Heart Rate Questions

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I’ve done a few posts about athletes and their hearts.  I am lucky to have been able to go to Kansas City to see Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist that was interviewed for a piece for the Wall Street Journal and did a Ted Talk about aging athletes and their hearts.  Obviously, I’m a aging athlete and have concerns about the studies.

So, I’ve been wearing a heart rate strap this year, recording my heart rate on a daily basis.  I didn’t wear one too much over the years, so don’t have a ton of data to compare myself to myself.  But the numbers are really screwy.

Here’s what I’ve found.  My max heart rate is lower generally.  I haven’t been able to use one running, since I can’t really run, but riding, it seems like my max is close to 20 beats lower than it was when I was in my 20’s.  I think that is normal.

But the weird thing is the lower number has dropped too.  Just about the same, actually more.

Yesterday I went on the evening club ride.  I am pretty tweaked from MTB racing on Sunday and wanted to rest some.  I still ended up pulling the first half of the ride, but then started sitting on. I was watching my heart rate and couldn’t believe how low it was.  How low it was while I was riding normally, and especially going downhill.

It was sitting in the mid 80’s most of the time and when I was going easier, sometimes dropped into the upper 40’s.  That was the normal number of my heart rate when I woke up when I was living at the Olympic Training Center.  I would never have thought that I would have that number while exercising.

The weird thing is when we stopped for a pee stop, my heart rate was pretty steady in the lower 60’s.  Then when we started rolling along, it dropped again to the lower 50’s, even the 40’s. What is up with that?

My max heart rate is sort of depressing.  I don’t think I’ve seen it higher than the lower 170’s this year racing.  On a trainer, I saw 181, but normally, it sits the max number is in the upper 160’s.  That is pretty low compared to historical numbers.  But it can sit super close to my max the whole race.

On Sunday, I was going pretty hard racing mountain bikes.  My max heart rate for the race was 169.  But my average heart rate was 161.  And I think it would have been a couple beats higher if I would have been going full tilt the last 20 minutes.  That is crazy, having an average heart rate just a few beats less than the max.

Early in the race, when my heart rate was 165, I was hurting.  After about 1 1/2 hours, 165 seemed easy.  So I rode with my heart rate close to 96% of my maximum and it seemed pretty easy, not an extreme effort.   This might not be so abnormal for athletes as the low numbers.

The ride I did yesterday, I was tired.  Like I said, I pulled for the first 25 miles and then sat on the rest.  The battery in my power meter died last Friday, and I forgot, so don’t have the power numbers, but I’m sure it was under 200 watts average.  But our average speed was 19 mph and it was a little hilly with some wind.  I had an average heart rate for the ride of 85 bpm.

How can I got out and do a training ride with an heart rate average of 85 bpm?  That seems silly. I don’t get it.  I don’t understand how my low number can drop into the 40’s when that used to be the numbers I had when I woke up.  My morning number is in the upper 30’s/lower 40’s now.

I don’t think I have any heart issues. I have no history in my family of anyone with heart problems.  Like I said above, I went to see James O’Keefe a couple years ago and I was good to go.

But these numbers, compared to my younger self have changed so much I don’t get it.  I’m not so worried about the situation, I’m just interested in it.  I’m wondering if it is normal?

Garmin screen from yesterday's evening ride.

Garmin screen from yesterday’s evening ride.


I had some extra apples sitting around, so made a pie that turned out to be lunch.

I had some extra apples sitting around, so made a pie that turned out to be lunch.

Tucker got the extra pie crust.

Tucker got the extra pie crust.


31 thoughts on “Heart Rate Questions

  1. Nathan S

    Have you cross validated your HR strap to make sure it’s measuring accurately? Done a quick pulse count while riding? It could be that when you are riding your road bike that the chest strap stops making full contact and skips beats, when you stop and stand up it reconnects. MTB is a more upright position so your race numbers may be more accurate.

  2. Tom

    That seems kind of strange. Maybe the strap is not picking up all of the data and beats occurring? I’ve had that issue with several heart rate straps over the years.

  3. Jeff Dorminey

    You sure your garmin is picking up correct? I’m 59 and still see max Hr of mid 170’s w/ resting Hr of 48-50. I know every ones HR is different but yours seems way off.

