Tuesday Tips: Optimizing Heart Function to Improve Recovery and Performance

Quit playing games with your heart.

Chicago Machine's Pawel Janas at the 2019 Pro Championships. Photo: Paul Andris -- UltiPhotos.com
Chicago Machine’s Pawel Janas at the 2019 Pro Championships. Photo: Paul Andris — UltiPhotos.com

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I’m no cardiologist but trust me when I say your heart is, generally speaking, important. Not your heart specifically (everyone loves you!) but the heart: the four-chambered, blood-pumping muscular organ that is responsible for recycling blood from your body into your lungs. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death worldwide so keeping your heart healthy seems like it should be a priority. When I ask my teammates about their single-rep squat max or 200m time, most will quickly and proudly spout out a number — one that is almost surely at least 50% more impressive than reality. How about their backhand huck distance? Easy peasy 80-yards lemon squeezy. Yet when I ask about heart function, how is that going? :shrug_emoji:

In March 2017, I decided1 to get a tad2 more serious about tracking my health data, so I did what every broke recent college grad does: I purchased a WHOOP strap. The WHOOP is a wearable photoplethysmography device that stays on your wrist (or bicep) 24/7 and measures the amount of cardiovascular load and recovery. Basically, it’s a Fitbit minus the touchscreen plus proprietary science that tells the user the optimal amount of cardio their body is prepared to handle on any day, every day. The theory goes that pushing your body when your heart is indicating weakness will not provide the desired gains — it may even lead to losses! — and that taking it easy on high recovery days is money left on the table. If you want the money, know your stats.

The key metric for recovery is heart rate variability (HRV) — the variance in time between heartbeats. Like most athletic indicators, 90%3 of baseline HRV is predetermined by genetics but trends over time are still important. The higher the variance relative to baseline, the more balanced your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are, which apparently is a good thing! According to studies, an elevated HRV is an indicator of good future athletic performance and readiness to take on strain while a relatively low HRV is an indicator of overtraining or suboptimal recovery. Sick, hungover, or training full throttle every day because you need to avenge yet another pre-quarters loss? Your HRV will trend downwards faster than the current state of U.S. democracy. Getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and tapering? According to the literature, your HRV should skyrocket like Tesla stock. Sleep time and quality — time spent in deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — as well as resting heart rate also factor into the overall daily recovery score.

Strain, on the other hand, is simpler to explain and compute: it’s the amount of time spent in each heart rate zone based on your own max heart rate baseline. Importantly, it’s a measure of your strain on your body. That is, two people performing the same task with the same performance outcome will not necessarily have the same strain: me running a 180-yard shuttle in 30 seconds will be more strenuous on my body than it would be on Goose Helton’s. Likewise, if I’m training correctly, the same shuttle should be less strenuous for the 2021 Pawel than for 2017 Pawel. In my view, tracking strain and recovery this way eliminates psychological biases of training that originate from toxic college environments or the entertainment industry, like the youthful desire to train Rocky-style 300 days a year that surely leads to burnout rather than peak performance.

If you haven’t stopped reading yet, you’re probably wondering why any of this matters. Sure, it would be fun to look at some colorful graphs of your heart’s effort over time and a wearable is a great conversation starter at the local Crossfit back-alley, but can this data help you, an ultimate athlete, make better real-time decisions? After analyzing four years of my own data, I think the answer is yes.

Roadmap

So let me take you behind the curtain, in hopes that my exploration into personal data can help others think about a roadmap to maximizing their own performance through improved attention to HRV.

My analysis starts with a bird’s-eye view of different sections within a year across the last four years. Specifically, I quantify the differences between in-season and off-season and investigate any patterns of over- (or under-) training that are sub-optimal. When am I — and by extension my teammates who do more or less the same things — at my worst and at my best? Are we peaking at the right times? What do we need to change to fix these patterns moving forward? But most importantly, how do I get my heart ready for the annual Ring game at the Surf Cup Sports Park?

In the next set of results, I merge my WHOOP data with the 2017-2019 practice and game schedules. The sad reality of post-college frisbee is that even the most gung-ho schedule boils down to roughly 20 practices, 14 tournament days, and 12 AUDL games. You don’t need a PhD to understand that being off even on even one of those days totally sucks — that’s 2% of the whole competitive year, gone!

So, what’s been my experience and why have I been more recovered for these crucial moments in some years but not others? Why did practices get more strenuous in one year? And the $64,000 question: is playing an away AUDL game in Pittsburgh after an 8-hour bus ride more strenuous than half of a day of Colorado Cup at 5,200 feet? Spoiler: the first day of a USAU tournament — especially Nationals — is the most strenuous day of the year. It’s not even close and borderline dangerous.

Lastly, if recovery is actually some fundamental process and not a total random sequence determined by the weather,4 I want to know exactly what drives it. What is the strongest predictor of increasing HRV? Does sleep actually matter or is that just a myth manufactured by the sleep industrial complex? Does tapering actually work?5 Specifically, I want to figure out exactly what to do in the offseason and in the days leading up to important competition days to maximize my heart’s ability to take a beating.

Check this column next week as I dig in on the data and what I’ve found over the past few years. Turns out not playing ultimate in 2020 might have inspired much-needed reflection after all — in more ways than one.


  1. This is not true. I just follow what Walden Nelson does and later claim credit — this strategy has paid handsome dividends for over five years now. Buy buy buy! 

  2. Tad? 

  3. This number is made up but feels correct, so I’m sticking with it. Reminder again, I am not a physio wizard — I’m an econ grad student. 

  4. Stop rejoicing you climate-change-denying ding dongs, weather patterns are not random. This is just my figure of speech. 

  5. Spoiler alert: Yes. 

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