Heart rate may be a familiar way to measure your exertion, but what happens between the beats is just as or even more important, as we explained in a previous post on heart rate variability. The interval between heartbeats is an indicator of your autonomic nervous system function. The more stressed your system is (even if you’re sitting still at your desk, worrying about the report that was due 30 minutes ago), the more regular that interval becomes. Lower stress levels produce greater heart rate variability.

As Rodney Corn tells 24Life magazine, piling workout stress on top of too little sleep or psychological pressure could be counterproductive and lead to injury, or just feeling more wiped out. Corn is co-founder of Personal Training Academy Global (PTA Global), which provides education, mentoring, and resources for personal trainers around the world.

When you’re under physical or psychological stress, you can choose to modify your workout. Corn says there are additional steps you can take to manage heart rate variability and get the benefits of a workout without adding to the stress load. Breathing has a major influence on the autonomic nervous system, Corn observes, “and most people don’t pay attention to it.” It’s a tool you can use to manage stress, even before you start your workout, and Corn suggests these breathing techniques.

  1. Pre-workout: Take a few minutes to take some deep breaths through your nose. Inhale for three seconds and exhale for four seconds; inhalation speeds up your system and the longer exhalation helps slow it down again. As you breathe, let the tension go from your body in stages, starting with your head and moving downward.
  2. During workout: Make sure you’re breathing, through the nose if possible. (Don’t overcompensate with huge exhalations.) Corn explains, “If you don’t breathe regularly with effort, you postpone your recovery.”
  3. Between sets: Corn says just because you’ve finished a set, you may not be ready to start the next one: “If your heart rate is still elevated and you’re breathing hard and you go right into the next set, you’re just putting more stress on your system.”

Let your breathing and heart rate slow down. Then put your hands on a wall, take some slow breaths and move your feet back and forth. Corn says this posture and the slow, rhythmic motion help expand your chest cavity and bring your heart rate down to normal. Waiting until you’re more recovered to start the next set can mean the difference between feeling wiped out and feeling refreshed hours after your workout, or the next morning.

For more of Corn’s insights into heart rate variability, download the July/August issue of 24Life, available free from available free from the iTunes App Store and Google Play.