Why Cardio Recovery Rate Matters for Running and Heart Health—and How to Improve Yours

What to know about this underrated fitness metric.

a runner checks their watch while sitting down following a workout

Trevor Raab

Most data-obsessed runners have a grasp on common heart rate metrics, like resting heart rate, max heart rate, and heart rate zones while exercising. But there’s another, often undervalued data point worth keeping tabs on: cardio recovery rate.

Also known as heart rate recovery, this metric is “an important measure that a lot of people don’t pay attention to,” Fabio Comana, faculty lecturer at San Diego State University and master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, tells Runner’s World. Not only can cardio recovery rate provide clues about your fitness, but it can also indicate the presence of heart disease.

Below, all you need to know about cardio recovery rate, including what it is, why it deserves a place in your data set, and tips for improving your current level.

What is cardio recovery rate?

Cardio recovery rate is the difference between your peak heart rate at the end of exercise, and your heart rate at a particular interval of time after you stop exercising—that interval of time is typically 30 seconds, one minute, or two minutes, Tamanna Singh, M.D., sports cardiologist and codirector of the Sports Cardiology Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, tells Runner’s World.

For reference, the Apple Watch measures cardio recovery rate at 1 minute post exercise, while some Garmin watches, like the Forerunner 935 and Forerunner 955, tally it at two minutes, according to the company websites.

Cardio recovery rate measures the ability to return to your baseline heart rate post exercise, says Singh. And that number signifies how quickly your body can switch from being under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system (“flight or fight” mode, which is activated when you exercise) to being under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” state), says Comana.

The higher your heart rate recovery, the quicker your body is able to shift into rest mode and the better your cardiovascular fitness.

What is a good cardio recovery rate?

There’s not one agreed-upon standard for what qualifies as a “good” cardio recovery rate, but research and experts provide insight.

A 2017 study of elite athletes, for example, found that after one minute of rest, their heart rate dipped an average of 23 beats per minute (bpm). According to Comana’s understanding of the research, having any type of drop in your heart rate within the first 10 seconds is “phenomenal,” and any noticeable dip within the first 30 seconds is “damn good as well.”

After a minute, a total drop in your heart rate after you’re done exercising of 15 to 25 bpm likely signals a healthy heart, he says.

Following two minutes, a recovery rate greater than 50 bpm is “probably an indicator of pretty good cardiorespiratory fitness,” says Singh.

Why should runners care about cardio recovery rate?

Your cardio recovery rate can provide intel on your current fitness level, because it essentially demonstrates the efficiency of your cardiopulmonary system (heart, blood vessels, and lungs), says Comana. The greater the drop you have, and the sooner that drop starts to happen, “the better physical state you’re in,” he explains.

Additionally, your cardio recovery rate can provide clues on your heart health. That’s because there’s a correlation between heart rate recovery and cardiovascular disease, says Comana.

A 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that for the general population, reduced heart rate recovery is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events and death from any cause. Getting a little more specific, a 2018 study also in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that heart rate recovery at 10 seconds post exercise is a better predictor of death from coronary artery disease and death from all causes than heart rate recovery at one minute.

Now, a low heart rate recovery doesn’t mean you’re automatically out of shape or destined for heart disease. There are numerous factors that can influence cardio recovery rate, including your age, how intensely you exercised, how rested you were going into the workout, and whether you took any stimulants like caffeine that elevate heart rate, says Comana.

What you did during the rest period also plays a role, says Singh. For example, laying down immediately after exercise would likely yield a higher heart rate recovery versus doing a cooldown activity like walking.

How do you improve your cardio recovery rate?

To boost your cardio recovery rate the next time you run, take deep, controlled breaths as soon as you finish exercising, suggests Comana. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This will allow more oxygen to get to your muscle cells and thus help you quickly transition into recovery mode, he explains.

You can also induce a faster switch over to the parasympathetic state by mentally relaxing—imagine soothing imagery or repeat a calming mantra, Comana adds.

For more long-term gains in your cardio recovery rate, focus on upping your fitness. Both high-intensity training and more steady-state aerobic workouts can help on this front, says Singh, so incorporate what type of exercise you like best and are most likely to do consistently.

Just be sure to ramp up your workouts at a safe pace, incorporating ample rest in between sessions. Otherwise, if you forgo needed recovery, you’re more likely to harm your heart rate recovery by overtraining, Singh explains. (Check out this guide on how to safely ramp up your run training.)

When should you be concerned about cardio recovery rate?

If after stopping exercise, you rest completely for five to 10 minutes and notice that your heart rate hasn’t budged much from its peak, that’s a sign something concerning might be going on, says Singh. It may be as simple as the fact that you’re low on sleep, overtrained, dehydrated, or just really caffeinated. But it could signal an abnormality in your cardiovascular or autonomic nervous systems, Singh explains, which is why it’s worth flagging to your doctor.

Comana suggests bringing up cardio recovery rate to your doctor if it goes down by less than 12 bpm after 1 minute, as research defines that level as abnormal. With a level that low, “you could be very out of shape,” he says. “Or you could be someone who potentially has some evidence of coronary artery disease.”

Important caveat: Having a low cardio recovery rate is not a diagnosis. Along with resting heart rate and heart rate during exercise, “it’s just another layer of paying attention to how your heart responds to stress,” explains Comana. You don’t need to run to the doctor if you see your rate is low on a given day—as long as you feel fine, it’s probably okay to simply monitor that metric the next few times you do near-max-effort exercise, Comana says.

If the low rate seems to be a pattern, bring that up with your doctor the next time you have an appointment, he suggests.

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