Why Do Athletes Have a Lower Heart Rate?

Increased cardiovascular fitness causes real physical changes in the structure of the heart. The muscles in the heart wall thicken, and the heart pumps more blood with each beat. That increased efficiency means an athlete's resting heart rate falls to a level that could indicate trouble in a nonathlete. Many athletes don't realize that high levels of conditioning also cause heart symptoms that doctors might mistake for serious problems.

Runners on a cross country trail. (Image: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Normal Heartbeats

The hearts of healthy nonathletic people beat somewhere between 60 and 90 times every minute when they're at rest. Sitting down for at least 10 minutes before taking your pulse slows your heart to its resting rate. Normal cardiac output, or the actual amount of blood pumped, while at rest ranges between 4.8 and 6.4 liters per minute. During exercise, the untrained heart beats faster, but not as efficiently as in trained athletes. Output during maximum exertion increases to 14 to 20 liters per minute, far below the 40 liters per minute of an elite athlete.

Trained Heartbeats

The resting heartbeat of an athlete can fall below 40 beats per minute. When you exercise, your heart works harder when other muscles in the body pump more blood back to the heart. The major muscles of the legs have large veins that fill during the relaxation stage of the movement, and the muscle contraction in the active movement pushes the blood back into the circulatory system. Increasing blood flow triggers a faster heartbeat. Because the heart muscle of conditioned athletes enlarges and strengthens, the hearts of athletes pump more blood per beat. An athlete's maximum heart rate, as well as resting heart rate, falls below the pace of the average heartbeat.

"Athlete's Heart"

Conditioning causes physical and electrical changes in the heart, creating a beneficial condition called "athlete's heart." Aerobic training, such as running or swimming, causes your heart to develop larger heart chambers. Participants in anaerobic sports, such as weightlifting, increase the thickness and strength of their heart muscles. Mixing the two types of training creates both types of heart improvement. During intense exercise, the hearts of highly trained athletes pump as much as twice the volume of blood as the hearts of untrained people.

Unusual Symptoms

Athlete's hearts also develop odd electrical changes that sometimes trigger concern about heart problems. An athlete's electrocardiogram might show abnormal arrhythmia, heart block and other symptoms that signal heart disease if spotted in a nonathlete, says heart surgeon and tri-athlete Lawrence L. Creswell. An exam before beginning training helps eliminate confusion about heart health. If you have history of fainting or heart palpitation; heart disease or seizures in your family; or if you're a man older than 40 or a woman over 50, get a thorough checkup before starting an exercise program.

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