The number

January 4, 2023 Comments Off on The number

For my birthday my girlfriend gave me a Garmin watch. It was confusing, actually, because for years now I’ve made a point of ignoring numbers of all kinds, except of course the number that seems to keep increasing every time my birthday rolls around.

When they say “age is just a number” I tell them they have lost their fucking mind. Age is a direct predictor of death.

It took me a while to learn the controls on the watch, by which I mean how to turn it on and off. On the one hand I didn’t like it at all, but as the days passed, me and Garmin began getting along quite well. It tells me all kinds of fun facts about how I sleep, how stressed out I am, how much recovery I need, my heart rate, and for sure my favorite metric, how many steps I took. Who knew that stumbling blind into the kitchen at 5:00 to feed the cat could earn a dopamine buzz? Wow! Twenty-one steps!

Using the watch to measure exercise is much more serotonin than dopamine, though. When it comes to jogging, the watch is merciless. 10-and-11 minute miles, with the occasional blistering fast 9:41 (personal best!) thrown in, and really depressing projections about what that looks like over the course of a marathon, i.e. 6.5+ hours, i.e. WALKING.

Cycling is the same. Gone are the days when I lived in Delusionville. I’m so slow on my 35-lb. aluminum bike and flat pedals and heavy rims and 35-mm steel-bead touring tires that no one, and I mean no one, is so fat and out of shape that they can’t easily pass me.

Coming back from AA one morning as I crushed it up a tiny incline, a swollen arc stuffed into his sausage skin passed me, barely breathing, as my heart rate sat squarely in Zone 4. Yesterday an even larger specimen easily passed me on Via Anita as I was doing a max effort.

Of course I could repair to the ego salve of a 15-lb. bike, speedy pedals, speedy costume, and speedy wheels. Tipping the scales at almost 150 lbs., along with the last few years of bike touring, hiking, jogging, dirt riding, and wood chopping have given me a certain kind of fitness that wouldn’t take much in the way of effort and equipment to propel me back into the ranks of fiercely competitive very old bicyclists with severe mental problems.

But I think I’ll pass, even as the arc-sausages pass me, and instead focus on the only number generated by my Garmin that matters, which is what’s known as the heart rate recovery number. Why? Because it’s the single best predictor of cardiovascular health and all-cause mortality that exists.

No matter your w/kg or your time in the 10k or sleep score or your ftp, once you’ve accepted that performance is an illusion and that beating people on a leaderboard or in an imaginary group ride-I-mean-race is a kind of emotional problem, the only number that ties what you’re doing to reality is the heart rate recovery number.

I’m not making that up.

For more than twenty years researchers have known that the speed with which your heart rate drops after exercise is the single best predictor for all-cause mortality that exists. This means that whether you die from cancer, falling off a ladder, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, or just being too fucking old, heart rate recovery is the best indicator of overall, not to mention cardiac health. That 1999 study was confirmed in 2017 in a review that looked at all published studies which have examined heart rate recovery and mortality, finding that in addition to being the best predictor of heart health, it was also the best predictor for all-cause mortality when compared to the other standard techniques for looking at cardiovascular function.

This matters if you’ve given up on getting that pro contract or if you’ve finally concluded that at age 59 you’re not really a contender for the green jersey anymore, and have instead accepted the finality and immediacy of death in conjunction with the belief that it’s better to die healthier and more mobile than to die sicker and more sedentary. In other words, your performance metrics don’t mean shit. Your heart rate recovery does.

The great thing about my new watch is that it lets me easily calculate my recovery.

Sit or lie down for five minutes on the pavement. Then get up and do a max effort jogging or cycling for five minutes or until failure if you can’t go that long. Use a gradient that’s flat enough to get up a head of steam, but steep enough that you’re climbing somewhat. For running that’s about a 7% max gradient and for cycling no more than 10%.

Get off your bike or quit running after the interval and sit back down, and check your heart rate after one minute. A 25-30 beat decrease from your max is good, and a 50-60 beat decrease is considered excellent. If your heart loses 12 beats or less after sixty seconds, your next stop should be the ER followed by a consultation with a heart specialist. If you are extremely unfit or suffer from heart disease or other serious afflictions, this little exercise could kill you, so please don’t take advice from a fucking Internet blogger and please consult with someone whose name ends in M.D. before doing this.

Better than its predictive value, knowing my heart rate recovery takes the sting and the stink out of being passed by other bicyclists. I don’t have to remind myself that they’re overweight, out of shape, and faster thanks to the motor on their bike or cutting edge, super light, wind-cheating technology.

All I have to do is look at my little watch and remember that “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” And especially, it happeneth to those with a lousy heart rate recovery.


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