Understanding and monitoring your Heart Rate during exercise can give you amazing insights into your general health and performance
Advice on these pages are taken from my own personal experience and do not constitute professional advice. Everyone’s experience and ability is different. Before starting on any new physical activity it is a good idea to consult a Doctor. It may also be beneficial to work with a Coach or a Guide to develop the necessary skills to support such activity.
We were still in the early stages of our ascent out of Glencoe when we made our first brief stop. My watch had beeped and vibrated to let me know that my heart rate was approaching Max Heart Rate. As soon as we stopped and took in the amazing scene around us my heart rate began to drop. Within a few minutes I heard another beep which told me it had dropped by 30 Beats Per Minute (BPM). That would give me ample time to work before we had to stop again. Soon we were off and ascending the steep rocky path above Glencoe.
Measuring Heart Rate
“Accurately measure your heart rate during and after training.”
Even with a healthy heart, there are still a few things it’s good to know about your heart as you start your journey into training. It is definitely worth the investment of getting a smart watch or some device with which you can accurately measure your heart rate during and after training.
Of course it is also possible to physically measure your pulse if you do not have a device. If manually measuring your pulse rate, I would recommend measuring for a full minute while standing still. More information on how to measure your pulse can be found here.
In order to make sense of your heart rate, there are some rates that you should become familiar with. The basic two are Resting Heart Rate and Maximum Heart Rate.
Resting Heart Rate
“Your Resting Heart Rate can give you an idea of your fitness level for your age and gender.”
Resting Heart Rate (Sometimes known as Resting Pulse) is your heart rate when you are stationary and relaxed. It is best measured just after you get up in the morning as even just wandering around the house or the office may raise your heart rate somewhat.
As it varies dependant on age, gender and general fitness level, it would be very difficult to say any rate is good or bad. Some indications are given here but, at this stage, it is enough just to know what it is when you are in good health.
Your Resting Heart Rate can give you an idea of your fitness level for your age and gender. In very general terms, fitter people tend to have lower resting Heart Rates. Taking your resting Heart Rate regularly can also give an indication of your health. Noticing an unexplained rise in Resting Heart Rate can be an early indication that you are becoming unwell. In my case, colds and stomach bugs have been preceded by a rise in Resting Pulse Rate.
Max Heart Rate (MHR)
“I feel breathless, anxious and my brain is generally screaming at me to stop.”
Max Heart Rate (MHR) or Max Pulse Rate (MPR) as it is sometimes known, is the maximum heart rate that you should work up to when exercising. The rule of thumb to calculate it is to subtract your age from 220. I am 53 years old so, in my case, my MHR is 167 (220-53) Beats Per Minute (BPM). When I am exercising I should try to avoid allowing my heart rate to exceed 167 BPM and, when it reaches this level, I should try to slow down a little in order to let it drop.
Even without measuring my heart rate, it is easy to tell when it is at or around MHR. I feel breathless, anxious and my brain is generally screaming at me to stop whatever physical activity has taken my heart rate to this level. I normally want to slow down as much as I need to slow down.
Whether exercising or not, when we are stressed or anxious, we enter into a cycle which tends to increase our heart rate. Sensing danger our brain releases adrenalin to prime our body for action. Our breathing becomes quick and shallow and our heart rate starts to rise… which triggers our brain to sense danger and so the cycle continues. If you are in good health however, it is possible to control your heart rate simply by reversing that cycle.
Slow down. Just like, when driving, the first action to slow down is take your foot off the accelerator, when exercising the first action you can take to reduce your heart rate is slow down. If you are running, walk or if you are walking stop and sit down if possible.
Your heart rate can be reduced further by slowing your breathing. For me, even just three slow deep breaths in and out can drop my heart rate by 10 BPM. Whether you’ve slowed to a walk, standing still or sat down, make a conscious effort to slow your breathing and, as your breathing slows and deepens, your heart rate will drop.
Another bonus of deep breathing during some form of a rest is that you have a better chance of getting more oxygen down to your legs and thus reducing muscle pain and avoiding cramps. This shall be discussed in more detail in the next post in this series.
