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Heart Rate Recovery - the "no-tech" method of monitoring recovery

So a short while back I wrote an article talking about Heart Rate Variability [you can read that article HERE].


When I pondered on the fact that my phone can be a health monitor it never fails to amaze me how far we have come, technology-wise (also it never fails to amaze me that people had gotten their heart conditions detected via their Apple Watch EKG function).


You can read that article HERE.



But sometimes technology can be a bit overwhelming and many argue that we should go back to the “good old days” of going by feel [And if you are interested to read about somewhat objectively quantifying “going by feel”, please read this article on RPE written by Dr Kavitha].

But when it comes to recovery from your endurance training (or strength training), I personally have difficulty differentiating my need for more recovery down time versus me just being plain lazy – which is why I tend to depend a bit too much on my daily HRV readings that I take when I wake up.


However for the technologically averse group of people (and…it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round), here is a good way of determining your own recovery WITHOUT much tech.


Before we get into this….let’s recap on the autonomic nervous system and how it affects your heart rate (and general health).


The autonomic nervous system governs your body on things you have little control over…your heart beat, your digestive system, your blood pressure etc (please refer to diagram).




It has 2 different and opposite arms: the sympathetic nervous system….and the parasympathetic nervous system.


The sympathetic NS is your ‘Fight and Flight’. It preps you for emergency situations where you need to be ready to run (or fight) for your life. The parasympathetic NS on the other hand is all about rest, relax and rejuvenate.


When we do endurance sports training, we are activating our sympathetic NS.


It makes sense doesn’t it? You are literally running (cycling, swimming, rowing etc) away from your competitor to win first place, and if you are a pro athlete, then you are really running for your life (because winning gets you sponsorship and money/funding to buy the necessities in life).

But once you completed your run, your body should switch over to parasympathetic NS to allow recovery to begin.


Sometimes this doesn’t happen fast enough. Usually in over-reached/over-trained individuals where their sympathetic NS is continuously being activated and stimulated, thus recovery is shitty (then people get over-trained and injured).


Which is why people usually monitor their heart rate (in terms of resting heart rate or heart rate variability) to see where they fall in the autonomic nervous system spectrum. Another method of monitoring this is ‘Heart Rate Recovery’.


So how do you measure ‘Heart Rate Recovery’?


Simple.


The moment you completed your activity (swim/bike/run/whatever), you immediately measure your heart rate (or glance at your heart rate monitor). One minute later, re-measure your heart rate. Ideally, there would be a drop in your heart rate.


A drop of 25 – 30 beats in one minute is a decent score. A drop of 50-60 beats in one minute is excellent!


If the heart rate barely dropped (12 beats and less) after a minute of rest, I’d recommend you to focus on pay attention to your recovery and perhaps consider taking a couple of days easy.


Why is this important?


Aside from recovery and preventing over-training and increasing your risk of injury, there are quite a few research papers that have been conducted hypothesising that poor heart rate recovery is also related to poor cardiovascular health and puts you at a risk of developing a heart problem (or even an indicator of an ongoing heart issue).


Some papers also suggested that it increases one’s mortality rate (rate of dying) if heart rate recovery is poor. Prolonged sympathetic NS activation and stimulation is not healthy for your heart/health. And many people have chronic over stimulation of their sympathetic NS due to chronic modern day stressors (our stressful work, stuck in shitty traffic, work deadlines to meet, training load stress - the body doesn't differentiate. Stress is stress!) thus affecting our cardiac health in the long run. And I am sure you have read about fit and somewhat picture-of-health participants collapsing during a marathon or during a triathlon and the cause of death was a myocardial infarction (fancy jargon for Heart Attack).


And mind you, many younger and younger people are being admitted into hospitals nationwide (dare I say world wide) for chest pains that are then diagnosed as heart attacks. Some are as young as 33 year olds and this trend is going to continue with our current stressful lifestyle choices.


So it isn’t only for the athletic population that this method of self monitoring is important. In fact, it is important for people from all walks of life.


So....do yourself a huge favour and monitor your heart rate and recovery. It might save your life (or help you get on podium next race!)





Below are some papers I suggest for your leisure reading.


  1. Curtis BM, O’Keefe JH Jr. Autonomic tone as a cardiovascular risk factor: the dangers of chronic fight or flight. Mayo Clin Proc. 2002; 77: 45–54

  2. Cole CR, Blackstone EH, Pashkow FJ, et al. Heart-rate recovery immediately after exercise as a predictor of mortality. N Engl J Med. 1999; 341: 1351–1357

  3. Cole CR, Foody JM, Blackstone EH, et al. Heart rate recovery after submaximal exercise testing as a predictor of mortality in a cardiovascularly healthy cohort. Ann Intern Med. 2000; 132: 552–555

  4. Diaz LA, Brunken RC, Blackstone EH, et al. Independent contribution of myocardial perfusion defects to exercise capacity and heart rate recovery for prediction of all-cause mortality in patients with known or suspected coronary heart disease. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2001; 37: 1558–1564

  5. Watanabe J, Thamilarasan M, Blackstone EH, et al. Heart rate recovery immediately after treadmill exercise and left ventricular systolic dysfunction as predictors of mortality: the case of stress echocardiography. Circulation. 2001; 104: 1911–1916

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