Athletes, recreational exercisers and fitness professionals use heart rate as an indication of cardiovascular effort as well as overall fitness level. Achieving a high heart rate during exercise isn’t necessarily an indication of overall fitness, but recovering quickly after an interval or a whole workout session is evidence of a strong heart and healthy body. You can improve your recovery heart rate through consistent training.
Heart rate — or the heart’s beats per minute — changes in response to the demands placed upon the heart. For example, it needs to pump more oxygen to the muscles of a runner than it does to those of a walker. Your maximum heart rate (MHR) is a function of your age, gender and fitness level. Your resting heart rate (RHR) is a function of genetics, age, gender and fitness level. Quick recovery time points to a healthy body and a fit heart.
The higher your heart rate goes in a given effort, the longer it will take to return to its pre-effort rate. Between 30 seconds and one minute is an ideal recovery time in many cases, while a two-minute recovery is appropriate for long race-pace efforts. Intervals that take your heart rate to 90 per cent of its maximum require slightly more recovery time than intervals that only reach 75 per cent of MHR. This is in part due to crossing over the anaerobic threshold, which is the heart rate where the body can no longer supply the amount of oxygen demanded by the working muscles and must produce lactic acid as additional fuel.
The method for calculating your heart rate recovery is simple. Use a heart rate monitor instead of taking your pulse, because it gives you an immediate reading and is more accurate. Look at your heart rate before your effort begins, whether it’s a 30-second interval or a 30-minute run. As soon as your effort ends, count the seconds it takes for your heart rate to return to the pre-effort number. By training consistently, you should be able to reduce your recovery time.
Two like individuals performing the same cardiovascular effort may show differences in recovery time. For example, if two 35-year-old males of the same weight, height and fat-to-muscle ratio raced up a flight of stairs, both reaching the top at the same exact time, you could conclude they are equally fit. But if one of them stops breathing hard in 15 seconds and the other one takes 30 seconds to catch his breath, it becomes clear that recovery time is an indication of fitness.
Heart rate is affected by numerous factors outside of exercise, including poor health, stress and injury. A slow recovery time in an otherwise fit person may be indicative of an underlying health issue. The flu and the common cold can affect working heart rate as well as recovery. A very slow drop in heart rate — 12 beats or less — in the first minute of recovery from a peak heart rate could be an indication of a heart problem, according to The New England Journal of Medicine.
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- NASM Optimum Performance Training for the Health and Fitness Professional; Sarah Daniels, editor; 2004
- The Heart Rate Monitor Book for Cyclists: A Heart Zones Training Program; Sally Edwards and Sally Reed
- The New England Journal of Medicine: Heart-rate recovery immediately after exercise as a predictor of mortality