Know your Heart Rate

– By Bobby McGee

One of the best barometers available to runners and coaches in determining both health and fitness is resting heart rate. It can warn a runner of impending illness long before he or she begins to feel bad.

This allows for preventative action and adaptation of training, which could save days, if not weeks of training, and allow the runner to get back to training sooner.

Once you’ve mastered the art of monitoring your heart you will be able to remain healthy and injury-free, get over illness sooner, peak better, recover effectively and generally manage your training to a far greater effect.

Why heart rate?

In cycling it is relatively easy to measure a rider’s power output by means of fancy machinery, but this is not yet practically achievable in running. For example, many coaches and scientists (myself included) have tried to work with lactate sampling, but this not only leaves runners with sore fingertips from all the pricking, it’s difficult to use practically to assist training.

I have resorted to using heart rate as a measure of work rate and found that, if I use accurate results from regular testing, I am able to precisely prescribe distance and intensity for training each individual runner.

Accurately determine your resting heart rate

You should take your pulse first thing after waking in the morning. Use either the radial artery of your wrist, the carotid artery on your neck (on either side of the Adam’s apple on the throat), or ideally a heart rate monitor.

For the manual readings, place either your index or middle finger on the pulse, pick up the rhythm of the beat and then begin to count the beats for a full minute and record your result. Press lightly, as too firm pressure will stop the pulse and provide no reading. Do not use your thumb – it has its own beat and leads to inaccurate measurement.

You need the right circumstances and a set routine to accurately measure your resting heart rate. This will ensure that all the possible influences and variables remain constant from day to day and from measurement to measurement.

There are a number of factors that can affect your resting heart rate, and these should be taken into account before you take a measurement:

  • • Waking up to an alarm elevates your heart rate. Lie back, after you have shut it off and relax until your breathing is even and rhythmical before taking your pulse.
  • • Being awoken by doors slamming and other unforeseen occurrences also have the same impact as an alarm – follow the same procedure.
  • • Be sure you are fully awake. If you fall asleep while taking your pulse, you have been drowsy – these low, semi-awake pulse rates are not your resting,awake pulse.
  • • If you are under emotional stress,having bad dreams, or awakening with a start, this will give and explain higher readings. Factor these into your interpretation of your resting heart rate.
  • • Too little sleep also tends to elevate your resting heart rate.
  • • Any physical activity prior to taking your pulse will elevate the result (If you know what I mean!)
  • In the beginning measure your heart rate more than once each morning to verify the accuracy of your results, or get someone else to also check.
  • Plot a graph of your resting heart rate to observe how your training and other factors in your life influence it. Evaluate the effectiveness of your pre-race taper by means of resting heart rate – it should drop as you rest up for your upcoming event.

Using resting heart rate as:

• A Health Meter

Here is a good rule of thumb to follow:

  • If your heart rate is five or more beats above average under normal circumstances on a given day, then it is recommended that you take it easy that day, no matter what your training schedule says.
  • If your heart rate is normal the next day it is safe to resume training. However, the lost session should not be worked in, but left out until the next cycle.
  • If your heart rate is still elevated the next day, check for signs of illness and act appropriately. In terms of training take that day and the next easy, no matter what your resting heart rate is on the third day.

A Fitness Meter

A low resting heart rate does not necessarily imply aerobic fitness, nor does a high rate indicate a lack of conditioning. However, a decrease in resting rate over a period of training is a sure indication of increasing fitness and aerobic capacity.

Normal resting rate for the human race is supposed to be between 72 and 74 beats per minute. Most runners have heart rates in the 60’s.

The key factor, however, is how training and fatigue impact the resting heart rate. When fatigued, and your immune system is under pressure, the first place this shows up is with an elevated pulse rate.

Similarly, as your fitness improves, so your resting heart rate will drop. If this is not the case your training is ineffectual, or there is something else amiss. Another normal trend is for your resting rate to plateau after a time during a given phase of training.

During a rest phase it will creep up again, but the only time you need to be concerned is if your resting pulse continues to rise over a period of time – a sure indication of over-training.

Your heart is the most important baro-meter of your training, so get to know yours and how it communicates with you. Pay heed to its signals and use the advice it gives.

I believe that the heart is more than just a physiologically marvellous pump. It harbours so much more power, passion, love, guts and glory. Go out there and get yourself some!

Factors that affect your heart rate

Understanding your heart and how it functions provides runners with some access to being disciplined about training and conditioning.

For example, as we get older, both the maximal aerobic power and maximum attainable heart rate decreases. In other words, an older person may expend the same degree of effort in exercising as a younger counterpart, but their heart rate may be considerably less.

The following factors have a marked influence on heart rate:

  • • Age: The older you are, the lower your training heart rate.
  • • Emotion: Emotional stress causes your heart rate to rise.
  • • Body temperature: An increase in body temperature causes your heart rate to increase, while a decrease slows the heart rate. Many top runners cannot perform in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius.
  • • Environment: Exercising in high temperatures can increase your heart rate by 10 to 40 beats per minute. That’s why running in the heat is so dangerous – your heart is working to both cool and drive you.
  • • Altitude: Resting heart rate rises at altitude and is higher in all exercise at sub-maximal intensities, but lower (+/- 5%) at maximal intensities (say for a 10km race).
  • • Medication: A number of medications, like those for heart conditions or hypertension, affect the heart rate. Tell your doctor you are a runner before you are prescribed medication, and know what to look for when buying medication.
  • • Smoking: Even one cigarette increases resting heart rate significantly.
  • • Food: Resting heart rate is increased when food is being digested. Certain foods like coffee (caffeine) cause the heart rate to rise rapidly.
  • • Gender: Women generally have smaller hearts and average 5 to 10 beats higher than men.
  • • Humidity: High humidity stresses our ability to stay cool and increases heart rate.
  • • Shifting focus: Concentrating on what you are doing, instead of events not in the present, allows the heart to beat only to serve the current physical need and not be affected by unnecessary emotion.

For example, thinking of the stressful day that lies ahead while you are taking your waking resting heart rate has a huge impact on the result. Similarly, excitement might elevate the heart rate. (That’s why race-day resting heart rates are irrelevant!)

Listening to soothing music and really relaxing will, in turn, lower your heart rate.

So now you know the benefits of training with a heart rate monitor, but which one to get? Let us help you choose

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