How low should your resting heart rate really be as a runner?

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A runner's guide to resting heart rateWestend61 - Getty Images

The use of heart rate monitors is now common practice among many runners – but how much do we really know about resting heart rate? An indicator of aerobic fitness, a lower resting heart rate generally implies more efficient heart function. But are there exceptions and what warning signs should runners be looking out for? RW sat down with leading sports cardiologist Dr Dan Augustine to find out more.

What is a normal resting heart rate?

'The average resting heart rate in the general population will vary between 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). I think it’s fair to say that the lower that is, generally the fitter you are. In those that exercise, I’d expect heart rates to be much closer to 60bpm, and it’s not uncommon for recreational runners to have heart rates in the 40s.'

Is a high or low heart rate cause for concern?

'It’s about how you feel with that heart rate. So, if you have a resting heart rate of 90, but you feel fine going about your daily business, I don’t worry.

'But if you’re having abnormal symptoms at rest, such as disproportional breathlessness, you need to get it checked out. Another concern would be people with heart rhythm disturbances who get disproportionately high heart rates for the level of exertion they’re putting in. For example, where you’d expect their heart rate to be about 140, but it’s at 180, and stays high for a while afterwards.

'For people with a low heart rate, a symptom to look out for would be if you start to feel dizzy during exercise. That’s unusual and you should seek advice. So I worry more about symptoms accompanying heart rate than the number itself.'

What effect gender have on resting heart rate?

'The average female resting heart rate is slightly higher than the average male resting heart rate. The average male is around 70ish beats per minute; the average female is a couple of beats per minute higher. That’s largely driven by the difference in size between men and women: female hearts are slightly smaller so they beat a bit quicker to get to the required cardiac output.'

What effect does age have on resting heart rate?

'When you’re an adult, the resting rate doesn’t vary much with age. What varies is your peak heart rate. There are few ways to try to calculate your peak heart rate, some more accurate than others. The equation '220 minus your age' was first written about in the 1970s and not intended to be applied strictly as it has faults. In younger people, it probably overestimates what your peak heart rate should be. In older people, it probably underestimates what your peak heart rate should be.'

Why is it important for your heart rate not to be too high?

'What you have to be mindful of is what’s causing it to be high. If there’s a medical condition causing it to be high, such as anaemia or an over-active thyroid, that will cause a faster heart rate. Sometimes, a faster heart rate can be a sign that something else is going on. Then it comes down to your efficiency. At rest, your heart’s not meant to be having a cardiac output of 8 litres [the average is 3-4 litres per minute], but if you have a really high heart rate, it will cause a high cardiac output. So you have to work out why that is.'

How can you go about lowering your resting heart rate?

'There’s not one thing on its own, but exercise will certainly help. We all have a pacemaker in our heart – called the sinus node – and through regular exercise it’s believed that sinus node down-regulates slightly and lowers the heart rate.'

Dr Dan Augustine is a sports cardiologist:

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