Generally speaking, the heart rate of athletes at rest is lower than the average resting heart of adults.
But why do athletes have a lower resting heart rate, and what is the typical heart rate of athletes at rest?
Is it good or bad if the average athlete resting heart rate is 40 or 50 bpm? What about athletes with resting heart rates in the 30s?
In this article, we will discuss factors that affect the resting heart rate of athletes and why athletes typically have a lower resting heart rate than regular adults.
We will cover the following:
- Why Do Athletes Have a Lower Resting Heart Rate?
- Average Athlete Resting Heart Rate vs Normal Resting Heart Rate
- Can An Athlete’s Resting Heart Rate Be High?
- Tips for Measuring Resting Heart Rate
Let’s dive in!
Why Do Athletes Have a Lower Resting Heart Rate?
So, why do athletes have a lower resting heart rate than non-athletes? What causes the average athlete resting heart rate to be slower than a typical resting heart rate?
Aerobic exercises like running, cycling, power walking, swimming, rowing, elliptical, jumping rope, and even HIIT workouts strengthen the heart and lungs.
The heart is a muscle, and like other muscles in the body that get stronger with consistent training, getting aerobic exercise regularly strengthens the heart.
As the heart gets stronger, it is able to contract more forcefully with every beat.
When the heart contracts more forcefully, the stroke volume increases, which means that the heart is able to pump more blood—and thus more oxygen—out to the rest of the body with every single heartbeat.
This means that the heart rate of an athlete at rest is lower than an untrained adult because the heart has become more efficient.
There are also indirect ways that consistent exercise helps lower an athlete’s resting heart rate.
For example, aerobic exercise helps increase the elasticity of blood vessels, meaning that they become more extensible and pliant. This helps reduce blood pressure because the heart is met with less peripheral resistance to blood flow.
As blood vessel elasticity increases, blood pressure decreases, but so does resting heart rate because the heart is able to pump blood into circulation with less exertion.
Additionally, consistent aerobic exercise improves the strength and efficiency of the lungs.
Much in the way that a stronger heart has a higher stroke volume, stronger lungs have a greater tidal volume, which refers to the amount of air inhaled per breath.
The lungs become more efficient at taking in a greater amount of oxygen per breath.
This, in turn, can lower the resting heart rate of athletes because the lungs and diaphragm do not need to work as hard at rest to take in plenty of oxygen for the body, decreasing the workload on your heart to oxygenate and fuel the lungs and diaphragm muscle.
Finally, another significant factor that indirectly causes a decrease in the average resting heart rate of athletes is that the muscles become more efficient at using oxygen.
During exercise, as well as during rest, the muscles are one of the primary consumers of oxygen and the driver of a higher heart rate in order for the heart to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the muscles.
Endurance training increases both capillary density and mitochondrial density in the muscles, improving the delivery, extraction, and utilization of oxygen for aerobic energy production.
This not only helps decrease your heart rate at various submaximal exercise intensities, but it can also lower the athlete’s resting heart rate.
If the muscles are better perfused with oxygenated blood due to more capillaries, they can take up more oxygen every time the heart beats.
Then, because aerobic training increases mitochondrial density in skeletal muscles (mitochondria are the small organelles or specialized structures in muscles that help convert glucose, glycogen, or fat to ATP (usable energy)), the oxygen that is taken up by the muscle can be immediately used.
To this end, as muscles become stronger through consistent exercise, the relative demand for oxygen decreases at rest because the muscles are accustomed to much higher workloads.
Essentially, consistent aerobic exercise:
- Improves the efficiency and health of the cardiovascular system
- Strengthens the heart muscle directly
- Decreases blood pressure
- Strengthens the lungs and diaphragm
- Increases the elasticity of the blood vessels
- Builds new capillaries and mitochondria
- Decreases the oxygen needs of muscles at rest
Thus, the average resting heart rate of a fit individual is lower than that of an untrained adult.
Average Athlete Resting Heart Rate vs Normal Resting Heart Rate
According to the American Heart Association, the normal resting heart rate for adults is typically between 60 and 100 beats per minute, though it tends to be lower in runners and other endurance athletes due to physiological adaptations from consistent training.
There isn’t data about the average resting heart rate of athletes, but according to Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, MPH, at Harvard Health, athletes sometimes have resting heart rates below 40 beats per minute due to positive adaptations due to exercise.
On the other hand, a resting heart rate below 60 bpm in sedentary individuals can be a sign of an electrical problem with the heart, hypothyroidism, heart disease, or damage from a heart attack.
According to Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute, bradycardia in athletes (a resting heart rate below 60 bpm) is generally considered a healthy adaptation to exercise.
However, not all cases of bradycardia are benign.
Bradycardia, or a very low resting heart rate in athletes, has been associated with an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, which is a heart arrhythmia that is known to increase the risk of stroke, heart failure, and even death.
Overall, although there can be a range, athletes tend to have a resting heart rate below 60 bpm, so if you are a fit individual and your heart rate is slower than 60 bpm, it is likely not a cause for concern.
Can An Athlete’s Resting Heart Rate Be High?
While the general trend is that the typical resting heart rate of athletes is lower than for sedentary or relatively inactive adults, some athletes have a high resting heart rate.
There are various factors that can cause a high resting heart rate in athletes.
For example, if you are dehydrated, under chronic or acute stress, or in a warm climate, your resting heart rate may be higher than normal, even if you are a fit athlete who normally has a low resting heart rate.
Furthermore, there is another common problem that can cause a high resting heart rate in athletes—poor recovery or overtraining.
A sudden increase in your normal resting heart rate can also be a sign that you’re getting sick and your heart is working harder to stave off illness.
With this in mind, monitoring resting heart rate can be a valuable practice for athletes and can provide a window into your training status and the potential need for more rest.
If you do have concerns about your resting heart rate being too low, you should speak with your healthcare provider.
Tips for Measuring Resting Heart Rate
In most cases, it is best to take your resting heart rate level immediately upon waking up in the morning before you get up and start moving around or introduce caffeine, stress, or exercise into your day.
Any of these factors will stimulate your autonomic nervous system, which is the branch of the nervous system that controls your heart rate.
Therefore, in order to get a true resting heart rate, you want your body to be relaxed and still, having rested for several hours.
Your heart rate changes throughout the day based on a number of factors, the primary one being your activity level.
For example, your resting heart rate will be much lower than your heart rate during a brisk walk, strength training workout, climbing the stairs, or trail run because the cardiovascular demand during physical activity is much higher than it is at rest.
Your resting heart rate should be low because when you are lying down and in a calm and relaxed state, your muscles, tissues, and heart need much less oxygen—and thus less blood (since blood carries oxygen)—than they do when you are exercising.
Therefore, your heart does not need to contract as frequently or forcefully in order to pump enough blood and oxygen around your body while still meeting the needs of your muscles and tissues.
This means that your resting heart rate is lower than your exercise heart rate.
To learn more about the benefits of consistent exercise, check out our guide to the benefits of running here.