Thursday, March 5, 2015

How To Use Waking Heart Rate To Achieve Adequate Recovery

Here is a copy of my most recent article submitted to the Clifton Road Runners Monthly Newsletter!

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How To Use Your Waking Heart Rate To Achieve Adequate Recovery
by Shannon McGinn, RRCA Running Coach
March 2015

Adequate recovery is essential to any effective training plan. Training breaks us down. It is during recovery that we grow stronger and faster, not during training. The only way our bodies can adapt to the work we do during training is to have time to heal. Rest can be a complete day off or it can be a very low intensity activity. Failing to rest sabotages training, making us weaker instead of stronger. Accordingly, training hard before adequate recovery has been achieved is a big mistake that can lead to a variety of negative results, including mental burn out, illness, and injury.

How Heart Rate Relates to Recovery:
Often we fail to realize we need more rest and instead push too hard. Motivation to do a great job blinds us to our need to work less, not more. The good news is our heart rate can give us a clear measurable physiological clue, before almost any other sign, that we need rest. This will often happen even before our bodies feel overwhelmed from hard work, before we become mentally burnt out, and before we suffer an injury related to overuse.
The concept is simple. When we are working hard our heart rate elevates. It takes time for our heart rate to return to normal or settle in at a lower rate due to our fitness gains. When we are not recovering well, our heart rate will remain in an elevated state for an extended period of time. Recovery of the heart rate may take very little time after light activity, but it can take over 24 hours after long-duration aerobic exercise or extremely hard workouts. This is why we should not train hard every single day. Assuming there are no other injuries to manage and the athlete is otherwise healthy, then heart rate is a good guide to use to assess readiness for hard training.    

When to Track Heart Rate:
To effectively use heart rate to monitor recovery, we need to track it at the proper time.  There are a lot of variables that impact daily “resting” heart rate. Things like hydration status, sodium consumption, a stressful phone call, etc, all can impact resting heart rate. Consequently, taking your resting heart rate at any random time throughout the day is not a reliably consistent measure of the state of your being.

However, it has been found that Sleeping Heart Rate is much more consistent and a more accurate measure of resting heart rate. After all, when are we more rested than when we are asleep! Some people do have heart rate monitors they can wear all night and review data in the morning. Most of us do not. This makes taking your pulse while sleeping very hard to do. Fortunately, the next best thing to Sleeping Heart Rate is Waking Heart Rate.  

To take your Waking Heart Rate, you must remember to take your pulse immediately upon waking. Most people have trouble remembering to do this first thing in the morning. If you do this as often as possible during the week or two prior to beginning a hard training cycle, you will have good sense of what your baseline Waking Heart Rate is. As training begins in ernest, take periodic measurements to confirm your heart rate is recovering to your baseline as your training builds. Make an effort to measure your heart rate the morning after every very hard workout and again the following morning, after a day of rest, to learn your recovery pattern. When your resting heart rate is elevated by 5-10 or more beats per minute, this is a clear measurable signal that you absolutely need more rest and not more hard work. This is where the training schedule needs to be adjusted to accommodate your body’s needs.  

How to Track Waking Heart Rate:
I found it challenging to remember to take my pulse first thing upon waking. Often I got up to get my coffee and then realize it was too late to take my pulse. When I did remember to do it, I found it difficult to attempt to take my pulse in the dark.  Watching seconds pass on my watch, while counting beats at a different pace, while holding my wrist or neck, while also trying to somehow illuminate the light on my watch was practically impossible. 

To make my life easier, I purchased a pulse oximeter. This is a small non-invasive device that clips on the fingertip. It uses red and infrared light to measure oxygen saturation in the blood. It also measures pulse. I keep it on my night table, next to my alarm clock. When I wake up, I hit snooze, and then clip the pulse oximeter to my finger.  I return to my semi-conscious restful state, or completely fall back to sleep, and let the little machine do its thing.  A few minutes later, usually when my snooze alarm sounds, I look at the digital display and get my waking pulse. The hardest thing to do is to remember to just do this before standing up.

This is the Pulse Oximeter that I bought myself. It works fine. Do some research because there may be better options out there.

Adequate recovery is essential to any effective training plan. Learning how to use your waking heart rate to measure your recovery is a great way to understand whether or not you are getting enough rest. 


Shannon McGinn is an RRCA Certified Distance Running Coach and the owner of Creating Momentum, LLC.  She is a life-long runner, becoming more involved in racing after surviving cancer.  She considers herself a marathon and ultramarathon specialist, earning several USATF National Championship top 10 or better placements in the 50k and 50M distances. She has not missed a day of running since December 2011. Please feel free to send any questions about this article to

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