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis has been used to evaluate patients with various cardiovascular diseases. While the vast majority of HRV studies have focused on pathological states, our study focuses on the less explored area of HRV analysis across different training intensity and sports. We aimed to measure HRV in healthy elite and masters athletes and compare to healthy, but non-athletic controls.

Methods: Time-domain HRV analysis was applied in 138 athletes (male 110, age 28.4 ± 8.3) and 100 controls (male 56, age 28.3 ± 6.9) during Holter monitoring (21.3 ± 3.0 h).

Results: All studied parameters were higher in elite athletes compared to controls [SDNN (CI) 225.3 (216.2-234.5) vs 158.6 (150.2-167.1) ms; SDNN Index (CI) 99.6 (95.6-103.7) vs 72.4 (68.7-76.2) ms; pNN50 (CI) 24.2 (22.2-26.3) vs 14.4 (12.7-16.3) %; RMSSD (CI) 71.8 (67.6-76.2) vs 50.8 (46.9-54.8) ms; p < 0.001]. Masters had higher HRV values than controls, but no significant differences were found between elite athletes and masters athletes. Some parameters were higher in canoeists-kayakers and bicyclists than runners. Lower cut-off values in elite athletes were SDNN: 147.4 ms, SDNN Index: 66.6 ms, pNN50: 9.7 %, RMSSD: 37.9 ms.

Interpretation: Autonomic regulation in elite athletes described with HRV is significantly different than in healthy controls. Sports modality and level of performance, but not age- or sex-influenced HRV. Our study provides athletic normal HRV values. Further investigations are needed to determine its role in risk stratification, optimization of training, or identifying overtraining.

Keywords: Athletes; Autonomic function; Heart rate variability.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Bicycling / physiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Electrocardiography, Ambulatory
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reference Values
  • Running / physiology
  • Young Adult