Have a Heart!

Measuring heart rate during exercise is something that should be employed by everyone, during all forms of exercise. The heart rate is not an indicator of positive work output by the muscles. You can have a high heart rate, and be performing well, but you can also have a high heart rate and NOT be performing well (the inverse is also true). The big question is, are you performing well because your heart rate is high or are you performing well DESPITE your heart rate being high. We propose the latter. You must not use recognition of a high heart rate as a positive performance indicator, it is merely feedback during exercise. The exercise performance is the goal, the heart rate is simply a reflection of your heart’s current response to that performance. Ideally, you will have an equal or better performance tomorrow, or in a few days, or weeks, and the heart rate will be lower (inverse physiological response to performance).

The heart does deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles as needed. It is expected that an increase in exercise stress will see an increase in heart rate, but it’s a mistake to believe that a higher rate equals better exercise stress. Ideally, the heart rate is low (low beats per minute), with a high stroke volume (large amount of blood emitted from the ventricles with each heartbeat), delivering needed oxygen and nutrients with minimal increase in heart stress. The most “in shape” person in the room will be the one who has the highest performance outputs (speed, endurance, etc.) while simultaneously having the lowest increase in heart rate (relative to similar levels of exercise output). A common mistake is to think that working hard/smart is best shown by a rising or elevated heart rate.

Technically, the higher the heart rate, the more performance is in decline. Your top end speed, maximal strength, or maximal aerobic capacity will peak long before your heart rate rises significantly. Why would you continue to push performance as it declines? Do you wish to practice performing poorly? Do not confuse the psychological need to feel like you are working hard with actual peak performance.

Is it ok for the heart rate to go up? Of course. But an elevated heart rate should never be equated with a great performance. If the heart rate does go up significantly, during repeated exercise sets or intervals, the heart rate should drop at least 20-30 beats, or more, within 60 seconds following the end of each set. If it doesn’t, consider resting longer, reducing exercise intensity, or ending today’s exercise session. If you want to improve, know that you are only as good as your ability to recover from stress.

Remember to first observe your visual performance indicators (what you can see) before looking at heart rate. The higher it goes, the more your coordination and motor control will be affected, and the less time you will have to perform as well as your first step or first repetition.

Movement must first be fluid. Form should be “pretty” (always and always). Then look to performance indicators like how fast, how long, or how much force has been produced. Ideally, you will be faster, have greater work capacity, or you will be stronger, without a significant rise in heart rate. Yep, that’s right. All the heart rate displays during exercise is how hard the heart is having to work to keep up with your current needs, a high heart rate shows added stress, not necessarily better performance.

Make a habit of looking to movement skill, endurance, and strength (in roughly that order) before observing heart rate and realize that the heart is only telling you how hard it is working to simply give you oxygen and nutrients.

The simplest solution is often right in front of you, you must simply be willing to accept it.