What is a "good" resting heart rate?
Sitting in the doctor's office for my yearly medical check-up, I smile at the reaction on the nurse's face as she turns off the alarm on the combined blood pressure / heart rate monitor. "Oh, your resting heart rate is very low", she mentions as she looks at me to see if I am ok. "Yes, I run a lot", I tell her. That seems to put her mind at ease. Fast forward one hour to the results of the ECG and the doctor analyzing the results remarks that I have an enlarged left ventricle of my heart. Should I be concerned?
As she takes a second glance at the patient sitting in front of her, she concludes why. "You exercise often", she remarks dryly. "No reason for concern, but make sure you take sufficient electrolytes if your work out is more than 30 minutes", she follows up. I take her advise to heart and assure her that I always take additional supplements on long run days. "How long are your long runs?", she asks. "Well, it depends on the race I am training for but usually around 2 to 3 hours". "Ah, you put all your 30 minutes per day in one workout", she laughs as she scribbles something in the side lines of the ECG graph. I assume that it is for my next year's check-up. I imagine she writes a quick coded message to her colleagues to "be aware that this one is a bit of an exercise nutter".
Happy with the stamp of 'Good Health', I leave the clinic to sign up for my next ultra. Smiling to myself as to how regular exercise changes your physique, both in appearance and on the inside.
When is low too low?
There has been a rumour/urban myth around that 5 times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain used to set an alarm to get up in the middle of the night to do 10 air squats to keep his resting heart rate from dropping too low. His resting HR is reported to be as low as 28 beats per minute (although admittedly, I found that on wikipedia). This myth has never been confirmed so I don’t know how much of it is true.
What is undoubtedly true is that endurance athletes like marathon runners, triathletes and cyclists generally have a lower resting heart rate than moderately active people. Cardiovascular adaptation to endurance exercise leads to a lower resting heart rate. This training-induced adaptation almost certainly has protective benefits for cardiovascular ageing.
This knowledge of a lower resting heart rate through exercise formed the basis for health experts to promote the 30 minutes of activity a day. Health organisations around the world promote this number as a healthy amount of exercise per day. All else being equal, being active and raising your HR for 30 minutes a day, has a benefit on the other 23.5 hours in the day. And as a result, the net amount of heartbeats per 24 hours is lower than if one would not be active for those 30 minutes a day.
The average resting HR for a moderately active person is roughly between 60 - 80 BPM. For endurance athletes, it is more likely to be in the 50’s or 40’s depending on how serious they are in their pursuits. Lowering your resting HR by 10 BPM will already offset the HR elevation when being active for 30min per day. So there really is no downside to becoming more active if you do not reach those 30 minutes currently.
And on that happy note, let’s all try and reach the minimum requirement of 30 minutes of moderate activity per day!
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Erik Böhm - Effortless Running - November 2021