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Fitness Friday: What your heart can tell you about your golf game

June 26, 2015

The typical response to a bad round is to get back out there and work harder on your game. But instead of grinding on the range, what you might need to improve is quality couch time. That could be oversimplifying things, says Dr. Ara Suppiah (@draraoncall), a physician who treats several players on the PGA Tour including Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Vijay Singh and Ian Poulter. But studies on good heart health are concluding more and more that it's important to know when to rest and when to train.

Ever notice that after a substantial lapse from the gym or golf course, your first time back is better than you expected? "That probably is the result of your stress level being low and your rested body and heart functioning very well. It can absorb the training," Suppiah says, "but if you're training under duress, you're hurting your performance, hurting your health and risking total burnout."

The secret to understanding when to train might come from a measurement known as heart-rate variability (HRV). HRV is the variation in intervals between your heartbeats and is directly tied to the nervous system. A high variability is a good thing because it demonstrates a dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation, digestion and recovery. A low variability demonstrates a dominance of the sympathetic system, which is associated with anxiety, stress, inflammation and fatigue.

If your HRV is low, you're significantly more likely to suffer a heart attack or develop disorders such as diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol. "And the last thing you should be doing is pushing yourself during these high-stress periods," Suppiah says. "It's counterproductive. You're unlikely to see good results and more likely to get injured. Sometimes you have to put the clubs down and rest."


If you see a downward trend over a handful of days—your HRV is getting lower—that means it's time to rest or limit training to low-intensity activities. Maybe work on your putting, Suppiah says. Once your HRV returns to its baseline, then you're free to work harder. "Perhaps the best part of tracking your HRV is that you'll become much more aware of your stress levels," Suppiah says. "You'll try to relax more."

Ron Kaspriske is the fitness editor of Golf Digest.

(Illustration by Noma Bar)