This article summarizes one of the most used physiological parameters for internal-load monitoring in soccer: the heart rate (HR). 

As we know, soccer is an intermittent sport characterized by alternating recovery periods with aerobic or anaerobic random active-cycles (AC) (1). Different actions like fights, accelerations, jumps or changes of directions, among others, may be made on these ACs, which are regulated by Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) to provide active responses of sympathetic nature. However, adequate levels of parasympathetic activity in recovery periods is useful to recover between HI bouts or ACs. Thus, many authors conclude that HR monitoring is an adequate method to assess the physical capacity or the fatigue (2–8) and enables an indirect estimation of the aerobic cost, but no the anaerobic (9).

In recent years almost all studies have analysed and monitored the HR based on the maximum HR (HRmax) to define the physiological profiles of soccer players. However, the use of the reserve HR percentage (%HRres) provides more accurate results (10). The formula was established by Karvonen et al. (11):  

%HRres = [(HRmean activity – HRrest) / (HRmax – HRrest) x 100]

Due to the calculation of %HRres takes into account the biorhythm variations and consequently allows to compare the players HR on different activities or training sessions. 

HR in competition

After an extensive review of the literature, I collected the main HR values: 

  • HR mean: 165 to 175 ppm (10).
  • Intensity range of HR: 80-90% HRmax (12,13).
  • 37% of match total time: ranges of 70-80% and 80-90% HRmax (14).

The research does not show differences on these values among categories or levels. However, the age, sex and physical capacity of players should be related with the HR as it may be show different recovery time between high-intensity efforts. For instance, the %HRmax of players may be higher if they have a low physical level.

Accumulated fatigue

It is important to analyse and interpret the HR of players’ on the different match halves as the intensity (expressed as %HRmax) is lower in the second half than the first due to the accumulated fatigue during the match (14). The author found that the players are less time on ranges of 85-90% HRmax and more time on lower intensity ranges (75-85% HRmax) on the second half. In addition, players have different mean HR according to the position, playing style or individual characteristics (15). Therefore, several authors conclude that the HRmax is not the best parameter to evaluate the soccer-activity intensity as it not considers the different HR responses (10). Although two players attain the same HRmax, they may show different HRrest, which it will elicit different responses in the match. 

HR analysis by playing position

Midfielders usually show the highest HR values and central defenders the lowest as a result of the tactical function of each position in the modern game (10). From a technical-tactical approach, midfielders are involved in both offensive and defensive actions and therefore need greater aerobic capacity to withstand theif continuous participation in the game (13). Nonetheless, as mentioned above the playing style developed by the team or the individual characteristics will affect the players’ HR responses.

Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max)

The HR values are closely related with the VO2max. The mean intensity of professional soccer player is among 70-80% VO2max during the match (13). So, the VO2max of top-level soccer players is 52-68 ml · kg-1 · min-1 (16).

However, we have to take into account that the type of recovery (active or passive) and effort during a short-duration intermittent activity like soccer will modify the HR response. Although the accelerations, decelerations or CODs greatly affect the HR, his analysis does not reflect the anaerobic metabolism changes (10). Other factors as hormonal activity, environment conditions or playing surface may also alter the HR pattern and no affect the VO2max equally. 

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

The importance of analysing HRV in an intermittent sport such as soccer has increased in recent years for a deepen evaluation of recovery HR with different types of stimuli. Therefore, HRV may be very useful for detecting overtraining symptoms (2–4,6).  


  • HR is an adequate monitoring parameter to monitor the internal load in soccer players (especially the HRres). However, it can be inaccurate to quantify the training load. 
  • HRmean: 165-175 ppm.
  • HR ranges in competition: 70-80% and 80-90% HRmax.
  • VO2max: 52-68 ml · kg-1 · min-1 (70-80%).
  • HR must be interpreted individually by player.
  • HR must be analysed separately in the different halves of match (fatigue).

