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Parasympathetic Modulation and Running Performance in Distance Runners

Boullosa, Daniel A1; Tuimil, José L1; Leicht, Anthony S2; Crespo-Salgado, Juan J3

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 2 - p 626-631
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818dc44e
Original Research

Boullosa, DA, Tuimil, JL, Leicht, AS, and Crespo-Salgado, JJ. Parasympathetic modulation and running performance in distance runners. J Strength Cond Res 23(2): 626-631, 2009-This study examined the relationships between basal heart rate (BHR) and heart rate recovery (HRR), parasympathetic modulation parameters, with running performance in distance runners. It was hypothesized that greater parasympathetic modulation would be significantly associated with greater running performance. Twelve well-trained endurance runners (23.2 ± 3.3 years; 175.6 ± 5.8 cm; 65.2 ± 6.7 kg) performed the Université de Montréal Track Test (UMTT) until volitional exhaustion (total final time, TUMTT), with the highest completed stage recorded as the maximal aerobic speed (MAS). More than 48 hours afterwards, participants ran at the MAS until volitional exhaustion, with maximal running time (Tlim) recorded. Maximum heart rate was significantly greater for the UMTT compared with Tlim (p = 0.004). Significant correlations were exhibited between MAS and BHR (r = −0.845, p = 0.001); mean drop in heart rate at the first minute of recovery after the UMTT (r = 0.617, p = 0.033) and Tlim (r = 0.787, p = 0.002); and mean drop in heart rate at the second minute of recovery after the UMTT (r = 0.630, p = 0.028). These results support previous reports that endurance training results in greater running performance and greater parasympathetic modulation before and after exercise. We suggest that coaches consider HRR and BHR for the monitoring of training for endurance performance.

1Department of Physical Education and Sport, University of A Coruña, A Coruña, Spain; 2Institute of Sport and Exercise Science, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia; and 3Faculty of Education and Sport Sciences, University of Vigo, Vigo, Spain

Address correspondence to Daniel Boullosa,

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Heart rate recovery (HRR) is commonly used by coaches to monitor training effects of athletes and is regarded as an indicator of cardiovascular autonomic control, specifically parasympathetic activity (39). After aerobic endurance training, HRR has been reported to be greater (15,21), reflecting greater parasympathetic activity (14) that also contributes to a lower basal heart rate (BHR) for trained people (32). Although of practical use for coaches and athletes, to our knowledge the relationship between HRR and performance has not been sufficiently examined.

Previously, one study (12) has examined HRR and fitness levels in a normal population sample and has reported that participants who self-reported in the highest tertile of total physical activity (the sum of moderate- and heavy-intensity activities) had significantly faster HRR than participants in the lowest tertile (p < 0.01). More recently, others (9) have reported that neither HRR nor heart rate variability (HRV) was different between groups of well-trained distance runners matched for o2max. Further, HRR and HRV were not associated with aerobic running endurance as determined in the laboratory (9). Results from these prior studies highlight an inadequate examination of HRR and performance, with a greater understanding of this relationship potentially important for monitoring training, not only to characterize trained and untrained states (13,18) but also to identify training adaptations (8,32) for improved performance and the possible identification of overtraining onset (35). Altered autonomic neural control, evident by low HRV and greater sympathetic activity, has been reported in overtrained athletes (35), and this further highlights the importance of parasympathetic modulation in athletes requiring monitoring.

To date, the most useful field-based indicator of endurance training status is maximal aerobic speed (MAS) because of its correlation with performance in events from 800 m to marathons (5). One of the most used and studied protocols for the determination of the MAS in the field is the Université de Montréal Track Test (UMTT) (31), which is a valid and easy-to-perform protocol. The UMTT has been studied extensively in various samples and has shown good correlation with other performance parameters (2,4,29). Indeed, the MAS is a useful parameter for endurance training scheduling (5). Another common and simple protocol is the time limit at MAS (Tlim): the maximum time spent at MAS, a complementary parameter to the MAS for endurance evaluation (5,6). The Tlim has been suggested to be related to various parameters including lactate threshold and anaerobic capacity (6,7,23,38). Thus, performance in both the UMTT and Tlim running tests may reflect the training status of endurance runners in the field (5). Further, these commonly used protocols have the potential to assist in our understanding of the relationship between autonomic neural control (e.g., HRR) and performance.

