Heart rate recovery in elite athletes: the impact of age and exercise capacity

Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2017 Mar;37(2):117-123. doi: 10.1111/cpf.12271. Epub 2015 Jul 4.


There is compelling evidence that postexercise heart rate recovery (HRR) is a valid indicator of sympaticovagal balance. It is also used in prescription and monitoring of athletic training. The purpose of our study was to determine HRR after maximal exercise among elite athletes with respect to age. A total of 274 elite male Caucasian athletes were randomly selected from the larger sample and divided into two groups: adolescent (group Y) and adult athletes (≥18 years; group A). They performed maximal cardiopulmonary exercise testing on a treadmill. Heart rate recovery was calculated as the rate of decline of HR from peak exercise to rates 1, 2 and 3 min after cessation of exercise (HRR1, HRR2 and HRR3). A significantly higher HRR1 was found in group A (29·5 ± 15·6 versus 22·4 ± 10·8, P<0·001), but HRR3 was higher in group Y (82·7 ± 10·2 versus 79·9 ± 12·25; P = 0·04). Stepwise multivariate linear regression analysis showed that, among all subjects, the HRR1 alone was independently associated with age (P<0·001). The maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) was in a negative relationship with HRR1 and in a positive one with HRR3 (P<0·05) with respect to all athletes. The HRR during 3 min postexercise should be reported for the purpose of better assessing functional adaptation to exercise among elite athletes as well as the age-associated differences in recovery. Higher values of HRR1 should be expected in older athletes, and HRR3 could be used as an index of aerobic capacity, irrespective of age.

Keywords: autonomic balance; cardiopulmonary exercise testing; elite athletes; heart rate recovery; maximal oxygen consumption.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Athletes*
  • Athletic Performance*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Exercise Test
  • Exercise Tolerance*
  • Heart / innervation*
  • Heart Rate*
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Recovery of Function
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult