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Heart Rate 101


Why is your heart rate important? Should you be tracking it? When are the optimal moments and circumstances to utilize this data?

Heart rate is a huge part of your overall health and fitness, and contributes significantly to how you attain your training goals. To understand how to track, comprehend, and utilize the information gathered, first, you need to be knowledgeable of everything surrounding heart rate.

Let’s start by understanding some basic terms.

Heart rate terms guide

  • Heart rate: The number of beats or contraction cycles your heart conducts per minute. This value is measured by electrical impulses emitted by the heart.
  • Resting heart rate: The number of beats per minute when the body is at rest.
  • Max heart rate: Your heart’s greatest number of beats per minute possible. This number is highly individualized and varies from person to person.
  • Average heart rate: The average of all beats per minute during a specific period of time.
  • Recovery heart rate: Beats per minute following exercise. This can be broken down into two categories:
    • Total recovery: a rest period in which you stop moving.
    • Active recovery: Moving with low effort.
  • Heart rate variability: When the amount of time between heartbeats fluctuates slightly.
  • Heart rate training zones: A predetermined range of beats per minute. There are five heart rate zones numbered one through five, with five being the highest and most difficult.
  • VO2 max: Heart rate at aerobic capacity. A quantitative measurement expressed in milliliters of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight, per minute.

What affects heart rate?

Heart rate can greatly vary, especially when it comes to outside stimuli. The most common factors affecting your heart rate include exercise, caffeine, stress, medications, illness, and breathing.

Caffeine for example increases your heart rate and alertness, the main reason so many people drink coffee or tea first thing in the morning.

Breathing on the other hand can both increase and decrease your heart rate (more on that below).

How can heart rate be used in training

Heart rate data is used across all types of training and for a wide range of fitness and health goals. Whether you are a serious athlete or simply trying to stay healthy in your daily life, tracking and utilizing your heart rate can be beneficial.

The simplest way to understand how to use heart rate data in training is with the zones mentioned above.

For example, if you are training for a marathon, your goal is likely to run further in less time.

In order to accomplish that, you will need to boost your long-form endurance while also increasing your overall speed. In your training, you will mostly strive to remain in a specific heart rate zone (zone 2, which is ideal for endurance and distance). By using a smartwatch or other wearable technology that tracks this data, you can monitor your heart rate before, during, and after, while increasing or decreasing your pace, depending on the numbers.

If you are training for a football season, the process would look drastically different.

With football being all about quick bursts, your training will likely include a lot more upper-zone training to help you acclimatize to the type of competition you will face. This is where the five zones, and choosing the right one for training, become vital.

Here is a simple breakdown of each heart rate training zone:

Zone 1: (50–60% of Max HR)
Should feel mostly effortless. Often involves warming up or cooling down.

Zone 2: (60-70% of Max HR)
Endurance and distance. Should feel comfortable. Described as “should still be able to carry a conversation” while in this zone.

Zone 3: (70-80% of Max HR)
Steady-state aerobic cardio. This zone will feel less comfortable but should still be in a range you can keep up with for at least one hour.

Zone 4: (80-90% of Max HR)
Longer interval training. This zone will test you while also improving power output.

Zone 5: (90-100% of Max HR)
Zone 5 is all about max effort and will test lactic acid buildup and anaerobic capacity. You should only be able to keep this pace for a few minutes without rest.

What is the value of knowing this heart rate data?

Just like tracking your steps or calories, understanding your heart rate is essential to your training or fitness goals.

Heart rate is an excellent general marker of fitness level. When calculating your resting heart rate, max heart rate, or tracking the data during different exercises, you will be given a full picture of your heart and overall health. Once you have that data, it becomes far easier to track your progress and understand how to maintain your current fitness level.

Generally, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. So, if you know that a normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute, yet you are above that, your goal just became much simpler. Now your training can evolve, and you can make strides towards achieving your goal.

The same goes for any goal you are trying to reach, whether it be Vo2, max heart rate, heart-rate variability, or recovery.

Let’s use a huge aspect of heart rate, recovery, as an example to dive deeper into. Recovery is a huge part of success in health, ranging from professional athletes to the average joe.

You have just finished a tough training day with some conditioning. Now, it is time to recover before you go about the rest of your day.

If you take the time to lower your heart rate back to rest by engaging in some deep breathing, stretching, and meditation, your body and mind will be prepared for what is to come.

If you don’t, and instead walk right out the door of your gym to tackle the rest of your day, it is likely that you will experience stress, and anxiety, while also having trouble relaxing or falling asleep at night. Proper recovery makes all the difference, and heart rate is the key to unlocking it.

Here is how it works:

When you are training in the higher heart-rate zones, your body enters what is known as the “sympathetic response”.¹ This is also referred to as “fight or flight”. The sympathetic response maintains your body’s alertness, keeping you ready for what is to come, whether that is a tough set in the gym or a bear chasing you on a trail.

When you take the time to recover properly, your mind sends signals to the body to release the proper hormones and transition you into the “parasympathetic response", otherwise known as relaxation. Until your mind and body trigger this response, recovery will be stunted.

Essentially, you will be walking around the rest of the day in a state of high alert, which can easily lead to the stress and anxiety mentioned above. Once again, in the middle of all of this is your heart rate.

Understanding your heart rate and learning to utilize the data can make a huge difference in your journey to reaching whatever health or fitness goal you strive for.

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1: Harvard, Health. “Understanding the stress response.” Harvard Health, Accessed 5 June 2023.