  4. jinglenuts

    could be that pie? 🙂

    an interesting question would be – what happens to a long term athlete if they just give up a sport, being that the body is so used to all those chemicals pumping through them (adrenalin, dopamine, etc…)

    I know many long term athletes who have had bypass surgery. I think going really hard for over 4 years can be tough on the body if not done with moderation… I know plenty who have be plagued with injury and illness due to pushing the limits.

  5. Ryan

    My max HR is about 190, maybe as high as 193, which I’ve only hit a few times in my life, when rested. But I can normally hit 185-188 if I want to, but I rarely want to hurt that much. Anyway, a couple years ago, I was 27 at the time, I got myself so overtrained I could not raise my heart rate over 140bpm even riding as hard as possible. I felt like shit of course, but was stupid and thought I wasn’t eating right and was bonking all the time. Took a few weeks easy not riding much, and things went back to normal, could hit 180+ again and average 140-150bpm on rides like normal.

  6. Calvin Jones

    You surely remember the early monitors with Levi’s Team? For a few guys it became a video, trying to get the highest score, I mean bpm.

  7. Dan Lind

    I’d replace your HR strap battery…way too much fluctuation to have confidence in its accuracy.

    Your max heart rate will become slightly lower as you get older – that’s why the generic way to approximate MHR it is to subtract your age from 220. So if you saw 181 sitting on a trainer earlier this year, then I’d guess your true MHR is closer to mid-high 180’s. Making that assumption, you’re racing at approximately 85-90% of your MHR, which would be about right.

  8. Steve Tilford Post author

    Guys-I’ve tried a couple different straps. I bought a Wahoo strap and used it for a couple months before I lost it at Joe Martin. It was reading the exact same. I’ve taken my pulse when I’m descending and the it is correct. It isn’t bad data.

  9. Gabby

    im around 30 and have noticed that after a day or two after a hard race or training i cant get my hr up over 150 (i have a max in the 190s). The rpe still feels hard as hell, but doesnt have the corresponding hr numbers to match. I think youre experiencing something similar. I dont know what its called or what its cause is. I image it has something to do with the state of recovery youre in and some kind of systems damage control or just being really dehydrated from the day before and trying to pump sludge through your veinsl. I know that doesnt really help, but maybe it means what youre experiencing isnt all that uncommon. I usually feel better in a couple of days.

  10. Joe Masser

    I stopped racing seriously 16 years ago. I am 38 now. I had been training consistently with a HRM for at least the last five years of my racing so know my numbers pretty well. After starting riding again these past few years I’m not nearly as fit as I was then, but not too bad. I find that I am about 20 BPM lower at any threshold effort or below. My Resting HR is also consistently in the 37-42 range, something that I only saw back then when I was at my very best–I am certainly not at that level now. While I used to be able to get up into the upper 180’s for a max, I have not seen anything over 175 in the last few years, which used to be my threshold. Endurance rides, I now average somewhere in the 110-120 range at the same perceived effort that would have been 132-138. Long story, short, I have a similar situation. If the trend continues at this rate I would expect to be close to your numbers 10-15 years down the road. The only difference is that I can’t ride a whole race at 96% max like you can, but training and fitness might have a whole lot to do with that. 🙂

  11. mark

    I’m very interested to see what people say here. I’ve noticed in the last 8-12 months that I’ve lost 10-12 BPM of my max HR and it seems that my whole HR scale has just shifted by this much as well. I can’t imaging it’s just better economy. I’ve been riding well, I would just like the top end back I feel I’m missing something with hard efforts. I’m 46 and over the last couple years I’ve see a max of 203 ish but more normally 195 or so, now I can’t seem to bring it over 185-186… I can’t seem to find any info on it.

  12. Charles Procner

    It may be the device reading the data from the strap. Try borrowing someone’s wrist device to check your numbers. Some time my power meter will show really low numbers. I checked it against a Polar wrist watch (2 HR straps at the same time). The Polar showed more realistic numbers compared to the power meter. If I shift the strap a bit he power meter eventually settles down to realistic numbers. It does throw off the averages when that happens. I don’t worry about it too much as long as the power numbers look right.
    Heart rate is generally considered a less reliable indication of conditioning than power because many things can affect it. Blood chemistry and fatigue play a big part. You’ve mentioned some cramping during races and how you’ve been super busy and need to catch up on rest in recent posts. There may be a clue there.

