Heart rate recovery, or HRR, measures how quickly your heart rate returns to a normal rate after a bout of peak effort exercise. It’s used as a measure of fitness, to track how athletes are improving, and is also associated with risks of serious disease and even mortality.
Your HRR gives you valuable information about the function of your autonomic nervous system, which controls vital functions like breathing, says Mike Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an associate professor at the Carrick Institute. To understand why HRR is important for this, he says, think of your autonomic nervous system like a race car.
The sympathetic (fight-or-flight) side of your nervous system is like the gas pedal — the harder you push it, the faster it goes. The parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) side is like the brakes. The harder you push on the brakes, the faster the car slows down, Nelson says. Your HRR measures how well your brakes are working. And that’s important: “If you’re all gas, no brakes all the time, odds are you’re eventually going to blow your engine.”
LEARN MORE: What Is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
What Does Heart Rate Recovery Indicate?
What does an engine blowout mean for your body? Studies have found that having a sluggish heart rate recovery is related to higher risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even sudden death.
In addition, HRR signifies your level of fitness. To continue the car metaphor, when your brakes are working well, you can get back to pushing the gas pedal again faster — in other words, you’re more fit, says Alex Viada, C.S.C.S., coach and owner of Complete Human Performance.
When you exercise, your heart rate ramps up to provide your muscles and cells with nutrients and oxygen, and pull out byproducts of metabolic processes called metabolites, Viada explains. “The more fit you are, the faster everything returns to baseline when you stop working out.”
What Is a Good Heart Rate Recovery?
The Cleveland Clinic reports that in general, a good one-minute heart rate recovery is 18 BPM or higher. However, this number greatly varies according to factors such as your age, general fitness, what exercise you just did, and other conditions.
Some research points to more specific recommendations for certain demographics. In one study, scientists measured the one-minute HRR of 2,428 adults aged 45-69. The median HRR was 17 BPM for the one-minute test. A one-minute HRR of 23 or better put study participants above the 75th percentile of all participants. And an HRR of 12 or less was a danger zone: Study participants who were in this abnormal range were four times more likely to die in the six years after the study was conducted.
For younger people or those who train more frequently, this 2014 study may be more applicable: In the study, scientists tested the one-, two-, and three-minute HRR of 274 elite male athletes. The average one-minute HRR was 26, with athletes over 18 coming in with an HRR of 29.5 compared to 22.4 for the adolescent athletes. After two minutes, the average HRR was 57.6.
How to Calculate Your Heart Rate Recovery
The basics of measuring HRR are simple: Right as you finish a bout of hard exercise, such as hard running or rowing, check your heart rate. Then rest — do nothing — and check it again one, two, or three minutes later.
If your heart rate was 180 BPM at the end of the exercise bout, and one minute later it’s 160 BPM, your one-minute HRR is 20 BPM. If you check it after two minutes and you’re at 125 BPM, your two-minute HRR is 55 (180 minus 125).
Your Oura Ring makes the heart rate measuring part easy to do: Use the Oura App’s Workout Heart Rate feature to record your heart rate throughout the workout. Note where your interval started, and what your heart rate fell to after a minute or two.
While the one-minute test is more common, Nelson says he prefers the two-minute test because it provides more data to the user: They can test both their one- and two-minute HRRs in a single test, and track both over time.
However, the two-minute test can be tricky, he says: You have to sit still and do nothing for two minutes, which can be a tough 120 seconds for busy, data-driven exercise lovers. But it’s one of the keys to getting an accurate measurement.
Here are two more tips to get accurate, consistent HRR measurements:
1. Use an exercise method that really gets you to your max effort.
HRR, when used as a diagnostic tool, is measured from a maximum level of effort. “The issue when people do it on their own is that if you’ve never gone to a max, you probably don’t know what that feels like, so you may not hit a real max,” Nelson says.
If you’re an accomplished, competitive runner, you may be able to use a treadmill to achieve a peak exercise state. But for mere mortals like the rest of us to reach that peak, Nelson suggests trading the treadmill for a full-body workout: Use a rower or a bike that combines arm and leg movement (like an Assault bike), and go as hard as you can for 5-8 minutes.
2. Rest the same way every time.
After your 5-8 minute bout of exercise, the next step of measuring HRR seems simple: Rest. But how you rest matters, says Viada.
“Your number for your HRR is going to be different depending on if you stop and walk, stop and stand, stop and sit, or stop and lie down,” he says. The way you stand or sit can matter, too: In a 2019 study, soccer players who rested with their hands on their knees recovered faster than others who performed a post-run rest with their hands on their heads.
Viada’s tip: “Make sure that when you are tracking HRR, you are putting yourself in the exact same position after exercise. Make sure it’s something easy and repeatable, and whatever you do, don’t mix them up — do the same thing every time.”
Why Is My Heart Rate Recovery So Low?
If you measure and track your HRR over time, you may find that your recovery is sometimes a little wonky.That could be because of “acute things that can screw it up — periods of long fasting, lack of sleep, huge amounts of psychological stress,” Nelson says. “These can cause an erosion from what your normal HRR should be.”
In a 2017 study, young men who were given caffeine before exercise had a delayed response by their parasympathetic nervous system — aka squishier brakes — than when they didn’t have the caffeine.
In a 2015 study, HRR was shown to be decreased after exercise in young wrestlers who were dehydrated. Hydration status can be impacted not just by how much water you drink, Viada says, but by other substances and medications you’re taking — including caffeine and certain blood pressure-lowering medications like beta-blockers and diuretics.
After just a single night of poor sleep, security guards in a 2015 study saw their one-minute HRR slip from an average of 36 BPM to 31 BPM after a bout of intense exercise.
If you’ve ever exercised on a really hot day, you may have noticed that your heart rate stays elevated for longer after you’ve done something intense.
“You may actually feel hotter, and like you’re sweating more,” Viada says. “Your heart rate is staying elevated to circulate blood to the surface of your skin to help cool you off.” That increase in heart rate can mean that on sweltering days, your HRR is lower.
How Can You Improve Your Heart Rate Recovery?
To improve your own HRR, Nelson says, is just as simple: It’s “primarily just old-school cardiovascular training,” says Nelson. In a study of 544 heart disease patients with abnormal HRR, more than 40 percent were able to achieve a normal HRR after 12 weeks on an exercise program of 1-2 hours, three times per week.
And the program wasn’t super intense, back-breaking work: After a 10-15 minute warmup with stretching, patients did 30-50 minutes of aerobic exercise at 50-80 percent of their max heart rate. For most people, that’s a brisk walk or a light ride on a bike.
To further improve your HRR, mix up your type of cardio workouts, Viada suggests. The more ways you train, the more you can improve your HRR, so vary your workouts: “Do some long, slow distance work. Do some speed work or interval training. Do some tempo work [longer work at a faster, race pace],” Viada says. “All of those put together are going to get you the best results in HRR, and also the best results in performance and health overall.