Ask Ann: Heart Rate Homework

Ann Trason

Dear Ann, I just got a heart rate monitor, what do I do with it?

Dear A.S.,
Congratulations on acquiring one of the best tools an ultrarunner can have. Heart rate monitors are individual to the wearer and know you better than anyone else, and that is why they make the best training partners, and pacers. The key to getting the most out of using a heart rate monitor is understanding that your heart is unique. While there is a wide range of possibilities to use your heart rate monitor for your training and racing, I recommend starting simply.

  • Strap it on and wear it around the house. Nudge your heart belt and electrolyte sensor around on your chest until you locate the best heart monitor position for your body. The folks at Garmin note that the “the strap is worn on the ribcage, below the pectoral muscles or breasts.”
  • Make sure the strap is comfortable, and you have a snug fit; the goal is that the monitor has NO room for movement while you are running and does not cause any chafing.
  • Conductivity can be an issue. Low beats per minute (BPM), or spikes in BPM, are not uncommon problems. Moisture is king as signals will not pass from dry skin to the monitor. Lightly dampening the sensor with a spritz of water can help with transmission. In a pinch, you can lick the sensor, as saliva will also do the trick.
  • Before you start worrying about what the numbers mean, just get used to the numbers. Take note of activities that make your heart rate rise and fall.

There are a number of variables that make heart rate unique, including your size, gender, age, fitness level, ability, the altitude, and even some medications, will impact heart rate. Women tend to have higher heart rates than men.

Next, You Have Some Homework To Do
Now that you have become familiar with wearing your heart rate monitor and watching the numbers go up and down, we are going to put some meaning behind those numbers.

Polar_Heart_Rate_MonitorYou and your new friend are going to find two important numbers – your personal resting heart rate and maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is the fastest, highest number of times your heart beats per minute. Resting is the slowest number per minute (normally taken when you wake up in the morning).

Your resting heart rate is quite informative. It can change with training and will generally decrease with increasing fitness. Increases in resting heart rate, on the other hand, can indicate fatigue, overtraining and sickness. Part one of your homework assessment is to record and chart your daily resting heart rate for the next month. Take special notice of changes following long runs and high intensity workouts.

Maximum heart rate does not change with training. (There have been some exciting scientific studies showing that maximum heart can be altered by aerobic training — let us assume for our purposes right now that it is of steady state in nature). Figuring out your maximum rate is critical; all your training zones are calculated from this number. Part two of your homework assessment is to figure out your own maximum heart rate.

Here are three ways to determine your maximum rate:

The Gold Standard
This involves getting a Cardiovascular Stress Test performed by a physician. However, this can be expensive if not covered by insurance and is not an option for everyone. It is recommended for anyone over 40 years in age who has not been exercising recently or regularly.

Tried And True
Run 3 X 400 meters, running all out at what you perceive is maximum effort up a steep hill. Allow recovery time between each repetition. Take note of the highest rate your heart rate monitor displays. Voila – you have figured out your own maximum heart rate.

Basic Math
If you are under age 40: 208 – (.7 x your age). If you are over age 40: 205 – (.5 x your age). This method is an estimate, and you should allow for some variability in accuracy. The method is based on scientific studies that maximum heart rates start decreasing beginning at 10 to 15 years of age.

Congratulations on doing your homework and finding out your resting and maximum heart rates. Below are some basic guidelines on how to use that maximum heart rate number in your training or racing.

Training Zones
Easy 65% – 75% of your MHR
Tempo 75% – 85% of your MHR
Intervals 95% – 100% of your MHR

Racing Zones
50K 80% – 85% of your MHR
More than 50K 70% – 80% of your MHR

Enjoy getting to know your new training friend and in my next column I will explain ways you can use your heart rate monitor to personalize and improve your running.

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Ann Trason

Ann Trason is a 14-time women’s champion at the Western States 100, and set World Records at the 50-mile (5:40:18 in 1991), 100K (7:00:47, 1995), 12-Hour (91 miles 1312 yards, 1991) and 100-mile (13:47:42, 1991) distances. Ann was co- director of the Firetrails 50 in northern California for 10 years, and has taught science at the college level. Ann currently coaches middle school cross country and supports other's ultrarunning achievements by volunteering, pacing and crewing at ultramarathon races throughout the Western US.

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  • allanholtz

    I must really agree with you Ann regarding your assessment of the individuality of heart rate. I am 65 and there is NO WAY I could conceive of getting my actual heart rate up to 205-(0.5 x 65) = 171.5 bpm. That was pretty close to my maximum heart rate say 20 years ago! While not specifically measured recently, I estimate it to now be about 153 bpm based on values I achieve under very hard effort.

    I also find that both too little moisture and too much moisture cause false high heart rate measurements. When I sweat a lot – running long in humid and hot Minnesota summers, I get lots of false high heart rate signals, especially when running steep downhills. It is funny to actually see the numbers drop when I start climbing and know from feel I am working harder.

    When I last ate also has a very noticeable effect on my resting heart rate. Mornings after my last meal ended at say 2:00 PM the previous day my resting heart rate will be 43-45 bpm at 7:00 AM the next day. Whereas, when my last meal ended at 9:30 PM the previous day my next morning 7:00 AM heart rate will be between 47 and 49 bpm. That is more than the effect of any single day training effect other than finishing a long race (marathon to 100 mile).

    Knowing the impact of long races and mealtimes on heart rate also allows one to see the impact of catching a virus, as my resting heart rate will rise 2-8 bpm due to that as well. So yes, resting heart rate can tell one a lot about themselves.