Measuring and Tracking Your Resting Heart Rate

English: A finger mounted pulse oximeter with ...
A pulse oximeter, AKA your new training gadget (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, I told you why you need to start paying attention to your resting heart rate. This week, I’ll talk about some specific ways you can both measure and track that information. Personally, I’ve known for years about how helpful taking my resting heart rate can be, but I’ve only recently started actually paying attention to it. The reason? I couldn’t figure out a good way to actually get that information from bed first thing in the morning. Something tells me this is a very common excuse, so let’s look at how to get over that hump.

There are three basic ways to take your resting heart rate: taking and counting your pulse, using a heart rate monitor, and using a pulse oximeter. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each:

The old-fashioned way: with your fingers and a watch. The obvious pro here is that it requires absolutely no specialized equipment: you likely have the ability to take your own pulse, and I’m guessing that you have a watch or smartphone that you can use to measure time. You can take your pulse for 60, 30, 15, or 10 seconds and then multiply accordingly to get your beats per minute (BPM). The advantage to a longer time frame is that it’s more accurate, but the disadvantage is that it’s easier to lose count. I’ve found the best compromise between longer duration and ease of counting to be at the 15 second mark; you’ll then multiply by 4 to get your BPM. However, there are several cons here, starting with the fact that counting and math may not be your finest skills immediately upon waking. There’s also the issue of having to see the watch you’re using, which may require turning on a light. If you sleep with a partner and wake up significantly earlier than they do, this may prove difficult unless they’re incredibly forgiving or an incredibly sound sleeper.

Low-tech way: with a heart rate monitor.ย The pro here is that this method doesn’t require you to expend much mental energy – no counting or math involved. However, unless you have one of those fancy strapless heart rate monitors, you’ll need to wear the chest strap while you sleep. Not the worst thing in the world, but definitely not ideal. (If you’re like me, the challenge won’t be sleeping in it but remembering to put it on at night!) Plus, depending on the backlight/display of your particular model, you may also need to turn on a light to read the data.

High-tech way: with a pulse oximeter. For those of you who don’t know what a pulse oximeter is, it’s the little clip that they put on your finger at the doctor’s office to get your heart rate as well as your oxygen saturation (how much oxygen your blood is actually carrying). The pro here is that it’s absolutely effortless: you put it on your finger, wait a couple of seconds, and your heart rate is displayed right there in front of you. To answer the question in your mind: yes, you can buy one for home. Amazon (for example) has a variety of battery-operated home and travel models that run around $30-$50, which is a relatively small investment considering how much you’ve probably already spent on training and racing. Unlike the deluxe unit in your doctor’s office, these are one-piece with the data display on the same unit that you clip onto your finger. You can even find models that have a glowing LCD display, eliminating the need to turn on a light and wake your partner in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve been using one for several weeks now and it is hands down the easiest way to get this data. Just leave it on your nightstand (or somewhere you’ll be able to easily reach it from bed) and you’re all set.

When it comes to tracking this information, you can simply enter it in your training log. After a few weeks you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your baseline is and when you’re significantly above it. You can expect your resting heart rate to be a little high the day following a long or hard workout, but it should come down the following day. After a while, you may find that you don’t even need to record the daily value, as you’ve gotten to know your patterns and when you’re venturing outside your body’s comfort zone.

For those of you who really want to take a deep dive into assessing your recovery, Restwise provides a service that tracks your resting heart rate along with several other pieces of data (including amount and quality of sleep, hydration, mood, and oxygen saturation). While it’s an immensely utility that’s based on some pretty solid research (and where it’s based on less-than-solid research, they tell you and explain how they’re taking that into consideration), it requires a significant commitment to get the most out of it. For starters, it requires tracking a considerable amount of data (about 10-12 items) on a daily basis. Secondly, while it will start assigning you a “recovery score” on day 1 of use, it takes about a month of regular, consistent, daily use before you get accurate judgements about your recovery state from it. Lastly, it’s expensive. The first 30 days are free, but after that it ranges from $12 to $19/month, depending on how long of a term you subscribe to. This isn’t for the casual runner, but if you’re really trying to get aggressive with your training and want to be able to closely monitor how you’re responding? Restwise can be a valuable tool.

What’s been keeping you from taking your resting heart rate?ย If you’ve been taking it for a while, do you find it helpful?

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In a previous life, I worked on computers and spent all day sitting. Thanks to running, I've rebooted my career and am now a running and triathlon coach and soon-to-be physical therapist. I've also got the mind and spirit of an elite trapped in the body of a back-of-the-packer.

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  1. During my ablation procedure, the nurses were all impressed that my resting heart rate was under 40! If I was measuring it I could have been impressed with myself way long ago ๐Ÿ™‚ In all seriousness, especially after my experience with the SVT I am way more interested in tracking my resting and running heart rate now and I totally appreciate all your advice. Thanks!

  2. There are also pulse oximeter apps available for smartphones (with questionable accuracy), as well as masimo’s oximeter that can record data onto your iphone.