Cristiano Ronaldo and the importance of controlling your heart rate at crucial moments


Whatever your view of Cristiano Ronaldo’s contribution towards his nation’s tactical cohesion, there is little doubt that his physical profile defies his age.

Pushing past the histrionics from the 39-year-old during the half-time break in extra time, Ronaldo showed a remarkable display of strength to recover from his penalty miss swiftly and step up to take the first spot kick in Portugal’s shootout.

Even among the most experienced players, you would be forgiven for expecting Ronaldo’s heart to be thudding out of his chest before his shot at redemption. However, data revealed that the Portugal captain’s heart rate was at its lowest as he stepped up to take the high-pressure penalty.

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This information was logged using the fitness-tracking wearable device WHOOP, which uses physiological data to monitor an individual’s overall health. The device is commonly worn on the wrist or upper arm and provides daily insight towards an individual’s sleep, strain and recovery metrics.

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Ronaldo buries his penalty in the shootout against Slovenia (Alexander Scheuber – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Ronaldo became a global ambassador and investor in the company in May this year, joining other football ambassadors such as Virgil van Dijk, Katie McCabe and Beth Mead, as well as those in the wider sporting world including Rory McIlroy and Michael Phelps, who regularly wear the device as part of their health monitoring.

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The graphic below highlights how Ronaldo’s heart rate was logged at more than 170 beats per minute (bpm) by the end of extra time, but Portugal’s captain controlled his physiological state to bring that down to 100 bpm at the moment he took the spot kick. This jumped back to its highest at the crescendo of Portugal’s shootout victory (~170 bpm) as Bernardo Silva’s finish sent Portugal to the quarter-finals.

For context, an elite athlete’s resting heart rate is significantly lower — often ranging closer to 40-60 bpm. It can be even lower: Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain, who won five Tours de France in the 1990s, had a resting heart rate of 28 bpm during his professional career.

Ronaldo’s data has garnered a lot of media attention in recent days and some might argue that the 39-year-old’s heart rate simply lowered once his physical movement reduced at the end of extra time.

However, the breathing techniques Ronaldo uses to control his autonomic nervous system are intentional. You will have seen it multiple times — the eyes closed, deep breath in through the nose, and controlled breath out through the mouth.

ronaldo breathing

Why is this so effective?

“Because it makes you calm,” Ronaldo said in a promotional interview with WHOOP. “When I do it, it controls my heart rate and makes my heart rate come down. It’s something that I practise and build into my routine.

“It is something that I always do in training, not just in games — because it is a habit. When you keep doing things the same, it becomes a habit, and that’s why I look to control my breathing every time.”

Alongside other factors such as good hydration, a healthy diet, and regular sleep patterns, evidence shows that slow-paced breathing is a useful method of reducing heart rate during moments of stress or performance. The idea is that by taking fewer breaths per minute, ideally four to 10, a person’s body moves towards a more relaxed state, which can include increased heart rate variability and lower blood pressure.

This week, England’s squad have been engaging in a breathing session with expert Stuart Sandeman as a method of improving their physiological and psychological state.

It is the latest of multiple attempts to monitor and improve the players’ well-being after Gareth Southgate and his 26-man England squad have each been given an Oura ring to wear during this summer, which provides an additional source of information to monitor health, recovery and sleep — much like the WHOOP device.

It is difficult to accurately determine whether Ronaldo was in a “flow state” during the moment of the spot kick as the WHOOP graphic suggests. Still, this term refers to a psychological state of focus on a task — something highly associated with elite performance. Being in the zone, if you will.

Functional MRI studies have found that individuals show less activation in the prefrontal cortex during flow, which is an area of the brain associated with thinking and planning. Instead, areas associated with attention and reward systems play a more prominent role in ensuring that an individual is maximising control and positive performance.

Visualisation can play an important role in tapping into such a flow state and is a psychological exercise that has become increasingly prominent in recent years.

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“Sometimes I do it to visualise a few points that can happen in the game,” Ronaldo said in an interview. “Sometimes it’s my subconscious that does it by itself. It’s nice, you visualise a few things, not even just the game — even when you’re going to the stadium, warming up, before the game, as well as during the game. It’s fun and I like to do it.”

At the elite level, small details matter. The difference between victory and defeat can come down to centimetres, milliseconds, or an inhalation of breath. At first glance, Ronaldo’s heart rate fluctuation during the crucial penalty shootout might have appeared innocuous, but there is scientific evidence to support the relationship between a player’s physiological state and their playing performance.

Of course, that won’t stop our own heart skipping a beat when watching the drama unfold.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)





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