Personal interpretation and practical applications

  • HR is useful to establish individualized references-values of cardiorespiratory capacity of each player for knowing if they are physically prepared to withstand the competition demands. In addition, depending on the values obtained, individualized training sessions (differentiated from group-sessions) might be made if are necessary for players.
  • HR is NOT useful to quantify the training load in which all kind of actions and efforts take place: sprints, CODs, jumps, collisions, fights, …
  • Whenever the HR is used as a parameter it will be for the performance of some specific tests without ball and/or evaluating the cardiorespiratory capacity of players (e.g., establish the anaerobic threshold).


  1. Ravé G, Fortrat J-O. Heart rate variability in the standing position reflects training adaptation in professional soccer players. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016; 116(8): 1575–82.
  2. Proietti R, di Fronso S, Lucas AP, Bortoli L, Robazza C, Fabio YN, et al. Heart rate variability discriminates competitive levels in professional soccer players. J strength Cond Res. 2017; 31(6): 1719–25.
  3. Boullosa DA, Abreu L, Nakamura FY, Muñoz VE, Domínguez E, Leicht AS. Cardiac autonomic adaptations in elite Spanish soccer players during preseason. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013; 8(4): 400–9.
  4. Naranjo J, De la Cruz B, Sarabia E, De Hoyo M, Dominguez-Cobo S. Two New Indexes for the Assessment of Autonomic Balance in Elite Soccer Players. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2015; 10(4): 452–7.
  5. Task Force of The European Society of Cardiology and The North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology. Heart rate variability, standards of measurement, physiological interpretation, and clinical use. Eur Heart J. 1996; 17: 354–81.
  6.   Naranjo J, De la Cruz B, Sarabia E, De Hoyo M, Domínguez-Cobo S. Heart Rate Variability: a Follow-up in Elite Soccer Players Throughout the Season. Int J Sports Med [Internet]. 2015; 36(11): 881–6.
  7. Mourot L, Bouhaddi M, Perrey S, Cappelle S, Henriet M-T, Wolf J-P, et al. Decrease in heart rate variability with overtraining: assessment by the Poincaré plot analysis. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2004; 24(1): 10–8.
  8. Buchheit M, Racinais S, Bilsborough JC, Bourdon PC, Voss SC, Hocking J, et al. Monitoring fitness, fatigue and running performance during a pre-season training camp in elite football players. J Sci Med Sport. 2013; 16(6): 550–5.
  9. Bangsbo J, Mohr M, Krustrup P. Physical and metabolic demands of training and match-play in the elite football player. J Sports Sci. 2006; 24(7): 665–74.
  10. Alexandre D, da Silva CD, Hill-Haas S, Wong DP, Natali AJ, De Lima JRP, et al. Heart rate monitoring in soccer: interest and limits during competitive match play and training, practical application. J strength Cond Res. 2012; 26(10): 2890–906.
  11. Karvonen MJ, Kentala E, Mustala O. The effects of training on heart rate; a longitudinal study. Ann Med Exp Biol Fenn. 1957; 35(3): 307–15.
  12. Bangsbo J, Nørregaard L, Thorsø F. Activity profile of competition soccer. Can J Sport Sci. 1991; 16(2): 110–6.
  13. Stølen T, Chamari K, Castagna C, Wisløff U. Physiology of soccer: an update. Sports Med. 2005; 35(6): 501–36.
  14. Helgerud J, Engen LC, Wisloff U, Hoff J. Aerobic endurance training improves soccer performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Nov; 33(11): 1925–31.
  15. Suarez-Arrones L, Torreño N, Requena B, Sáez De Villarreal E, Casamichana D, Barbero-Alvarez JC, et al. Match-play activity profile in professional soccer players during official games and the relationship between external and internal load. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2015; 55(12): 1417–22.
  16. Owen AL, Forsyth JJ, Wong DP, Dellal A, Connelly SP, Chamari K. Heart Rate–Based Training Intensity and Its Impact on Injury Incidence Among Elite-Level Professional Soccer Players. J Strength Cond Res. 2015; 29(6): 1705–12.

Berni Guerrero-Calderón

S&C Coach | Rehab Therapist | Sport Scientist

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This article has been made based on the references showed, other studies reviewed but not showed and according to the experience and knowledge of the author. In this way, it may include subjective ideas and opinions not contrasted in the research.

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