Around the world millions of people have Smart watches giving instant feedback on a plethora of training statistics and daily activity levels. Heart rate is one of the most common metrics measured and talked about amongst friends, colleagues and training partners.
But why are we so interested in heart rate? Why, as sports scientists, do we measure the heart rate of an athlete during exercise? And what happens to an equestrian athlete’s heart rate when they compete in their chosen discipline?
What is heart rate? And how is it measured?
Heart rate is how often your heart beats in a minute, hence why it is measured in bpm or beats per minute.
What happens to our heart rate when we exercise?
We have all been there, breathless, after a short spontaneous run to chase after our dog, horse or child! When we start to exercise our heart rate increases in response to an increased demand for blood and therefore oxygen in our the working muscles. As exercise duration increases and the intensity we are working at plateaus, our heart rate will stabilise around a value that allows the heart to pump adequate blood around the body meeting the exercise demands.
Why do we measure heart rate during training?
Heart rate gives an indicator of exercise intensity or how hard your body is finding it. As a sport scientist it is my job to ensure the athletes I work with are fit enough to perform their chosen sport to the best of their ability, without feeling tired or fatigued. To take a general example slightly outside the equestrian sphere, rugby players must be able to complete 80 minutes of exercise in a match. This match play is intermittent in nature, meaning sometimes players will have to sprint, jog or stand still. In measuring heart rate during conditioning and training sessions, I can ensure the exercise prescription given to players triggers the desired physiological adaptation and enables them to meet the demands of a rugby match. If a rugby player is training below the intensity of a match, when it comes to a game day, they will not be physically fit enough to play to the best of their ability.
Does heart rate differ in equestrian athletes depending on their discipline?
Put simply, yes. When you look across the equestrian disciplines they all have differing characteristics or demands. This means that the equestrian athlete’s body will respond in a slightly different way depending on the discipline.
For example, polo has very similar characteristics to rugby or football as it is an intermittent team sport. Therefore, players and their horses have rest periods or periods of lower intensity exercise where their bodies have time to recover. In contrast, a discipline such as racing or cross-country in eventing has no rest. They are continuous high intensity events meaning heart rate is likely to increase and remain high for the duration of the competition. This has been reflected in research with polo players showing an average heart rate of 150 bpm per game in comparison to jockeys and event riders whose heart rates average 184 bpm and 179 bpm on average during competition.
What is the best way to measure heart rate?
Heart rate can be easily measured via attaching a Bluetooth heart rate monitor around your chest when you exercise. It must sit flush with your skin in order to use your sweat to help conduct the signal! If you do want to measure heart rate accurately it is important to use one of these straps. Using a watch strap interface to give you a heart rate is only an estimate; it is likely this value is not a true representation of your heart rate. Most large sporting companies such as Polar recognise horse riding as a sport and have a sporting profile on their watches for this activity!