Why You NEED to Care About Your Resting Heart Rate

Learning about heart rates is not sexy.  I think that's why I avoided it for so long.  If a topic wasn't about getting stronger or giving me abzz, it wasn't at the top of my priority list.  It's myopic but it's true.

I was also confused with the different types of heart rate data - resting heart rate, heart rate variability, working heart rates, anaerobic threshold, etc.  While obtaining this data is easier than it's ever been with various monitors and FitBits, it's only valuable if you know what to do with it.

What changed? I learned why someone's resting heart rate is directly tied to their ability to get stronger and in better shape.  It's true what they say, "When the student is ready, a teacher appears."

 I'm going to go out on a hunch and say he's a bit too sympathetic dominant..

I'm going to go out on a hunch and say he's a bit too sympathetic dominant..

Most of us learned about resting heart rate in gym or health class.  If we have a low resting heart rate, it means we have an efficient heart and cardiovascular system.  If it's a higher rate, we have a less efficient heart and we're working harder than we should.  How do you know where you stand?  60 beats per minute is the general marker to determine if someone has a low or high resting heart rate.

(Fun fact: As I was writing this post my own heart rate was 62.  To my defense, it was right after I downed a pretty big cup of coffee and lugged a bag of laundry around my apartment building.  But it's still something I'm working on.)

Besides giving a glimpse into someone's cardiovascular health, you might be asking why is heart rate such a big deal?  If you A) don't have a family history of heart issues, and B) don't have a specific conditioning goal, is it something you need to be concerned with? Yes, because resting heart rate is also a barometer of someone's brain.

I've occasionally written about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but it's time for a refresher:

  • Parasympathetic - rest and digest, relaxed, chill
  • Sympathetic - fight or flight, anxious, on edge

The cool thing about someone's resting heart rate is it reveals which of the two systems is more dominant. If someone's heart rate is below 60 they're parasympathetic dominant so their "rest and digest" system is more prevalent.  Since they're more relaxed, these people recover better from their workouts and will generally have fewer aches and pains than their counterparts.  They'll be able to train harder and more frequently, helping us get stronger and more fit.

If someone's resting heart rate is above 60 they are very sympathetic dominant. The higher their heart rate, the more their "fight or flight" system is always on.  It's also a signal they may have trouble sleeping, be in pain, and have trouble recovering from workouts.  If we can't recover well from workouts, it's obviously going to impact the ability for us to train hard and meet our goals.

Don't get me wrong, we WANT to be sympathetic dominant when we train.  It's going to make us lift heavier, run faster and give us our workout mojo (scientific term).  But our body can't differentiate stressors - something I wrote about here.  If we're constantly under stress without reprieve, we're going to run into issues.

So what do you do if you're heart rate is above 60?  The easiest way to start lowering your resting heart rate is by performing slow, steady work one to three times a week.  And if you're familiar with my stance on running, I'm sure you're surprised to read that! :)

For the purpose of lowering your resting heart rate, slow steady work can be defined as keeping your heart rate between 120-140 beats per minute for 30-90 minutes.  It's boring, but what we're trying to accomplish is eccentric hypertrophy of your heart.  In other words, we're trying to make your heart more efficient by increasing the amount of blood that it can pump so it doesn't need to work as hard.  Strength training and interval training is still beneficial, but it doesn't increase your cardiac output (the amount of blood that flows in and out of your heart) in the same way.

The other benefit is it will help you turn on your parasympathetic, rest and digest system making you feel less stressed. If you're more parasympathetic, you'll also be able to lift heavier and train harder since you're not constantly sapping your flight or flight system.

Most of us don't realize how little work is needed to keep our heart rate in the 120-140 zone.  Whether it's walking, a light jog, mobility and stability drills, or 10 slow miles on the Air Assault bike (my favorite) our heart can't tell the difference.  We don't need to constantly train to be out of breath to yield benefits, and doing so will only make you worse off over the long haul.