Because your resting heart rate indicates how efficiently your heart pumps blood throughout your body, your pulse rate is a useful tool for gauging your fitness level. Athletes tend to have lower resting heart rates because training programs that build speed, fitness, muscle and endurance also train your heart muscles to pump a higher volume of blood with each heartbeat. Ultimately, it takes fewer heartbeats to power a well-conditioned athlete during intense training as well as during rest.
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Resting Heart Rate
While the normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute, conditioned athletes and other highly fit individuals might have normal resting heart rates of 40 to 60 beats per minute. This indicates a high level of cardiovascular fitness. Gender is another factor in resting heart rate norms because women at various fitness levels tend to have higher pulse rates on average than men of comparable fitness levels. For example, the average resting heart rate of an elite 30-year-old female athlete ranges from 54 to 59 beats per minute, while the resting heart rate for men of the same age and fitness level ranges from 49 to 54, according to the YMCA's "Y's Way to Fitness."
Maximum Heart Rate
Knowing your maximum heart rate helps you identify a target range for your pulse during exercise. The basic formula for calculating maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. Your target heart rate during exercise ranges from 50 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, depending on the intensity of the activity. However, this method for calculating maximum heart rate and target heart rate zones might be inaccurate for well-conditioned individuals or athletes.
Adjusting MHR for Athletes
Because athletes have lower resting heart rates, the maximum heart rates and target heart rates for athletes vary from those of sedentary or less fit individuals. United Kingdom track and field coach Brian Mackenzie combines an overview of research regarding maximum heart rate calculations based on gender, age, sport and fitness level to help athletes identify more accurate heart rate zones. Use the calculator on Mackenzie's website to estimate maximum heart rate based on various research models.
Athletes can manually estimate MHR by multiplying their age by 0.85 and subtracting the answer from 217, based on combined research models, says Mackenzie. Elite athletes under age 30 subtract three beats, while well-conditioned athletes over age 50 add two and those over age 55 add four beats. If your sport is rowing, subtract three beats, or subtract five beats if you're an elite cyclist. Besides using heart rate targets, even elite athletes can judge exercise intensity using the conversation method. If it's difficult to carry on a conversation without frequent pauses to take a breath, you're likely working out near the higher end of your target heart rate zone.