Flow and Meditation | Discovering the HRV sweet spot for Runners

If you’re a regular on the5krunner you would have already read a lot of amazing articles about HRV, so I’m going to keep this HRV introduction short. We will then take a journey into the flow state, also known as the runner’s high, pointing out along with ways on how to improve your connection to flow by conscious awareness of your HRV in motion. Then we will discuss how to accelerate your recovery simultaneously strengthening your ability to trigger flow on your runs.

A Brief Introduction of HRV

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is defined as the time difference between each consecutive heartbeat, also known as the R-R interval or the inter-beat interval. Further, the time in between each heartbeat is not consistent or fixed, it differs with every beat.

To measure a person’s HRV an electrocardiogram (ECG) is used, today an app in your smartphone along with a heart rate strap or a finger-wave pulse sensor can be used. The metric usually for HRV is ‘root-mean square difference of successive normal R-R intervals’ or RMSSD. In sports RMSSD is commonly used when measuring the HRV. High-frequency power (HFP) and the standard deviation of instantaneous beat-to-to R-R interval (SD1) are also used as metrics for HRV.

HRV is not only essential in running; it is also significant in the field of medicine and other sports. HRV is known to be an analyst of person’s mortality after an incident of heart attack, diabetic neuropathy, depression, post-cardiac transplant, survival in premature infants and is also link to congestive heart failure.

Autonomic nervous system and HRV

A person’s HRV is affected on how healthy the autonomic nervous system (ANS) he/she has. ANS is part of controlling major body functions like, heartbeat, respiration, digestive functions, our organs and glands.  ANS has two main branches, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. To be specific the sympathetic branch is connected to our ‘fight or flight’ response. The parasympathetic branch handles a person’s rest and recovery process.  Our ANS adjusts continually to external and internal changes to keep the balance in our body. ANS plays role in regulating our heartbeat, therefore HRV can be used as a basis on how we respond to stressors.

Running and HRV

Progressive increase in your parasympathetic modulation and HRV is the effect when your body adapts after taking part in running and exercise. When you undergo running, your heart will experience a volume load that increases in the left ventricular internal dimension and wall thickness, and end-diastolic volume which results to the increase in stroke volume. The increase in stroke volume gives a decreased heart rate that can maintain the same cardiac output, eventually leading to a decreased metabolic load on your heart, making more effective time-pressure relationship. The decrease in resting heart rate is because of the increase in parasympathetic modulation, which is reflects on the increase of HRV.

HRV and Flow

HRV and ANS can guide us in determining in which special cycle of Flow we are undergoing.

HRV and Struggle Phase

Once you are in the Struggle Phase your ANS will engage the sympathetic branch. The ‘fight or flight’ response is activated in this stage. Since in this phase you’re undergoing a struggle, you’ll feel anxious, frustrated and stressed while trying to recover control over activity.

During this phase there will be a massive surge in your cortisol levels, increasing your heartbeat. As it increases the interval between your HRV decreases as well. For example, a person running in a marathon, before the person runs his/her breathing is in an even phase. We should also take note of the significant interval between the heartbeats. As the person continues to run or until the end of the marathon, his/her heartbeat will continue to increase.

When you feel a loud pounding in your chest and have hard time breathing, the interval between your heartbeats is very short. In this situation the heart is pumping oxygen in your body to keep its balance. The stress you experience in doing a new task, skill or workout can be measured. It usually occurs when you start doing the exercise or activity to hack into the Flow state. If we can measure stress, therefore we can also measure Flow.

HRV and Release Phase

The Release phase is stage when you have overcome the struggle in your activity or sport. At this phase you recover control of the situation and the stressful phase has ended. Your heart rate is also relaxed and flushes out the chemical stressors. Nitric Oxide flushes out the stress chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine and adding the releases of dopamine, anandamide and endorphins in our body. When you begin to breathe evenly, your HRV will slowly increase while your brainwaves will go from beta to alpha pattern. This occurrence takes you closer to the Flow state.

HRV and Flow State

As we go deeper going into the flow state, our HRV will eventually hit the so-called ‘sweet spot,’ a coherency between sympathetic and parasympathetic. Dr Andrew Newberg discusses in his book Spiritual Practises for a Powerful Brain. Both branches of the ANS are active during the optimal state.  So in flow we have a harmonic progressive balance of the ANS during flow.

Above is the Csikszentmihalyi flow diagram that we can use a basis. It is possible to have a stable, progressive balance in our HRV. The interaction of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are in flow, our own HRV ‘sweet spot.’ During this state our conscious brain (lower mind) will start to shut down and eventually opening our subconscious (higher mind). The difference of the factors around you will start to converge as the action we are doing. This also allows us to align our focus on finishing the task. At this phase your HRV goes into the mid-range, meeting the border of low rMSSD and high rMSSD. We are in a coherence HRV wave.

HRV and Recovery State

Once you recover from the Flow state, your HRV will flip again. The reason is, in this phase your brain releases good chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin. You will be completely aware of what’s happening in your surround while envisioning what happen when you were in the Flow state. Since the release of the good chemicals in your body, you’ll feel more refreshed and revitalized after the tiring activity. In the relaxed phased your HRV will gradually increase.

Recovery is critical, yet overlooked by athletes of today. So many of us buckley to the addiction of the runner’s high, even though our body and mind screams “recovery!” we ignore these signals, and hunt for the high again. Well this hidden double sided bladed solution will speed up recovery and help you tigger flow doing your runs.

The hidden solution is Meditation.

A recent study of heart rate during flow state and meditation shows that there was significant variation in heart rate during meditation. The alterations in the autonomic nervous system were beyond just a relaxing response. (Newberg, Andrew, MD, et al. Why God Won’t Go Away. p. 193. NY:Ballantine Books, 2001.)

Meditation activates the Parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for a lower heart rate, improved blood flow, enhanced digestion and slower breathing, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulate the “flight-or-flight” response in humans. A 2007 meta-analysis of “Evidence Report/Technology Assessment” says that another good side-effect of meditation is that the parasympathetic nervous system is also responsible for reduced blood pressure. Meditation may also affect the way your brain and body functions, including your heart rate.

We can measure Flow since it is consistent with data that is shown with HRV results. Our belief on capability reflects with Flow. As soon as we believe that we can do the task, we will be able to complete it. Each person has a unique HRV that we can develop with our subconscious awareness that enhances our connection to the Flow state.

The Next Level

Incorporating Meditation into our daily practice will make us begin to develop the conscious mastery of our autonomic nervous system while running. Opening the potential of Runners’ high on each outing will create a dance between our parasympathetic and sympathetic will on the move.  Research is showing that optimal performance, where you feel completely “at one”, is a coherent rhythm of parasympathetic and sympathetic.

You can find out more about enhancing your HRV and Flow State through meditation by accessing this Flow State Free Course Package. It contains Flow Tutorials, Instant Flow Meditation, and a Powerful Flow Triggering Workout which will be sent directly to your inbox. Sounds awesome, right?

Thanks for reading.


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