  13. Franz

    I have noticed similar data as Steve. My heart rate is lower both when riding hard and riding easy than it was 20 years ago. I know I am on an easy ride when my cadence is higher than my heart rate.

  14. Krakatoa East of Java

    Your heart is bigger now. Holds greater volume. It doesn’t need to beat as much to provide the same volume of blood your body needs. So it’s going to be slower on the low AND high ends.

    You also probably have fast recovery, so when you’re going downhill, sitting on a saddle, barely pedaling, there’s not much work for your heart to do. Your brain knows that this is “easy time” so it drops the HR. In contrast, standing up is actually a bit of work. So it ticks-up higher. The brain anticipates you having to do some work.

    It’s funny… when I’m at my fittest on the bike, I’ll go help a friend move something from his car to the house. I’ll start sweating (and might even start breathing hard). He’ll appear as if he lifted nothing. I attest this to my brain “gearing-up” to perform real work. Even if I don’t end up doing anything hard. At races, just putting on my skin-suit used to turn the water valves on. Even if it wasn’t hot.

  15. Krakatoa East of Java

    Cardiac “drift”. Heart rates change, and don’t stay the same. By themselves, they’re rather unreliable to predict fitness. That’s why everyone started looking at power data more so than heart rates.

    Try this test:
    Find your favorite “hard climb” and see what your average heart rate is for a certain level of effort. Record it. Then go back when the temperature is 10-15 degrees hotter. You should see a higher heart rate. Significantly so. This is why we can’t reliably use heart rates as any kind of baseline (or benchmark) for increasing fitness.

  16. Barb

    That’s an interesting point to ponder. Does the questionably lower heart rate affect performance? In other words, over-training, per your experience, resulted in a really low heart rate, so does that mean a lot less oxygen is being pumped through the body with a really low heart rate, so performance suffers/Steve saying he wasn’t riding well, not feeling up to par etc in these races? Over-training was a subject visited more than a few posts ago… But other opinions about the possible inaccurate fluctuations of the heart rate strap signals is a thought that also comes to mind in these readings.

  17. Gabby

    And id speculate why Stravas fitness/fatigue formula doesnt work accurately with just HR. It cant really compensate for cardiac drift or the temperature difference over time. Not only are you usually fitter in june than in feb, its also 50 degrees warmer. Power is really the only absolute.
    I think most people will only notice significant drift at the end of long and hard rides and when the temperature increases drastically. Nuance fluctuations are hard to notice.

  18. steve

    larger stroke volume due to a highly fit heart and/or genetics could be some of the reason for lower hr numbers.

  19. The Cyclist

    I wish my heart would gently idle at 80 BMP when I’m out riding at 200 watts.

  20. Dog

    I would tend to believe Steve’s numbers. It is sort a given that as you age your highend numbers get lower so your max heart rate may be 20-30% lower than it was in your youngster prime. My resting heart rate is lower now that I am my 60s than it was when I was younger and in a lot better shape.
    I always advise people with slow rates in the 30s and 40s at rest to have a med ID that states Sinus Bradycardia 35 (or 45 or whatever it is). Doctors that don’t know you in emergency rooms worry when they see a unresponsive patient come in with a super low heart rate. They think head injury. Things are getting better as more and more lifetime exercise people are now in their senior years.

    I am also a bit surprised of the number or 60 plus guys that have some sort of cardiac anomaly after never missing a beat in 50 plus years or athletics. I have a number of friends with pacers and other hardware implanted that you would think had hearts made of steel. IMHO growing old ain’t very pretty, but it beats the other options.

  21. channel_zero

    Does the questionably lower heart rate affect performance?

    The short answer is the heart is unable to produce it’s usual high BPM due to fatigue. I don’t know the origin of the fatigue. The only thing I know is if an athlete gets sufficient recovery, the high BPM returns.

    I got to a point where my max hr was about 200+ bpm when I was feeling good, and the ability to ride very near 190bpm for long periods of time. Yet many were much faster than I at much lower ranges.

