In-Depth with Firstbeat: Part 1

[Ed. note: this is the first in a three part series going in-depth - really in depth - on the FirstBeat system. We struggled with the decision to split this up versus keeping it whole. But at 4,800 words of great content, it just seemed a bit long for a single piece. So we'll be publishing it in three parts, but in short order. So hopefully that will explain why this piece sort of just "ends" ; it's because it is not the end.]

He says they've already got one…

Monitoring training load is the Holy Grail of endurance athletics. Any good coach will always be looking at how to optimize training load and essentially every competitive athlete from the first time the toe the line will wonder how to best balance intensity, volume and recovery. Throw in the added and significant stressors of work, school and social obligations and this already complicated equation becomes even more involved.

As the world becomes increasingly digital and the science more precise, the last few years have brought a number of different technologies to the plate that look to better quantify training and recovery. Heart rate monitors have been a staple of endurance training for over three decades. With the increase prevalence of smart phones and their ever increasing functionality, the ability to collect data has never been greater. Even more recently, a speciality market of "fitness trackers" has emerged with devices 100% dedicated to tracking movement, heart rates and a variety of other metrics. Several of the big players like Apple have gone a step further (no pun intended) and incorporated these features into everyday wrist watches, so finding ways to clutter your hard drive and mind with biometric data is now easier than ever.

One area which is ironically much less clear however, is the overall effectiveness and utility of all of these devices. Your functional threshold power (FTP) on the bike is 407 watts? Great. Now what? I didn't win bike races by having a better FTP than the other riders, I won races by getting to the finish line first. Same deal with heart rate. Now before all of you data geeks fire off an angry email that these metrics are tools to help better guide athletes to the podium, I agree with you, but what if there was something that allowed you to quantify both work and recovery? Something that provided insight into not just the physiological stresses of training but also in activities of daily living (ADL). There is. And it is called Firstbeat.


The Firstbeat system (FB) is a member of a class of devices that monitor heart rate variability (HRV). In simple terms, HRV, as the name implies, is the difference in the intervals between heart beats. Different devices approach this situation differently, but in essence, Firstbeat uses a mathematical algorithm to compare heart rate, interval regularity, maximum heart rate and VO2 to calculate a few different output and recovery metrics.

How it works

One sport early to adopt HRV monitoring is Nordic skiing. Three-time Olympian and former US Ski Team coach Jim Galanes, offered his history with the device, "Tina Hoffman, who was a coach at University of Alaska, Anchorage, showed this to me about 8 years ago, so I've been studying this system for quite a while. The more I used it, the more convinced I became that it is a very effective tool and by far the best one out there. I've become so convinced of its effectiveness that staring 4 years ago, I won't coach anyone who won't use it, it is that powerful. It is the single best way to making training decisions."

Zach Caldwell, coach of several members of the US Ski Team, has been working with the system for a few years and provided a more in-depth explanation of the underlying science. "Your heart rate is governed by your central nervous system (CNS) through two central pathways in your autonomic nervous system. your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is what governs your 'Fight or flight' response, in common parlance. This is a stress response. It elevates your heart rate and creates a signal that makes the beat to beat interval very regular."

Caldwell continued, "The second component, your parasympathetic nervous system, which governs rest and relaxation. The influence of the parasympathetic nervous system is to lower and create less regularity between heart beats. By looking at an individual's heart rate (HR) variability in comparison their own baseline, you can make a statement about the prevalence of a sympathetic response, which is an indication of stress. In short, by using the Firstbeat system we can see how your body is responding to stress. It is a fairly direct measurement. I am not a scientist or a doctor, so while I have reviewed some of the literature, I can't speak to the experimental design, but my read of the science is that there is ample support for the efficacy of utilization of heart rate measurements of indications of CNS function. CNS pathways are integral for heart rate regulation, so this is very pertinent for sports. Their appears to be very good science and very good efficacy of that science toward athletics."

Galanes agreed, "A great deal of research, thought and testing has gone into this system: is the result of life work of Heikki Rusko, one of the best sports science researchers in the world, so the system is very well grounded in science, as the research that went into validating the system spanned over 15 years. From this perspective, unlike a lot of systems that are out there, this has gone through rigors scientific validation, both for monitoring training and recovery."

The key, according to Galanes isn't just what the Firstbeat system measures, but what it does with it, "There are a lot of systems out there that collect data, whether it is a regular heart rate monitor, power meter, Strava, Fitbits, whatever, but there is very little analysis that goes on with that data. Using HRV and the Firstbeat software to look at training load and recovery has become the gold standard. Power and HR are certainly useful, but alone they are not good measures of the disturbance of homeostasis on the body and that's what training and recovery are all about." For those interested in a much more in-depth presentation of actual data fields and a more detailed explanation and description of the software, check out this webinar:

Why Use It

"Coaches and athletes are all very concerned with stress and recovery," said Caldwell. "Previously I don't think we have done a very good job at looking at this holistically, so while we looked at rest, we didn't look at enough factors. The ability to examine and even quantify the role of stress both independent and related to training load is very powerful. This is particularly important for self-coached athletes, for as athletes, we tend to be good at lying to ourselves. Athletes are delusional. We take a lot of information on board and we interpret it based on what we want the outcomes to be. I see it all of the time. I can tell if an athlete is tired and I think even that athlete knows it, but when you ask them, they say they're fine, in particular at the elite level. I work with over-motivated athletes who want to be able to do more. This isn't a tool to tell you to take it easy, rather it is a tool to help you make better choices."

The 24 Hour Athlete

So often the motivation to try harder is bundled into the 4 hours of training each day and the other 20 hours in the day are ignored, or at least not optimized," theorized Caldwell. "If your job has had you running around all day, it may actually be counter-productive to do the interval session you had scheduled. This system is a tremendous help in monitoring your overall stress and adaptation. Careful and correct interpretation of this data can create what I call 'better 24 hour athletes'."

Caldwell continued, "One of the major things we want from training is to see a positive response. It sounds so basic, but I see so many good athletes mess this up. We want training to make you stronger. You do a hard training session, we hope that this will make you better, that's the goal. It's easy to skip the part where we ask, 'Is this really going to make me better? If so, when?' This is a tool to help answer the question. I am unconvinced by things for which I don't see evidence. I see lots of people doing lots of hard work, but I don't always see benefits. Why? Training should work. As a coach, if an athlete is not getting better, I want to know why. Why are they not responding positively to training? If we're counting totally on self-reporting, well, that doesn't work very well. Most of the good athletes I know have a very good way of coloring their own training. You can beat them into the ground with tests, but that also has its limitations and is disruptive. What if you had a tool that could quantify all of these factors. What if you knew who had good sleep and recovery? This tool does all of that."

Stay tuned for Part 2.