The aim of this investigation was to document the heart rate (HR) profile during and after 2 different field running protocols in a heterogeneous sample of well-trained endurance runners. Further, a secondary aim was to examine whether the HRR profile after the field protocols reflected training state and subsequent running performance in the field. It was hypothesized that a better endurance performance would reflect better training status, better HRR, and lower BHR, with identification of the HRR profile potentially important for the monitoring of training adaptations and improvement in athletes' performance.

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Experimental Approach to the Problem

To document the parasympathetic modulation exhibited by runners, BHR was recorded in the morning of day 1, and HRR was recorded in the evening after an incremental running test (UMTT) on day 1 and after a time limit trial at the MAS (determined during the UMTT) on day 2, at least 48 hours later. Performances in both field-based running protocols were considered indicators of training status, with relationships between these indicators of training status (UMTT and Tlim) and parasympathetic modulation (BHR and HRR) examined.

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Twelve experienced (>2 years of training) men's endurance runners (7 middle-distance runners, 5 long-distance runners; age = 23.2 ± 3.3 years; height = 175.6 ± 5.8 cm; mass = 65.2 ± 6.7 kg) volunteered for this study. All participants were informed of and familiar with all procedures and provided informed written consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The local institutional review board approved this investigation for use with human participants.

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As part of another study (10), participants completed various jumping tests (e.g., countermovement jumps) before and after (> 2 minutes) both running protocols. Participants completed the UMTT and Tlim protocols until volitional exhaustion, with performance measures and HR recorded during and after both protocols. Each participant's BHR was recorded on the first day of the experiment with an HR monitor (Vantage NV, Polar Electro, Finland) and was defined as the minimum HR recorded in the first 5 minutes after awakening in a rested supine position in bed with a 5-second interval sampling.

The UMTT is an incremental running test that started at 8 km·h−1 with 1 km·h−1 increments every 2 minutes. The MAS was considered as the velocity of the final completed stage. The total completed time (TUMTT) was also recorded. More than 48 hours afterward, participants performed the Tlim at the MAS determined in the UMTT. The Tlim consisted of maintaining one's individual MAS until volitional exhaustion. The reliability of these running protocols has been reported previously for endurance runners with characteristics similar to those in the current study (5). On both days, environmental conditions were thermoneutral (16) (temperature: 22-24 °C; relative air humidity: 60-80%). The running protocols were performed between 18:00 and 20:00 hours during the last 2 weeks of July and in the first week of August (i.e., during summer).

After both the UMTT and Tlim protocols, each participant was allowed to walk to the starting point at a slow, freely chosen velocity (e.g., 0.5-2 m·s−1), which represents an energy cost equal to or lower than the 50% of the energy cost while running (17). Walking during recovery was selected because the upright position is similar, from a hemodynamic point of view, to the body position while running. Moreover, this is the typical recovery mode for athletes while training. The standing upright position was expected to promote a slower HRR than other body positions (1). It also was expected that the augmented venous return during recovery walking attenuated the fall in blood pressure and HR compared with other passive modes of recovery (14,28). During this walk, lactate samples were taken within the first minute (Lactate Scout, Senslab, Germany). Fluid ingestion was not allowed until the end of the experiment.

The HR exhibited during and after the UMTT and Tlim exercise was recorded with an HR monitor (625x, Polar Electro, Finland) with a 5-second interval sampling rate. The maximum HR (HRmax) was defined as the maximum value recorded at the end of each running protocol. The absolute values of HR at the first minute of recovery (HR1) and at the second minute of recovery (HR2) were recorded to evaluate HRR and parasympathetic modulation (39). The differences between HRmax and HR1 (HRΔ1), between HRmax and HR2 (HRΔ2), and between HR1 and HR2, defined as the slow component of HRR (HRs), were also calculated (15). These HRR parameters were examined because they previously have been shown to reflect the postexercise autonomic neural control (15,39).