To fine tune your heart rate, it’s all about your state of mind. As anyone who practices mindfulness or meditation can tell you, picturing positive images helps release serotonin in the brain which has the effect of reducing your heart rate… which tells your brain the world is good and so the cycle repeats.
In summary, whenever you become breathless, anxious and in need of a rest during exercise, this is a good indication that your heart rate may be approaching or at MHR. In order to reduce it;
- Slow Down
- Take slow deep breaths
- Think positive
Taking frequent rests during exercise and applying the techniques above will help you to maintain a healthy margin between your current heart rate and MHR. Maintaining this margin will enable you to work safely and enjoy the activity more.
Click on the image below if you would like to read my previously published article – Relax And Count To Five – which explores how to control your heart rate during a 10K Race.
Performance Measured Through Heart Rate
“It’s worth looking at some aspects of your heart rate which can tell you about your performance during a physical activity.”
Now you know how to control your heart rate, it’s worth looking at some aspects of your heart rate which can tell you about your performance during a physical activity. This can be looked at in more detail referring to the image below from a recent Training Session.
What the image is showing is my heart rate measured during a short training session which involved a series of walks and jogs. The data is taken from my Smart Watch which is a Suunto Trainer. However this is just one of many watches and Apps available to measure performance during sports.
Looking at the coloured Heart Rate zones between the graphs shows that there was no time during the session when my heart rate registered in the red zone which represents the highest heart rates. This means that I was training well within my capabilities. Of course, had I been covering a more intensive session such as sprint training, there would be no problem with seeing some of the session at the higher heart rates.
Heart Rate follows Pace
What can also be seen from the image is what I would call a healthy correlation between the charts measuring heart rate and pace. Every time my pace dropped from a jog to a walk, my heart rate dropped by about 20 to 30 BPM. This is a good indication of recovery from an activity.
Steady Heart Rate over Varying Terrain
Whether running or hiking over varying terrain, a good practice to remain comfortable and cover long distances is to vary your pace according to the terrain such that your heart rate remains relatively constant. Hence you can maintain a healthy margin between your current heart rate and MHR. This is illustrated below.
As can be seen, despite a climb and descent of 300m each way, my heart rate sat relatively steady and never came close to MHR. This an ideal margin for endurance activities.
Heart Rate And Altitude
“Our Heart Rate and our Raspatory Rate (Breaths per minute) may start to rise in order to bring in sufficient oxygen.”
A final subject to touch on while discussing Heart Rate is to look at the effects on Heart Rate, Raspatory Rate and Oxygen Saturation (or SpO2) at Altitude.
Typically above 3,000m above Mean Sea Level, our bodies will start to react to the reduced amount of Oxygen in the air. This means that our Heart Rate and our Raspatory Rate (Breaths per minute) may start to rise in order to bring in sufficient oxygen. This means that we need to reduce our physical work rate in order to maintain a healthy margin between our current heart rate and MHR. I found that the importance of maintaining a slow enough pace not to push my heart rate up was absolutely paramount at altitude in order not to feel sick or as if I was going to pass out.
Measuring the oxygen saturation in your blood using a device called a Pulse Oximeter, is a great way to see how your body is coping with altitude. At sea level a healthy person would expect to see levels of around 97% or above. Below 95% would be a case for some concern and anywhere near 90% and you may want to seek urgent medical attention.
At altitude however, with so much less oxygen in the air, the rate will inevitably drop. On Kilimanjaro our Guides would only let us continue up the mountain as long as our SpO2 level was 80% or above. At Gorakshep, on the return from Everest Base Camp, my SpO2 briefly dropped below 70% and I was suffering a lot of the early symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Fortunately we were on our descent which is the only cure for symptoms of AMS.
You can find out more about AMS and how to cope at High Altitude by clicking to my Blog Post here.
Now that we have covered the most important muscle of all, the heart, the next post will look at stretches and warm up exercises. These make sure the rest of our muscles are kept in the best condition to support us through our activities.
Read The Series
This post is part of a series of posts which provides practical hints from my own personal experience to help overweight people get into adventures such as Mountaineering, Distance Running or Open Water Swimming. To read the series from the start click here.
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