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Resting, maximum, recovery: What your heart rate zones say about you


Understanding your individual heart rate zones allow you to train more efficiently and at the right intensity to trigger certain training effects. As an indicator of an athletes’ fitness level, it has become a standard in training science and is used as a tool to leverage athletic performance, avoid stagnation and support regeneration. Now, with so much technology available to us in the form of fitness trackers and heart rate monitors, you yourself have the ability to utilize this information to take your performance to the next level. In a nutshell, here is everything you need to know on heart rate zones and what happens within the body:

What is “heart rate” and why are heart rate zones so important?

It’s a complex topic, so we’ll try to break it down for you. Your heart – the motor of your body – pumps blood through the vessels, making sure your organs and muscles are provided with enough oxygen and nutrients to work properly. With the help of different structures such as the sinu-atrial node, the atrioventricular node and the HIS bundle, your heart muscle is enabled to contract and continuously pump blood around your body. The amount of these contractions in one minute is called your heart rate. In other words: how many times per minute your heart pumps blood around your body. How can we use this information to support our athletic performance? The first step towards understanding your body is getting to know the 3 major heart rate indicators – resting, maximum & recovery.

Resting Heart Rate

This is your heart rate when you are literally doing nothing. Your resting HR is very individual, but can be taken as a good indicator of your fitness level, recovery as well as general health. Different factors can influence this measure, for example stress, weather, physical activity, caffeine, hormones, pregnancy, time of the day etc. That’s why it should be measured in the morning directly after waking up – even before standing up. Sickness also influences your resting HR. An upcoming influenzal infection might result in a slightly heightened resting HR as your body calls for more resources to fight the virus. Tracking your resting HR can therefore prevent you from over exhausting your body and becoming sick. Often, our immune system already fights against a virus before we even notice it. Therefore having an indication of your resting heart rate can suggest whether you should train or rather take a day off to give your body a chance to recover.

It’s also an indication of your fitness level. A well trained athlete will have a much lower resting HR than someone who is less-trained – especially in endurance sports. As the heart is a muscle, it is able to grow with training like all the other muscles in your body. As a result, a bigger heart can hold more blood and therefore release a larger amount of blood with one beat. This means the heart does not have to beat as frequently to provide the body and vessels with the same amount of oxygen as a smaller one, therefore resulting in a lower resting heart rate. Makes sense right?

On average it is said that untrained athletes have a resting HR of 60-80 beats per minute (bpm) whereas a trained athletes’ resting heart rate is more likely to be 40-50 bpm. Shocking fact: some professional endurance athletes have even been known to have a resting heart rate of 20-30 bps. A HR this low can also be dangerous and result in a condition called sports heart, a rare, yet known, cause of death in professional athletes. This is only in some severe cases though, so nothing you need to worry about now.

Maximum Heart Rate

This number is the maximum beats your heart can reach per minute and serves as a foundation to define your individual training heart rate zones within each intensity area. Max. HR is an indication of exhaustion – requiring you to use large muscle groups and going all-out physically and mentally. Together with the lactate curve (a topic we will tackle later on) it can then help to define your individual training areas – max, hard, moderate, light (also a topic we will tackle in a separate article). These can then be used to ensure you are training in an efficient zone that is in accordance with your individual goal. There are a number of different equations to determine the max. HR. For example Max. HR =220 – age. But beware: equations are used because they are easy – not because they are accurate. Especially: Max. HR =220 – age is prone to inaccuracy as it overestimates HR frequency in young ages and overestimates it in older ages. So, what is the most accurate and safest method to discover your exact maximum heart rate? In this case we suggest a specialized test carried out by sports scientists. You can also approach your doctor. Since the effectivity of your entire training plan can depend on your heart rate zones and these values, accuracy is key.

Recovery heart rate

Your recovery HR – as an indicator of your general fitness – reflects how fast the heart is able to return to it’s normal level after physical activity. In the case of lower intensities the heart rate goes back to normal relatively fast, while it takes longer to recover from high intensities. This is due to the body’s ability to deal with an occurring lack of oxygen. A well established aerobic capacity can prevent this issue – a reason why fit and well trained athletes will recover quicker from a certain load compared to unfit athletes. Again, several measures are available to define the recovery heart rate. A common way is to build the difference of your maximum heart rate at the end of a treatment and the heart rate 1 minute, 3 minutes or 5 minutes afterwards. For instance a difference of 20 bpm after 1 minute can be an indicator of a bad fitness level, whereas a difference of 30-50 bpm reveals an excellent one.

You see, understanding heart rate zones is the first step towards understanding how you as an athlete can train as efficiently and effectively as possible. The next step is discovering which training zones exist. With this information you can define your individual heart rate for each of these zones to reach your goal more efficiently. Stay tuned and make this the year you really got to know your body and the way it works.