What your heart can tell you about your fitness
Alex Smith Masters in Kinesiology, CSCS, USAW Level 1
A strong heart is a sign of good fitness but many people don’t train with a heart rate monitor or consistently test their resting heart rate. Your heart is your life force it keeps you alive works constantly without break to allow you to do what you want to do. Many fitness enthusiasts rarely take note to how their heart is beating and what it can tell you about your fitness levels. Hopefully in this article I can help teach you about what controls heart rate, how to test your resting heart rate (RHR) what can your RHR tell you about your conditioning level, how to use your RHR to tailor your workouts daily and how to improve your RHR.
The heart is controlled by your involuntary nervous systems. The involuntary nervous system is split into two categories Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic nervous system is your “Fight or Flight” system in charge of increasing your heart beat getting you ready for action. The Parasympathetic system is your rest “Rest and Digest” in charge of slowing your heartbeat down and getting you into to the rest and recovery state. On a daily basis there is a struggle between the two systems to control you heart rate. With each inhale your body wants to speed up your heart beat, on the exhale the body wants to slow down your heart rate. Naturally your heart does not stay at the same rhythm throughout the day. It even changes rhythm every beat we call this heart rate variability (HRV). The more variable your heart rhythm is the greater your ability to cope with stresses (i.e. a killer workout or life). The less variable your heart rhythm the less likely to cope with stresses. To get the proper equipment to measure your HRV you will have to make a little investment of at least $99.
If you’re not ready to make that investment another alternative is that I personally like to do to test my resting heart rate (RHR) as soon as I wake up. It is a very simple procedure that I do every morning. As soon as I wake up I lie in bed and find my pulse either on my wrist or underneath the jaw (jugular vein) and measure my heart rate for 6 seconds and multiply the number of beats by 10. That should give you a resting heart rate. If you more technologically advance you can download an app on your phone to measure your heart rate. Most people RHR will fall into a range between 100-60 beats per minute (bpm). Athletes will usually have a heart rate between 60-40 bpm with more endurance athletes falling on the low end of the spectrum. Every day you test your resting heart rate (RHR). You will eventually notice that your RHR will fall into a range. Personally my heart rate falls between 47-51 bpm. Let say I wake up and my RHR is 45bpm I know that I have gotten proper rest and can push myself pretty hard in my workout. On the other hand if my RHR is 58bpm this could be an indicator that I may not had enough time to recover from my previous workout. I should plan either a rest or a lighter workout. Remember other factors can affect your RHR as well; lack of sleep, caffeine, Stress in life, sickness, and alcohol. RHR may not be as accurate as Heart rate variability it can still give you some insight on how your body is reacting to your training program.
What does a lower RHR mean? It means that your heart has a large stroke volume and it is able to push more blood with each heartbeat. For most endurance athletes it would be best to have your RHR in the low 50s. This will insure that your heart is at optimal aerobic condition. If you want to improve your RHR you can improve it through training. Joel Jamieson and Mike Robertson both talk about Cardiac Output training. Cardiac Output training entails training where heart rate stay between 130-150bpm and is sustained for at least 20 minutes. It is not very taxing you should be able to hold a conversation while performing this training. You can go for a run or you can make a circuit with 3-4 stations in which you work 4-5 mins at each station and keep moving until you reach desired time. My favorite exercises to use are; C2 Rower, Heavy Farmers walk, Jump rope, Barbell Complex. You can use any form of locomotion or strength exercises as long as your heart rate does not go above 150bpm Cardiac output training can be used as your recovery workouts. They are not to taxing on the body and it forces you to keep a certain pace. For many endurance athletes this will be cake walk for more power athletes this could be very frustrating to keep your heart rate from skyrocketing.
Your resting heart rate is a great tool to help you monitor your conditioning and how well you’re able to recover from workouts. Try added some Cardiac Output into your training program to help your aerobic conditioning and improve your aerobic conditioning which will also help improve your anaerobic threshold in the long-term.