In a world filled with easily-accessible fitness trackers, we know more about our heart rates than ever before. And that’s a good thing, according to Matt Berenc, CSCS, VP of programming & education at FORME and Los Angeles-based personal trainer. “Heart rate is a window into how your body is responding to the stresses and intensities you are facing, whether they are physical or mental,” he says.
Monitoring your heart rate during training and at rest can help you understand how effective your workout program is, how well you’re recovering, and whether it’s a good time to push yourself. “This can be a game-changer as it may show you that you aren’t working as hard as you think, or that you’re constantly working too hard and may want to pull it back,” Berenc adds. There are several different heart rate measures you can use to get a fuller picture of your cardiovascular health. Here, we’ve broken down the essentials so you can optimize your efforts.
Looking for a way to track your heart rate? Apple Watch tracks many of the below stats and more. Sign up for the Paceline Card and you can get reimbursed over the course of a year (up to $429) for the Apple Watch.
Resting Heart Rate (RHR)
What it is: Resting heart rate is the amount of times your heart beats per minute while you’re in a resting state (think: sitting or lying down). Lots of wearable trackers measure it, but you can also take your pulse for 60 seconds while resting to get this heart rate stat.
Why it matters: “Knowing your resting heart rate can help you assess heart health, fitness levels, and general readiness for training,” Berenc explains. A spike in your resting heart rate from one day to the next could point to being under-recovered, stressed, or maybe even on your way to getting sick, so that might be a sign to take it easy with your workout for the day. (You can also use the more sophisticated measure of heart rate variability, or HRV, to gauge training readiness. More on that below.)
More commonly, RHR is used as a way to track your training progress. When your heart beats, oxygen and nutrient-rich blood is delivered to your tissue. As your fitness improves, the amount of blood pumped per beat increases. “Now, instead of taking 10 beats to deliver the needed amount of fuel, it takes eight,” Berenc says. So for instance, instead of your RHR being 60 (10 beats per 10 seconds), it might be able to deliver the same amount of blood and oxygen with a RHR of 48 (eight beats per 10 seconds). “Essentially, your heart has become more efficient,” he adds.
Need-to-know: “A RHR of between 60 to 80 beats per minute at rest is seen as normal,” Berenc says. “Many athletes, particularly endurance athletes, [may] have an RHR as low as 40 beats per minute.”
Elevated Heart Rate Activity
What it is: An increased heart rate due to activity or exercise. Generally, the threshold for elevated heart rate activity is around 120 beats per minute, according to Berenc, but this could shift up or down depending on your fitness level. Most wearable trackers will let you know when they detect elevated heart rate.
Why it matters: Once your heart rate is in elevated territory, it means you’re reaping the benefits of moving your body. Even one workout can help you sleep better, feel less anxiety, and reduce your blood pressure.
Need-to-know: Once you record 150 minutes of elevated heart rate activity in a week (called your “streak”), you’ll get exercise rewards from Paceline on the app. The Paceline Card, a health and wellness credit card, is powered by your workouts, doubling the amount of cash back you receive on eligible Health & Wellness purchases (like lululemon gear and groceries from Whole Foods) when you complete your weekly streak.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
What it is: HRV is the measure of the variation in time from beat to beat. More advanced wearable trackers will provide data on HRV, which can give insight into how your brain is regulating heart function.
Why it matters: Variation in the time between beats is actually a good thing. So in general, a higher HRV number is better than a lower one. “We want variety in the times because it signals a heart rate response that is adaptable,” Berenc says. “When you’re stressed, you start to see that variability disappear and a more consistent beat pattern occurs.”
Need-to-know: “[HRV] can take into account the mental and non-training physical stresses you’re under and how those impact your readiness,” Berenc says. “For example, if you just got off a red eye flight or have a newborn and haven’t slept [well] in a few weeks, this type of measurement can tell you how stressed your body is, how much it has recovered from prior training or stresses, and whether today would be a good day to recover or push hard.”
Heart Rate Recovery
What it is: This is the measure of how fast your heart rate drops during the first minute after intense exercise, such as a sprint.
Why it matters: When your heart rate drops quickly after vigorous activity, it can mean higher fitness levels, Berenc says, whereas a slower recovery means there’s room for improvement.
Need-to-know: According to Berenc, a good recovery rate is roughly 20 beats or more in the first minute and around 30 to 40 beats by the second minute. For instance, if your heart rate got up to 170, you’d want to see it drop to 150 within the first minute of recovery, and then down to 110 to 120 within the second minute.