Healthy Ways to a Lower Heart Rate

Controlling heart rate is something I've become very familiar with while training firefighters and kettlebell athletes. In both situations a lower heart rate translates into healthier workouts, better recovery, and increased performance.

The FDNY tests its new recruits on a graded step mill for 5 minutes wearing a 50 pound vest, continually monitoring heart rate. Using the widely accepted 220-minus-age formula for maximum heart rate, candidates are required to stay within 90 percent of that equation before being given the green flag.

A kettlebell lifter may work up to 10 or even 20 minutes in a single set. The ability to perform that kind of continuous work depends upon recovery within the set itself. A near maximum heart rate, achieved too early in the set, will force an early finish.

For any athlete or exerciser, learning to gain some control over heart and breathing rate will translate into a healthier and more productive performance. Below are a few tips to help you achieve that objective.

As breathing slows, so does heart rate. To that extent, deep breathing can lower heart rate. The major stimulus in the body to increase breathing (and associated heart rate) comes from excess carbon dioxide, not insufficient oxygen. Taking deeper breaths can rapidly drop CO2 levels in the blood stream. Another benefit of deep breathing is a reduction of lactic acid buildup in your muscles, which translates into improved performance.

Practice this in a non-workout setting before attempting during an actual training session. Stop if you feel dizzy or short of breath.
  • Focus on the exhalation phase of breathing and only passively inhale
  • Pull your belly in on exhalation, forcing more air out. This will increase the amount of air exhaled as well as inhaled
  • On inhalation relax your abdominal muscles so that the inflow of air can effortlessly fill your lungs
Additional Tips on Lowering Heart and Breathing Rate

Although this might seem like an obvious point, it must be emphasized. Whether running, biking, walking, or kettlebell training, pacing is of paramount importance to staying in control. Keep your pace below what you can handle. This training technique requires patience, and over time you can gradually increase your pace without reaching maximum heart rate levels.

This tip picks up where pacing left off. Slowly but surely you can increase overall energy output and performance, but the key is working within your body's ability to handle the current workout. In other words, keep initial pacing slow until your body builds the capacity to perform at a faster pace and still maintain a slower heart rate.

Control your thoughts by thinking about something positive and resisting the urge to panic about the big picture. Thoughts such as, "Oh no, I'll never get any faster," have no place here. Stay focused on your ability to do more work with less stress on the body. Congratulate yourself for completing the same workout at a reduced heart rate. Stay focused on the positive results and the immediate improvements. While in the workout, don't project three months into the future. Appreciate the small gains in performance and celebrate them.

Heart rate is a relative number. The 220 minus age formula for maximum heart rate mentioned above is a general guideline, and a good place to start. Whether you fit the formula or not, the techniques described above will provide you with the tools to ultimately work at higher levels and recover faster, while putting less stress on your cardio-respiratory system.