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The Benefits and Risks of the Cyclist Resting Heart Rate

October 13, 2021 0 Comments

Close-up of a woman’s arms with one hand pointed at the heart rate monitor on her other wrist.

Cycling comes with many benefits, both physical and mental. Near the top among them is the way it boosts your heart health. 

This benefit is most easily seen by how much your resting heart rate can drop after cycling regularly for a while. That’s a sure sign that your workouts are doing their job.

But there’s a catch you should be aware of with your low resting heart rate. If you ever need to go into an emergency room or for an operation, you’ll want to know what it is. That’s why longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie is here to help you understand the good and the bad of the typical cyclist resting heart rate.

Why Do Cyclists Have Low Heart Rates?

“One of the biggest reasons people get into doing any type of athletic activity is their health,” says Darryl. “They may not know what the numbers are; they just know that’s good for their health.”

Whether or not you know the numbers, the effects are real. Coach Darryl knew a friend who started cycling with a resting heart rate of around 80 bpm. After about a half-decade of cycling, his resting heart rate ran around 63–65 bpm.

So, why the change? Well, Darryl isn’t a doctor (and neither are we), but we can help you understand the basics that influence the cyclist resting heart rate.

“When you cycle a lot, your body gets used to pumping blood around at a higher rate than it does than when you’re just sitting, walking or out for a hike,” says Darryl. “As you work out, the heart gets larger and stronger and it’s able to push more blood with each and every beat.”

Not only that, but your veins and arteries are used to pumping more, so they’re wider and more relaxed, plus you grow more blood vessels and everything is cleaner. Further still, your blood holds more oxygen, allowing every pump to deliver the oxygen you need more quickly and effectively.

Basically, endurance athletes’ bodies optimize themselves to performing better at high levels for a long time, and heart and circulatory health are a key part of that. Because of this, the whole system is more efficient, and you can get enough blood through the body with a lower resting heart rate.

Health Benefits of a Low Resting Heart Rate

So what’s the big deal? Well, your resting heart rate can be a key indicator of your long-term health.

Studies have shown that higher resting heart rates can mean double or even triple the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. That’s likely because your whole system needs to work harder, and that wears on it over the years. Essentially, your heart is pumping more, and each pump is less efficient. 

It’s important to understand that resting heart rate is just one indicator of overall health, and there are factors that influence your pulse besides just physical exercise. Your physician can help you understand your heart health in the context of your other vital signs. 

Nonetheless, the general rule is that aiming for a lower resting heart rate is a good thing, and cycling does a great job of helping you achieve this goal.

The Downside of the Cyclist Resting Heart Rate

A low resting heart rate, while desirable for good health, is not common for most average individuals. So if you end up in the emergency room or you need to have an operation and your doctor is unaware of the influence cycling has had on your heart rate, they may overreact and give you an injection to raise your pulse.

This comes straight from one of Darryl’s friends, who also happens to be an ER nurse — she even won national ER nurse of the year a few decades ago. As she told him, someone on her table with a heart rate in the 40s or 50s would be flagged for a heart rate booster to make sure they’re safe.

But if you’re a performance athlete, you don’t need the injection. And getting it when you don’t need it could be detrimental to your health.

That’s why Coach Darryl recommends two things for cyclists and other endurance athletes:

  1. Put your normal resting heart rate on your insurance card. The hospital will always look here (they want to get paid!), so make it obvious. Darryl types his in red and tapes it onto his card. This is critical for ER visits when you may be unconscious and unable to communicate.
  2. If you have a procedure planned, tell your doctor — and anyone else in the room on the day of your procedure — about your low resting heart rate. 

Doing those two things will help you avoid an unnecessary intervention and prevent complications. So, don’t stop cycling — your heart will thank you! Just be sure your doctors know about your superpowers when you need to go under the knife.

 

Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels