Objective: A meta-analysis was conducted on the effect of overload training on resting HR, submaximal and maximal exercise HR (HR), and heart rate variability (HRV), to determine whether these measures can be used as valid markers of over-reaching.
Methods: Six databases were searched using relevant terms and strategies. Criteria for study inclusion were: participants had to be competitive athletes, an increased training load intervention had to be used, and all necessary data to calculate effect sizes had to be available. An arbitrary limit of 2 weeks was chosen to make the distinction between short-term and long-term interventions. Dependent variables were HR and HRV (during supine rest). Standardised mean differences (SMD) in HR or HRV before and after interventions were calculated, and weighted according to the within-group heterogeneity to develop an overall effect.
Results: In these competitive athletes, short-term interventions resulted in a moderate increase in both resting HR (SMD = 0.55; p = 0.01) and low frequency/high frequency ratio (SMD = 0.52; p = 0.02), and a moderate decrease in maximal HR (SMD = −0.75; p = 0.01). Long-term interventions resulted in a small decrease in HR during submaximal (SMD = −0.38; p = 0.006) and maximal exercise (SMD = −0.33; p = 0.007), without alteration of resting values.
Conclusion: The small to moderate amplitude of these alterations limits their clinical usefulness, as expected differences may fall within the day-to-day variability of these markers. Consequently, correct interpretation of HR or HRV fluctuations during the training process requires the comparison with other signs and symptoms of over-reaching to be meaningful.
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Competing interests: None.