    It turns out BPM is just one number. It is pretty informative when it comes to determining fatigue first thing in the morning. That seems to be about it.

  22. Chuck

    Be sure your monitor is getting proper contact. I had problems with weird output numbers and was told by friends to slide my monitor down sa bit. My monitor was picking up extra beats, picked up the Lub and the Dub. Since then I’ve been getting consist readings – no more superhuman numbers.

    Keep up the blogs, great reading.

  23. Mark Florence

    Not exactly related to what you are experiencing, but I did a two part podcast series regarding Master’s athletes and heart issues, might be of interest. Based on a Velonews article. Interviewees include Lennard Zinn, Chris Case (Velonews Managing Editor) and heart rhythm doctor Dr. John Mandrola.

    Part 1.


    Part 2.


  24. Bruce Gilbert

    This may not be relevant, but this year (at 65) I was put on blood pressure medication. It has been having a pretty drastic effect on my performance. Last evening we had a short training ride. Kept it a around 21mph for the 22 miles. I don’t think my heart rate got over 105bpm more than twice. I believe there is a huge correlation between heart size or stroke volume and long term volumetric athletes like us. The real problem is that there is so little data available from the medical community. Probably because there are so few people like us running around compared to the vast population.

    Consider this for a moment. It may just be one of my Alzheimer’s hallucinations, but look at your electrolyte needs and what you are using. There may be a relationship that is worth considering.

  25. chiefhiawatha

    That it goes higher when standing and your jersey not flapping, etc, then lower when you’re leaned over, tells me this is a problem with the strap.

  26. Dude who lives in the Midwest

    I’m 46 and still can get my heart rate up to the low 190s. I’m not sure if I need to be concerned about this or happy with a significant range still (I have a resting heart rate of around 57). And interestingly, my mentality on the bike has improved and I can generally take a lot more suffering on the bike.

    I’m not sure if the low 190s reading is just the HRM acting funny or not, because I’m SUPPOSED to be maxing out at 175 or even a bit lower according to the formulation 220 – age.

  27. Laz

    I am a doctor, but not a cardiologist and don’t have any clinical training in cardiology. However I do know a thing or two, and I’m a cyclist. The maximum heart rate is a function of a person’s age. It declines with time. The most commonly known equation to predict this is (220 – age). However Tanaka et al. (2001, JACC) provided a new regression equation, derived in adults, that is better. It is (208 – (0.7 x age)). Everyone is different. If you look at Tanaka’s paper, you will see that individuals cluster both above and below the regression line. Myself, I have a generally low Max HR. I’m in my early 40s, and I don’t think I have seen 170 bpm in a long time. I asked my father, who cycled as well, if he had a generally lower max HR and he said yes. It’s no doubt genetic for me. Bradycardia is the technical term for low HR (defined as less than 60 bpm at rest). Obviously not all bradycardia is pathological. But sometimes it is a sign of a real problem. Sick sinus syndrome, atrioventricular block (heart block), atrial fibrillaton, and others are things that could be considered. Atrial fibrillation is an interesting thing–a lot of discussion about whether it is more prevalent among cyclists and endurance athletes. Fortunately we live in a time where it is possible for these things to be checked and evaluated by professionals. Your ticker is an important piece of the machine that you are. If there is a question, then prudence would dictate getting an evaluation, in my opinion. Again, my opinion as a person who is not trained in this area, and this is not official medical advice.

  28. Roger

    The super low number while exercising is odd and I would check your equipment before going to much further with physiological theories. I’m 53 now and have been primarily a distance runner my whole competitive career (Olympic trials qualifier level in 84 and 88). I raced MTB on the NUE series in the 50+ at a decent level for a couple of years before a near death experience (shattered C1 and C2) ended my bike racing endeavors in Jan of 2015. But I have HR data for the past 35 years. In college when I raced at 5k and 10k on the track my max HR was 210, now it is 178. That’s in line with what you are seeing I think. But, my resting HR had gone from 34 as a 20 something to a per accident rate of 45 in the mornings. I also noticed, as you did, that I could hold very near my max HR for a couple of hours (95% range). I would say that my experience as a 50+ athlete were very similar to yours regarding HR except for that very low excising HR. I would routinely see 105 to 115 when spinning comfortably but never in the 60-80 range.

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