Have you ever measured your resting heart rate? If you have, perhaps you’ve had no idea whether it’s good or bad and not bothered to check it again! While there’s no need to add ‘check resting heart rate’ to your list of essential ‘to dos’ every day, it can be helpful and just plain interesting for runners, particularly if you’re someone who likes stats and tracking numbers.
Let’s look at what resting heart rate actually is, why you should bother measuring resting heart rate and what your resting heart rate should be. We’ll also consider what effect Covid-19 can have on resting heart rate and whether there are any indications for seeing your doctor.
What is resting heart rate?
Your heart beats around 115,000 times and pumps about 7,000 litres of blood every 24 hours, isn’t that amazing?! The muscular wall of the heart is contracting and relaxing away without you even being aware of it. Your body’s tissues and organs need a constant supply of blood to bring oxygen and a whole range of nutrients, blood cells, hormones and more. The second you start moving around, your heart rate goes up to match the body’s demands. Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats in one minute when you aren’t doing anything at all, when you’re in a state of complete rest.
How to measure resting heart rate
The best time to measure your resting heart rate is first thing in the morning, when you’ve just woken up, before you get out of bed and before you have your morning coffee (caffeine increases heart rate). You can do it lying or sitting – it will be lower when lying down. The easiest pulse to feel is your radial pulse in your wrist. Use your first, middle and ring finger and press them lightly on your wrist, in line with your index finger. We’re all a bit different so you might have to move your fingers around a little to feel a pulse. It’s sometimes easier to feel in one wrist over another so try the other hand if you’re struggling. You can also use your carotid pulse in your neck instead. Just relax and breathe normally when you check it. Your watch or heart rate monitor might capture your heart rate but it’s always worth doing it manually too to see how accurately it’s recording it.
Count how many times your pulse beats in 30 seconds and multiply it by 2 to give your resting heart rate in beats per minute e.g. 68bpm. You can count for the whole 60 seconds if you prefer.
Heart rate varies so much through the day according to what you’re doing but a resting heart rate done at the same time every day and in the same conditions will give you a fairly consistent number.
Why should I measure resting heart rate?
There’s no need to measure your resting heart rate if you don’t want to. A single resting heart rate number isn’t very helpful, it’s the trends and patterns that can be useful.
A falling resting heart rate. As you get fitter, your resting heart rate will fall. This is because the muscular wall of the heart becomes stronger and it can pump more blood, more efficiently with every beat so it doesn’t need to beat as often. These changes can happen within a couple of weeks of you increasing your exercise and they’re very satisfying to see. A falling resting heart rate can help you to stay motivated to exercise.
A rising resting heart rate. Once you measure your resting heart rate regularly and know what’s normal for you, you will notice if it starts to rise. A rise in your rate can indicate that your body is under some kind of stress. It could be a sign of illness, tiredness or over training. If you’re stressed or run down your resting heart rate will be higher. Be aware too that alcohol, caffeine or even just a late night might put your resting heart rate up.
Many runners have found their resting heart rate has remained elevated for a while after they’ve had Covid-19. They’ve been able to use it as a guide as to when they’re ready to return to exercise. The advice is not to return to exercise until you are symptom free for at least seven days and then to do so in a very gentle, gradual way. Waiting until your resting heart rate is back to normal seems like a sensible thing to do.
You can therefore use your resting heart rate as a training guide. To indicate whether it’s a day to push hard, take it easy or have a rest day. It can help you to track improvements in your fitness too. You can also use it as a lifestyle measure, to determine how stressed you are and check on your wellbeing.
What should my resting heart rate be?
There’s no one size fits all. Resting heart rates can vary according to:
- Gender – women have a higher resting heart rate then men (their hearts are generally a little smaller so can pump less blood with each beat)
- Age – resting heart rate doesn’t change dramatically but may get a little higher with age
- BMI – a higher body mass index is linked to a higher resting heart rate
- Pregnancy – pregnant women will have a higher resting heart rate (their body is supporting two people after all!)
- Fitness – if you’re already active and fit then your pulse will be lower than someone new to exercise
- Medications – if you’re taking medication that affects heart rate it will obviously affect your resting heart rate too. Beta blockers for example will slow your pulse and decongestants can increase it
- Your environment – being hot will put your pulse rate up so you might find it’s elevated on summer days or when you’ve got the heating up too high
- Your hydration – if you’re dehydrated it will elevate your resting heart rate. If you’ve had a night out on the town, the cumulative effects of the alcohol, dehydration and tiredness will show a noticeable difference in your pulse rate.
Having said that, it’s useful to have some sort of guide as to what you can expect!
An average resting heart rate would be 70 beats per minute.
Most recreational runners will be lower than this and around the 60 beats per minute.
A highly trained athlete could be as low as 30 to 40 beats per minute.
When should I see my doctor about my resting heart rate?
When it comes to resting heart rate, there are a few reasons why a trip to your doctor might be needed:
- You aren’t an athlete but have a very low resting pulse rate – particularly if you have any symptoms such shortness of breath, dizziness or faintness.
- You notice your pulse is irregular and jumping around – there’s an important condition called atrial fibrillation that your doctor will need to exclude.
- Your resting heart rate is above 100 or it’s persistently high for you without good reason – medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism or anaemia increase your pulse rate.
Do you track your resting heart rate? Have you found it useful? Do you plan to measure it after reading this? I’d love to know. Leave me a comment here or on social media.
Enjoyed this post? You’ll love my book Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners. Published by Bloomsbury and available to buy now.
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