What’s Your Recovery Heart Rate?

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Charts and tables explaining how to calculate a target heart rate for exercise abound. In fact there’s so much information it can be downright confusing (hence my blog post, How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal.)

But there’s very little information about another interesting heart rate goal: Recovery Heart Rate.

Which is unfortunate because it’s a pretty useful measure.  Lots of people have trouble starting and staying with an exercise program, and Recovery Heart Rate actually shows your progress – which could be very motivating.  In their online article, What You Should Know About Your Heart Rate or Pulse, NEMAhealth.org explains, “One way to determine if you are reaping the benefits from exercise is to calculate your Recovery Heart Rate, a measure of how quickly you return to your resting heart rate after a workout.”

And it’s easy to do.  The article goes on to explain that to calculate recovery heart rate, follow these steps: 

1. Take your pulse ten seconds immediately after you have finished exercising. Write down the number.

2. One minute later, take your pulse again and write it down.

3. Subtract the number for the second pulse check from the number for the first pulse check. This number is your Recovery Heart Rate. The greater the number, the better shape you are in!

Simple, right?

Yes.  Except for the fact that in some articles, the directions are to take your pulse/note heart rate on your heart rate monitor 1 minute post exercising, while other articles say 2 minutes.


I don’t love that ambiguity.  But I can deal with it because there’s a bigger problem, IMHO.  For me, the larger issue is that I… um… want a goal.  I want to know how much my heart rate SHOULD go down (after 1 minute….and/or 2 minutes) to indicate that I am: a) pretty fit, and  b) getting fitter with increased exercise.

I don’t feel like that’s a lot to ask.  And yet, it is.  Because nowhere could I find a target.

What I did find is a study the American Heart Association published in 2001 that showed that if your recovery heart rate is <=18 beats lower than it was when exercising, that is indicative of poor heart health (and, um, predictive of higher death rate. Not kidding.)

Then I read Heart Rate Recovery Can Be Improved with Exercise from The Cleveland Clinic, which said after 2 minutes, heart rate must go down at least 12 beats per minute to be in good heart health.

Um – those don’t jive.

The conclusion: if you have cardiac issues, your cardiologist will know what to do about this 18 beats after 1 minute vs 12 beats after 2 minutes conundrum.  If your Recovery Heart Rate after 1 or 2 minutes is in the 12-18 beat range, you should probably check in with a cardiologist.

Which brings me to the other end of the spectrum.  The question I’m wondering about is this: if you are already exercising to keep your cholesterol in check, how can you use Heart Rate Recovery to gauge progress?

On a site called EnduranceCorner, Dr. Larry Cresswell states that a drop in heart rate of 15-20 beats per minute is ‘normal’  (and less than 12 would be ‘unfavorable.’)  And WebMD’s Researchers Find Heart Rate Worth a Thousand Words also posits that a ‘normal’ heart rate recovery is a decrease in beats of 15-25 beats after one minute.

Absent any other way to set a goal, I’ve decided to set my own personal goal of a drop of at least 25  beats, 1 minute after stopping after exercising at my maximum heart rate level.  It’s really easy to do this in a spin class – I try to ramp my heart rate up to my (personal) max of 154-ish during a song… then after that song ends, I note the time and heart rate on my heart rate monitor, then sit and pedal slowly (and gulp water) and watch my heart rate after 30 seconds and 1 minute.

The thirty seconds part I just made up.  It just keeps me occupied.  Interestingly, my heart rate remains kind of near the max even after 30 seconds.  But this week – after several weeks of intense spin training for my upcoming European bike trip (!) – I noticed that  my resting heart rate after 1 minute was consistently 30 beats less than maximum.  And that’s a pretty big improvement vs the typical 20-25 it had been when I was spinning just once a week.

Now that’s the kind of progress I need to keep spinning twice or three times a week.

That, and the fact that in just a few weeks, I’ll be spending 5 days in a row riding up the rolling hills of Croatia!


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