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Heart rate variability and police performance: The next evolution in training?

Michael J. Asken, Ph.D.
Officer Kathy Vonk
Tricia Sterland, MS, CSCS

Some time ago, Siddle (1995) raised awareness of the relationship of heart rate to the quality of a police officer's response and performance, proposing that performance degrades as heart rate increases beyond certain levels.

Grossman (2004) then popularized useful “condition” categories for various heart rate levels and emotional arousal from Colonel Jeff Cooper, Dave Smith and Chuck Remsberg, which are now well known as ranging from condition white through conditions yellow and red to condition black.

A further development was the realization that these relationships were not as consistent as first thought; and that experience, training and other factors could allow officers and operators to perform at high levels despite increased heart rates. There is now a likely new evolution developing from the expanding research that suggests that, more than heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV) may be an important factor in effective performance during high stress situations.

In its simplest form, heart rate variability (HRV) refers to variations in time (measured in milliseconds) between an individual's heartbeats. Where the time between beats is very consistent, this is low variability; and where there is much variation or inconsistency in time between heart beats, this is high variability. A growing amount of research suggests that high HRV is a good thing and related to improved health and performance (Moss et al., 2008).

HRV is seen as an indicator of the degree of reactivity of a person's autonomic nervous system. It represents the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (which activates during stressful situations) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which counteracts this). The condition of heart rate variability where the total variability is the greatest is called resonant frequency and it represents the optimal state for each person's health and performance.

A related approach uses the term coherence for that ideal state where heart rate variability and heart rate pattern are ideal for sympathetic-parasympathetic balance and harmonious function of the body's physiological systems for maximal health and performance. (McCraty & Tomasino, 2004).

The research on the effect of HRV on health and performance was pioneered by a Russian physiologist Evgeny Vaschillo in the 1970s. Using experience from the Russian space program, he found that HRV was related to health and illness. HRV has been associated with conditions like asthma, diabetic neuropathy, congestive heart failure, sudden cardiac death and was also predictive of death after a heart attack. Training that taught people to increase HRV was reported to be associated with improvement in various illnesses (Moss et al., 2008). Given the significant nature of heart disease for all individuals, and especially police officers (Vonk, 2008), these findings are of great interest.

Of equal importance is the growing understanding of the relationship of HRV to quality of performance, especially in high stress situations. Vonk (2004) may have been the first to review and expand on the nature and importance of the aforementioned work on heart rate and police performance. She emphasized the difference between physically elevated and emotionally elevated heart rates, the relationship of heart rate (especially "spikes" in the heart rate) to quality of performance, and described the potential role of HRV.

HRV has been found to decrease (suggesting stress) in physiologically untrained pilots during takeoff and landings. The same was found true for broadcasters when "on air." Dutch bus drivers (described as a stressful occupation) with low HRV showed greater rates of absenteeism on the job. Emergency room physicians demonstrated HRV changes suggestive of stress before and during their ER shifts (Adams, et al., 1998). Differences in HRV, but not plain heart rate, were found in surgeons performing a new procedure compared to one with which they were well-practiced (Bohm et al., 2001).

High resting HRV was related to better quality of cognitive performance in sailors in stressful situations (Hansen, et al., 2008). Low resting HRV was associated (Melzig, et al., 2008) with greater startle responses (although this was in patients with panic disorder, so we need more studies to see if this is also true for police officers and other high level performers). Because self-regulation (self-control) and autonomic regulation colocalize in regions of the brain, it was predicted that they would be related. In fact, research (Segerstrom & Nes, 2007) showed that higher HRV was related to greater persistence on a difficult task and also to greater self-restraint.

Police officer and trainer Lou Ann Hamblin (2009) raises the interesting potential relationship of HRV to respiratory pauses used by snipers and elite marksmen. She notes that such precision shooters understand that it is the respiratory pause that is optimal for the shot. They know that this is when the amount of movement they impart on the weapon system is minimal; not solely due to the rise and fall of the chest cavity (and associated peripheral movement) but also due to the heart beating more slowly (fast heart rates limit the amount of heart rate variability that can occur).

Mastering control of HRV has been used to train athletes to readily enter the competitive mindset and peak performance state. HRV training is seen as maximizing performance by managing performance-related tension/anxiety, reducing mental "noise" and distracted focus, and stabilizing and optimizing nervous system and physiological system functioning (McCraty & Tomasino, 2004).

More data for HRV effects in military and police work should be available soon. Spierer & Sterland (2009) will be conducting innovative research on HRV and performance with bomb technicians. According to Dr. Terry Wollert (2009) at The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, research from programs there has already found a relationship between heart rate responsivity and quality of performance in various stress scenarios. Planned research will use sophisticated monitoring technology to look at HRV and quality of performance as part of its commitment to increasing awareness of the effects of stress on performance as part of enhancing training for survival of officers and agents.

An important question is how we can learn to control HRV. Two of the most effective techniques reflect what we already know about optimizing performance under stress. Exercise and physical conditioning have been shown to increase HRV (Montgomery & Wishey, 2008). Breathing techniques, specifically diaphragmatic breathing at a rate of five to seven breaths per minute, can also lead to optimal HRV (Moss et al., 2008).

Other specially developed training programs, which focus on calling forth and concentrating on positive emotions, have been shown to affect HRV (McCraty et al., 1998; McCraty & Tomasino, 2004). Music has shown to affect HRV, but the best effects are found from music that has been specially “designed” by HRV researchers (McCraty, 1999).

The area of HRV and its training seems to hold much promise for both the health and performance of police officers. However, many questions still remain. The relationship of HRV to performance, specifically in police officers, needs to be further documented. How consistently HRV relates to performance remains a question (military research by Morgan and colleagues, 2007, on SERE training found a relationship between HRV and performance but somewhat different than expected). How effective HRV training really is – can it work in lethal force and other high police stress situations – and how long training effects last is still not known.

How do we, and can we, define optimal HRV for given officers are questions that need more research. We also need to find out how police officers can more readily become aware of stress and HRV and use control strategies. Finally, more information on relationship between HRV and performance in physically stressful versus emotionally stressful situations is needed.

Despite these questions, research on and integration of heart rate monitoring and HRV into police training seems to have potentially significant benefits as was suggested by Vonk (2004). Domyancic & Sterland (2008) have used cardiac monitoring during police scenario training to demonstrate differences between officers and situations in responses to high stress. They note that high "spikes" in heart rate may be the result of poor physical conditioning, stress/anxiety from lack of comfort/competence with particular skills, lack of experience with particular skills in high stress conditions or a combination of all of these factors.

While a compendium of currently available techniques for training mental toughness in high stress situations exists (Asken, 2005), as does an excellent guide to safely and effectively maximizing the impact of reality based training (Murray, 2004), HRV training may be the next evolution in training maximal response in police officers.



About the Authors

Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police. He is the author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness for Police Officers in High Stress Situations. www.mindsighting.com.

Kathy Vonk is with the Ann Arbor Michigan Police Department and has been an officer since 1988. She holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Science and in Criminal Justice. She designed and implemented the Police Wellness Instructor Program for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. She can be reached at kathyvonk@aol.com.

Tricia Sterland is an exercise physiologist with Polar Electro, Inc., and is in charge of police and military programs. She can be reached at trica.sterland@polarusa.com.


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