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Statistical Analyses

Data were expressed as statistical descriptives (mean ± SD) or range. For comparison of mean values, paired Student's t-tests were performed. The Pearson product moment correlation coefficient (r) was used to determine the relationship between selected parameters. Statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.

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The mean MAS was 20.8 ± 1.1 km·h−1 (range: 19-22). The mean TUMTT was 1542 ± 125 seconds. The mean Tlim was 322 ± 63 seconds. Lactate values after both exercises were similar (LaUMTT = 11.82 ± 2.02 mmol·L−1; LaTlim = 12.01 ± 1.94 mmol·L−1; p > 0.05).

The participants' HRmax values during exercise were significantly greater for the UMTT compared with Tlim (p = 0.004), whereas there was no statistical difference between UMTT and Tlim for HR1 and HR2 (Figure 1). During recovery, HRΔ1, HRΔ2, and HRs were similar for UMTT and Tlim (HRΔ1: p = 0.337; HRΔ2: p = 0.915; HRs: p = 0.509) (Table 1). Examples of HR curves during and after both running protocols are represented in Figures 2 and 3.

Table 1

Table 1

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

A significant correlation was revealed between HRΔ1 and HRΔ2 after the UMTT (r = 0.867, p = 0.000) but not after the Tlim (p > 0.05). The values of HRΔ1 for UMTT and Tlim were significantly correlated (r = 0.789, p = 0.002) but not for HRΔ2 (p > 0.05). Significant correlations were also exhibited between running performance in the UMTT and BHR (BHR-TUMTT: r = −0.844, p = 0.001; BHR-MAS: r = −0.845, p = 0.001); HRΔ1 after the UMTT and Tlim (HRΔ1UMTT-TUMTT: r = 0.635, p = 0.027; HRΔ1UMTT-MAS: r = 0.617, p = 0.033; HRΔ1Tlim-TUMTT: r = 0.832, p = 0.001; HRΔ1Tlim-MAS: r = 0.787, p = 0.002); and HRΔ2 after the UMTT (HRΔ2UMTT-TUMTT: r = 0.659, p = 0.020; HRΔ2UMTT-MAS: r = 0.630, p = 0.028).

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The first finding of this study was that HRmax was significantly different for the UMTT compared with the Tlim. One of the different criteria to establish the achievement of maximum effort in a protocol is an HRmax equal to that predicted from a selected formula. In our case, maximum effort was expected in a cohort of well-trained endurance runners during both running tests because of their high tolerance for strenuous exercise. Moreover, in both cases they reported RPEs >19, further signifying substantial effort.

Excluding thermoregulatory factors related to the environment because the athletes ran in a thermoneutral condition (temperature: 22-24 °C; relative air humidity: 60-80%) and because the running exercises were quite short in both cases (<30 minutes), it is reasonable that the greater UMTT duration promoted more corporal temperature elevation and, consequently, more dehydration, with more subsequent cardiovascular stress (34). Indeed, the UMTT promoted full activation of the aerobic processes, whereas not all the subjects in the Tlim test attained oxygen responses equivalent to those previously recorded during incremental tests (22,24) because this test was dependent on each athlete's local muscular endurance (23) and training status (2). From these considerations, the similar levels of acidosis between exercise modes (11.82 vs. 12.01; p > 0.05) was surprising because this represented a similar metabolic activation. With this aspect in mind, we suggest that protocol conditions should be taken into consideration when examining maximal efforts and the attainment of true HRmax in further studies.

The major finding of this investigation was that BHR, HRΔ1, and HRΔ2 were significantly correlated to performance in the UMTT. To our knowledge, this is the first study that has reported such relationships correlating autonomic control and endurance running performance in the field. Indeed, this is the first study that has observed these relationships in a sample of well-trained endurance runners; some studies have reported endurance running performance and HRR relationships for the trained state (18), whereas others have failed to find such relationships in well-trained distance runners (9).

