Most data-obsessed runners understand common heart rate metrics, such as resting heart rate, max heart rate, and zone heart rate while exercising. But there’s another often-understated data point that’s worth noting: cardio recovery rate.
Also known as recovery heart rate, this metric is an “important measure that many people don’t pay attention to”, Fabio Comanafaculty member at San Diego State University and master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, recounts Runner’s World. Cardio recovery rate can not only provide clues about your fitness, it can also indicate the presence of heart disease.
Below, everything you need to know about cardio recovery rate, including what it is, why it deserves a place in your data set, and tips for improving your current level.
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What is the cardio recovery rate?
The cardio recovery rate is the difference between your peak heart rate at the end of a workout, and your heart rate at a specific time interval after you stop exercising—these time intervals are usually 30 seconds, one minute, or two minutes, Tamanna SinghMD, sports cardiologist and codirector of the Sports Cardiology Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, tells Runner’s World.
For reference, the Apple Watch measures cardio recovery rate at 1 minute after a workout, while some Garmin watches, such as Pioneer 935 And Predecessor 955do the math in two minutes, according to the company’s website.
Cardio recovery rate measures the ability to return to your starting heart rate training, says Singh. And that number signifies how quickly your body can switch from being affected by the sympathetic nervous system (“flight or fight” mode.activated when you exercise) to be under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system (the state of “rest and digest”.), said Comana.
The higher your recovery heart rate, the faster your body can go into rest mode and the better your cardiovascular fitness will be.
What is a good cardio recovery rate?
There’s no one agreed upon standard for what qualifies as a “good” cardio recovery rate, but research and experts provide insight.
A 2017 study Elite athletes, for example, found that after one minute of rest, their heart rate dropped by an average of 23 beats per minute (bpm). According to Comana’s understanding of the study, experiencing any kind of drop in heart rate in the first 10 seconds is “phenomenal,” and any noticeable drop in the first 30 seconds is “really good too.”
After one minute, a 15 to 25 bpm drop in your total heart rate after you’ve finished exercising likely indicates a healthy heart, he says.
After two minutes, a recovery rate greater than 50 bpm “may be a fairly good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness,” says Singh.
Why should runners care about cardio recovery rate?
Your cardio recovery rate can provide information about your current fitness level, because it basically shows the efficiency of your cardiopulmonary system (heart, blood vessels, and lungs), says Comana. The greater the dips you experience, and the quicker they start to occur, “the better your physical condition will be,” he explains.
Plus, your cardio recovery rate can provide clues about your heart’s health. That’s because there is a correlation between heart rate recovery and cardiovascular disease, says Comana.
A 2017 meta-analysis published in Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that for the general population, decreased heart rate recovery is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events and death from any cause. To be a little more specific, a 2018 study also in Journal of the American Heart Association found that restoration of heart rate at 10 seconds after exercise was a better predictor of death from coronary artery disease and death from all causes than recovery of heart rate at one minute.
Now, recovering from a low heart rate doesn’t mean you’re automatically out of shape or doomed to heart disease. There are many factors that can affect your rate of cardio recovery, including your age, how intensely you exercise, how rested you are during your workout, and whether you take stimulants like caffeine that increase your heart rate, says Comana.
What you do during your down time also plays a role, says Singh. For example, lying down immediately after exercise is likely to result in a higher heart rate recovery than doing cooldown activities such as walking.
How do you increase your cardio recovery rate?
To increase your cardio recovery rate the next time you run, take deep, controlled breaths as soon as you finish your workout, advises Comana. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. This will allow more oxygen to enter your muscle cells and thus help you quickly switch to recovery mode, he explains.
You can also encourage a more rapid transition to a parasympathetic state with mental relaxation — imagine a calming image or repeat a calming mantra, adds Comana.
For long-term gains in your cardio recovery rate, focus on improving your fitness. High-intensity workouts and more stable aerobic workouts can help with this, says Singh, so mix in whatever type of exercise you enjoy best and are most likely to do consistently.
Be sure to increase your workouts at a safe pace, including adequate rest between sessions. Otherwise, if you forget the necessary recovery, you are likely to undermine your heart rate recovery by overtraining, explains Singh. (Check this guide is on how to ramp safely improve your running practice.)
When should you be concerned about cardio recovery rate?
If after stopping exercise, you rest completely for five to 10 minutes and notice that your heart rate hasn’t moved much from its peak, that’s a sign something worrying is going on, says Singh. It may be as simple as the fact that you’re sleep deprived, too tired, dehydrated, or just really caffeinated. But it could indicate an abnormality in your cardiovascular or autonomic nervous system, explains Singh, which is why you need to see a doctor.
Comana suggests increasing your cardio recovery rate to see your doctor if it drops to less than 12 bpm after 1 minute, eg research defines that level as abnormal. At levels that low, “you can get pretty out of shape,” he says. “Or you could be someone who potentially has evidence of coronary artery disease.”
Important caveat: Having a low cardio recovery rate is No diagnosis. Along with resting heart rate and during exercise heart rate, “that’s just another layer of watching how your heart responds to stress,” explains Comana. You don’t need to run to the doctor if you notice your rates are low on any given day—as long as you are feel well, maybe it’s okay to just monitor that metric the next few times you do an exercise at maximum effort, says Comana.
If low levels seem to be a pattern, talk to your doctor the next time you make an appointment, he suggests.
Jenny is a health and wellness journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. He has been working freelancing for Runner’s World since 2015 and especially loves writing human interest profiles, in-depth service pieces, and stories exploring the intersection between sport and mental health. His work has also been published by SELF, Men’s JournalAnd Condé Nast Traveler, among other outlets. When not running or writing, Jenny enjoys coaching teen swimming, rereading Harry Potterand buying too many houseplants.
Sports Cardiologist & Medical Advisor
Tamanna K. Singh, MD, is a clinical cardiologist and certified adult sports and RRCA-certified running trainer. He earned his medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine and completed an Internal Medicine Residency at Boston Medical Center. He completed his fellowship in Cardiovascular Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai, New York, New York and his specialty training in Sports Cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is currently the codirector of the Sports Cardiology Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio and an assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. To date, he has held several board roles at the American College of Cardiology (ACC). As a sports cardiologist, Dr. Singh provides cardiovascular care to professional, competitive and recreational athletes and describes himself as an advocate for safe participation in sport. Media and print contributions include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and others. Outside of her profession, she enjoys running marathons, lifting weights in the gym, playing sous-chef for her amazing husband while cooking plant-based meals, and playing with her four beautiful dogs.
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