Heart Rate Variability-Derived Thresholds for Exercise Intensity Prescription in Endurance Sports: A Systematic Review of Interrelations and Agreement with Different Ventilatory and Blood Lactate Thresholds

Sports Med Open. 2023 Jul 18;9(1):59. doi: 10.1186/s40798-023-00607-2.


Background: Exercise intensities are prescribed using specific intensity zones (moderate, heavy, and severe) determined by a 'lower' and a 'higher' threshold. Typically, ventilatory (VT) or blood lactate thresholds (LT), and critical power/speed concepts (CP/CS) are used. Various heart rate variability-derived thresholds (HRVTs) using different HRV indices may constitute applicable alternatives, but a systematic review of the proximity of HRVTs to established threshold concepts is lacking.

Objective: This systematic review aims to provide an overview of studies that determined HRVTs during endurance exercise in healthy adults in comparison with a reference VT and/or LT concept.

Methods: A systematic literature search for studies determining HRVTs in healthy individuals during endurance exercise and comparing them with VTs or LTs was conducted in Scopus, PubMed and Web of Science (until January 2022). Studies claiming to describe similar physiological boundaries to delineate moderate from heavy (HRVTlow vs. VTlow and/or LTlow), and heavy from severe intensity zone (HRVThigh vs. VThigh and/or LThigh) were grouped and their results synthesized.

Results: Twenty-seven included studies (461 participants) showed a mean difference in relative HR between HRVTlow and VTlow of - 0.6%bpm in weighted means and 0.02%bpm between HRVTlow and LTlow. Bias between HR at HRVTlow and VTlow was 1 bpm (limits of agreement (LoA): - 10.9 to 12.8 bpm) and 2.7 bpm (LoA: - 20.4 to 25.8 bpm) between HRVTlow and LTlow. Mean difference in HR between HRVThigh and VThigh was 0.3%bpm in weighted means and 2.9%bpm between HRVThigh and LThigh while bias between HR at HRVThigh and VThigh was - 4 bpm (LoA: - 17.9 to 9.9 bpm) and 2.5 bpm (LoA: - 12.1 to 17.1 bpm) between HRVThigh and LThigh.

Conclusion: HRVTlow seems to be a promising approach for the determination of a 'lower' threshold comparable to VTlow and potentially for HRVThigh compared to VThigh, although the latter needs further empirical evaluation. LoA for both intensity zone boundaries indicates bias of HRVTs on an individual level. Taken together, HRVTs can be a promising alternative for prescribing exercise intensity in healthy, male athletes undertaking endurance activities but due to the heterogeneity of study design, threshold concepts, standardization, and lack of female participants, further research is necessary to draw more robust and nuanced conclusions.

Keywords: Endurance training; Exercise intensity; Intensity distribution; Performance testing; Vagal threshold.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review