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Is my resting heart rate an indicator of my fitness?

Michael Donlevy
7 Dec 2020

Miguel Indurain’s was famously just 28bpm, but does that mean a lower resting heart rate is always fitter?

Resting heart rate tends to decrease the fitter you are because your heart becomes bigger and pumps more blood with each beat.

But it’s important to understand that resting heart rate is relative. That is, someone with a resting heart rate of 60bpm could be fitter than someone measuring 40bpm. In other words, it’s not an absolute measure of fitness.

That’s not to say it’s completely useless, so let’s first look at how you gauge it, and how rested you need to be. Resting heart rate (RHR) is best taken first thing in the morning, just after you’ve woken up.

You might have a sports watch to read it for you, but it’s easy enough to find out for yourself – count your heart rate for 15 seconds and multiply the answer by four.

The average RHR of the population is about 70bpm. In general – although this is not always the case with well-trained cyclists – people tend to lose fitness as they age, so may well find their RHR increasing.

But if you’re in your mid-twenties or thirties and very fit you may well find your RHR is less than 50bpm. I’m a big fan of racing, and racing regularly is a good way of bringing it down.

It’s not simply a case of saying your heart rate should be such-and-such a bpm because you’re 40 years old, but doctors and clinicians do have some general guidelines.

Sometimes if they look at the RHR of a racing cyclist – even a masters athlete – they can be concerned that it’s so low. But we’re all different and it’s not usually something to worry about if you’re fit.

Despite that, resting heart rate isn’t a great indicator of fitness. It can decrease for reasons other than training, including illness and, worse, overtraining, which can send it in either direction.

Your RHR can even decrease (or increase) for reasons completely unrelated to fitness or physical health, such as anxiety and mood. In some cases your heart rate may not decrease even if you’re getting fitter, as measured by either power output or VO2 max.

Like any training metric RHR can be useful for tracking changes over time, so long as you take the above into account and are sure you’re not overtraining or ill. It can be useful to look at your RHR to see if it matches with how you felt on a particular training day.

But the fact is there are better indicators of fitness. My preferred choice as a coach is a power meter because it can provide so much data about how a rider is training and recovering.

Outside of that, the best measure of cardiorespiratory fitness is your VO2 max, which is the largest amount of oxygen that your body can use during maximal aerobic exercise. It’s not perfect – no one fitness metric can tell you everything you need to know in isolation – but it is often referred to as the gold standard measure of aerobic fitness.

Illustration: Clear as Mud

Of course training is not all about numbers. Heart rate might be a ‘back to basics’ indicator in that it’s cheap and easy to measure and, by seeing how it changes, it can give a general idea of your current fitness. But even if you use a power meter I’d encourage you to stay in the moment on the bike and make sure your posture is good and your pedalling smooth.

And regardless of whether you have lots of data to download afterwards, think about how you feel and ask yourself honestly whether that was a good day or not. That’s more useful than relying on resting heart rate.

The expert Ric Stern is a road racer, sports scientist and cycling and triathlon coach. For the last two years he has qualified for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, and has coached elite riders, Paralympians and beginners. Visit cyclecoach.com

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