The What, Why & How of Your Resting Heart Rate

the running mechanicLast week, I talked about using the Karnoven Method for determining accurate heart rate training targets/zones, and promised I’d return this week with information about Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and Maximum Heart Rate (MHR).

Today, I’ll talk about RHR. Please come by tomorrow for the MHR discussion.

Five Things You Should Know About Your Resting Heart Rate

  1. rhr.pngThe first thing to know about RHR is that, generally speaking, the lower the number the better. Why? Because (again, generally speaking) the lower a person’s RHR, the more fit they are. And why is that? Well, without getting too technical, it’s because the more blood your heart can pump with each beat, the less number of times it has to beat each minute to keep the rest of your body …resting. In other words, better fitness translates to larger heart capacity and lower RHR.
  2. The second thing to know about RHR is that yours can be lowered substantially by engaging in regular aerobic exercise. How substantially you ask? Very substantially! In my case, prior to a return to running several years ago, my resting heart rate had been between 65 and 70 BPM and, after a year of training, it had dropped to around 50. Right now my RHR is at about 43 but it’s been as low as 39 at the peak of marathon training.
  3. The next important thing about RHR is that the only RHR that’s important to you is your RHR. Above, I told you my RHR numbers only to illustrate that RHR can be lowered with fitness but please do not be concerned with comparing your RHR with mine or anyone else’s. Yes, it’s interesting that, at the height of his training, Lance Armstrong’s resting heart rate was 32 beats per minute (BPM) but Lance’s RHR has no bearing on how you should go about setting up your heart rate based training program.
  4. Important thing number four is that your RHR can fluctuate based on a number of variables including, but not limited to; the amount of sleep you’ve had, whether you’re ingesting caffeine (caffeine raises RHR), how well rested you are, and (listen up!) whether you are over-trained.
  5. Let’s talk more about the very important connection between RHR and over-training. The lesson here is that you could be running better than ever, be well hydrated, getting lots of sleep, and still see your RHR rise. If this ever happens to you, it’s time to look at your training regimen to determine whether you may be over-doing it. A rising RHR could be an indication that you’re piling on too many high intensity workouts causing your body to fall behind repairing itself—a recipe for poor performance and injury. That’s right, if your RHR is rising at a time when it should be staying constant or falling, you might be over-trained.

Three Ways to Take Your Pulse Rate

Before you can figure out your RHR, you need a reliable method for counting your pulse rate. Here are three ways to do that:

  1. Use the tried and true two-finger method so clearly illustrated here (you may have to scroll down the page).
  2. Use a stethoscope and a watch.
  3. Use a heart rate monitor.

Of the three methods, the last one is the most expensive but probably the easiest and most accurate way to take a pulse rate.

Five Tips for Accurately Measuring RHR

  1. Be well rested. Don’t go to bed at midnight, get up at five a.m and expect to get an accurate reading.
  2. Don’t get your body rev’d up with caffeine or any other kind of stimulant.
  3. Make sure you’re well hydrated.
  4. Get yourself really relaxed for at least several minutes. Some people advocate taking your measurements immediately in the morning but, if you’re going to do that, make sure you don’t have to pee because that’ll raise your HR every time! Seriously, I have found I get my lowest readings sitting in a reclining chair for five to ten minutes.
  5. Measure away and, if you’re just not sure the reading was a good one, take another on a separate day.

Why Is Resting Heart Rate Important?
Now that you know all this stuff about RHR, why should you care? Well, in a word it’s because RHR is one of the two foundations used for calculating the Karnoven heart rate training targets we discussed last week. The key connection to the Karnoven Method is that without accurately determining RHR, your HR training targets will be off, your training program will be flawed, and your odds of under- or over-training are that much greater.

The second of the two foundations used for calculating Karvoven heart rate training targets is Maximum Heart Rate but you’ll have to come back tomorrow to learn about that.

20 thoughts on “The What, Why & How of Your Resting Heart Rate”

  1. I’m just wondering, if your RHR is as low as 39-43 isn’t that below the average(being 60-100)? I’m currently studying pulse in my biology class, and even though athletes have a lower RHR than non-athletes isn’t 39-43 a fairly low if not dangerous RHR. I know that the heart doesn’t need to pump as much O2 around the body cause athelete’s bodies take in more O2 in their blood and also maintain it longer. Just wanted to know if it’s a good thing to have a low RHR? Or am I just thinking about BP?

  2. Chris,

    Although not common, a low-ish heart rate is generally not something to be concerned about. You may have a genetic cardiovascular gift!

    Of course, if you are in SHAPE (i.e. have cardiovascular fitness), your RHR will be low and that is a good thing.

    That said, if you have any concerns you should discuss with your doctor.


  3. My name is Melvin and I just started running to get ready for a race. When I started, my rhr was around 60 bpm and now it is down to around 51 ish. I have been training for 9 weeks now and I was wondering if this sudden drop in the rhr is normal. Should I be concerned? Is it going to continue to drop?

  4. What if a low pulse produced by medication causes unusual fatigue and high stress on the body as one tries to push pulse up on running.

  5. Congratulations Mark, you are one of the few people I have seen writing on weblogs that actually understands the whole concept of RHR well and yes RHR is definitely a measure of fitness, especially when compared against yourself.

    Also your MHR can actually rise when you are well conditioned, but I’ve always considered one of the best measures of overall fitness is how fast the heartbeat declines after a prolonged effort above the target zone.

    Keep up the good work I really like your column.

  6. I don’t seem to havae any luck finding the answer to a simple question: is is normal for my RHR to flucuate from 68 – 68 the first thing in the morning? I use a monitor the first thing in the morning before I get out of bed. Often it will even start out at 90. Should I be worried about this? Any info you can give me will be appreciated.

  7. A heart rate of 60 is really low and unhealthy. Went I had a heart attack due to heat stroke my heart rate was about 60. Not a good thing to have. Mind you I had a hard time doing anything else physically.

  8. I am in a dilemma here I have a question which regards to something you have mentioned in this blog. How does your RHR lowers when you exercise frequently, I need it related to hormonal control in your body. When you exercise you have excessive amount of epinephrine and norepinephrine releasing to keep you heart rate increased, so how exactly at resting period you rate would be lower compared to others? if you can please answer this for me it would be great

  9. I am a 34 yr old female who is in pretty good shape.  I workout at least 5 days a week.  I engage in regular cardio workouts (running, and aerobics) as well as strength training.  I am an aerobics teacher.  I monitor my BP and RHR on a regular basis and have noticed that for the past two days my RHR has went from around 58 to 86!  I made the mistake of taking a herbal supplement the other day and was wondering how long it would take for the effects to wear off.
    Could that have been the culprit for the spike in RHR? 
    thanks for your help.

  10. Hi Steph,

    I don’t know about herbal supplements, but I do know that if I am sick (or coming down with something) or if I am not getting enough rest, my RHR will be much higher than usual. 

    Still, you might want to ask your doctor about the supplement if you HR stays high.

    Good luck!

    Standard Disclaimer:
    I am not a physician and this is not medical advice.  You are strongly advised to seek the advice of a medical professional.  Running is an inherently dangerous sport having inherent risks including, but not limited to,  death.  Do not stand forward of the white line while bus is in motion.  Close cover before striking.

  11. My resting pulse is 38/43, if I am lucky is goes to 48. I jog two miles a day, six days a week. I am a sixty-five year old woman. After jogging my pulse might get up to 60. I have a slight irratic heart beat but all tests come back ok. They were concerned that while I was having my ecco, my pulse was 43. When I got a call from the office, they said everything is ok. That is just normal for me having a low pulse. Is this correct.

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