These results support previous evidence that endurance training results in greater performance and greater parasympathetic activity before and after exercise (13,20). The influence of training on the autonomic control of HR is evident in the first weeks (8) and regresses to initial levels after a few weeks of detraining (40). Moreover, a single session of mild exercise performed by sedentary young men has been shown to lead to significant autonomic nervous system improvements (37). Also, endurance training changes in cardiac autonomic nervous system modulation partly contribute to decreases in HR at rest (32). This adaptation of the autonomic nervous system occurs sooner in the immediate postexercise period than at rest (41). From these considerations, it was expected that a relationship between MAS, a specific performance parameter associated with o2max, and BHR and HRR, indirect parameters reflecting greater parasympathetic activation, would be exhibited after a long period of endurance training. We considered that the wide range of running performance in our sample (MAS range of 19-22 km·h−1) would reveal more obviously the relationship between autonomic neural modulation, as reflected in BHR and HRR, and running performance.

On the other hand, other factors that influence running performance, such as improved o2max, anaerobic threshold, and running economy (3), could have influenced our results. Moreover, the relationship between HRV and aerobic performance in subjects with high cardiovascular parasympathetic activity could be controversial because some authors (19), quoted by others (9), have found that HRV increased proportionately with cardiac parasympathetic activity until a critical point, beyond which further increases in parasympathetic activity caused decreases in HRV. Regarding this topic, other authors have suggested that these factors could be based on the anatomic and physiological characteristics of the heart (33). Indeed, others (30) have found a correlation between the increase in the left ventricular internal diameter at end-diastole (LVIDd) and running performance in elite athletes in a longitudinal study. These authors argue that a higher LVIDd results in a much easier recovery for the organism (30). This rationale could contribute to the current exhibited relationship between performance, HRR, and BHR; however, no direct measure of LVIDd was available in our study.

Another interesting result was the correlation between HRΔ1 and HRΔ2 after the UMTT (r = 0.867, p = 0.000). Indeed, the values of HRΔ1 for UMTT and Tlim were also correlated (r = 0.789, p = 0.002). These relationships confirm HRΔ1 as a valid marker of parasympathetic reactivation that is constant across different testing conditions. Further, we suggest that HRΔ1 would be a more valid indictor of the level of parasympathetic reactivation because only HRΔ1 after both running protocols correlated with UMTT performance (HRΔ1UMTT-TUMTT: r = 0.635, p = 0.027; HRΔ1Tlim-TUMTT: r = 0.832, p = 0.001). Others (25), though, have stated that the first 30 seconds of recovery provide a better, more specific index of vagally mediated HRR. It remains to be seen whether HRR during the first 30 seconds or during the first minute provides a superior indication of parasympathetic reactivation, particularly for trained athletes.

An important aspect to consider in conjunction with the current results is HR neural modulation during tapering, because the current study was performed after the last competition of the season (i.e., 7-15 days). Some studies have reported slower HRR in the tapering period after an intensive training period (25,27), whereas others (36) have concluded that BHR did not seem to change during tapering. In our study, the athletes were allowed to maintain a low-intensity running regimen (<80% HRmax) and/or active recovery participation in recreational activities, mixed with rest days ad libitum, after the last competitive event of the summer season. On the basis of prior studies (25,27,36) and the results of the current study, we would suggest that the stage of the season be considered when evaluating BHR and HRR, because the extent of tapering may impact the cardiac autonomic control for athletes.

The significance of the relationships between HRR, BHR, and performance is substantial in terms of monitoring athlete training by coaches who do not have access to laboratory evaluations. From these results, we suggest the use of BHR and HRR in the field to monitor and identify training effects in athletes throughout the training season. Further research is needed to identify ranges of performance associated with ranges of HRR, how HRR and BHR could help to identify training status, and the potential use of HRR for the appropriate training load dosage for increased performance, as suggested by some authors (8).

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Practical Applications

On the basis of the current results, we suggest that BHR and HRR after maximal running exercises be used as training state parameters during the competitive season. Also, the relationship between HRR (particularly HRΔ1) and performance in the UMTT enhances the utility of this simple field running test for monitoring adaptations in well-trained athletes.

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This study was supported in part by a Consejo Superior de Deportes grant (12/UPB31/06). We want to fully recognize the collaboration of all the athletes in this study.

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    heart rate recovery; basal heart rate; maximum heart rate; maximal aerobic speed; Université; de Montré de Montréal Track Test; time limit at maximal aerobic speed

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