Heart Rate and Running

Unqualified Offerings had a recent post which got me thinking about my running effort.

First of all, a confession: I haven’t been running for a couple of months now. One reason is the hot, muggy weather here. Plus I was getting stuck and not making much progress lately. The initial few months were good. I lost all the weight I needed to lose and got my resting heart rate close to 50 beats per minute as well.

However, my running distance as well as speed were not improving much after that. From Jim’s fitness blogging, I think I see why. My heart rate during running has been too high which means that I haven’t been building as much endurance as I should and I tire after running for short distances (3 miles or so).

Looking at the different methods to calculate target heart rates, I get the following results:

  • 220-Age method gives a 65—85% rate of 120.9—158.1 bpm. The middle point of 75% is 139.5 beats per minute.
  • The heart rate reserve method gives a 60—80% rate of 132.4—159.2 bpm with a middle point of 145.8.
  • The Maffetone method gives a target heart rate of 141 bpm.

I knew that I was running at a much higher heart rate than 140—145. To quantify, I made heart rate measurements every 20 seconds with my heart rate monitor during a running/walking session.

Heart Rate While Running

As you can see, a couple of minutes after I start running, my heart rate crosses 160 bpm and then stays above that unless I stop running (and start walking).

Reading the information provided by Unqualified Offerings, it looks like I am expending too much effort and hence not reaping the benefits of increased endurance. I also realized that the running program I am following says to run at “conversation effort.”

Therefore, I have decided to actually reduce the intensity of my workout by following the Couch-to-5K running plan. Week 1 and Week 2 on that plan have been very easy and I haven’t felt tired after the run/walk. Let’s see if this new plan works better in building endurance than my previous efforts.

Categorized as Life

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Try swimming. I find that I cannot push myself much past 150 bpm without drinking the pool.

  2. Captain Arrrgh: Swimming somehow has a lower maximum heart rate than running. Therefore, you should swim at 5—6 beats per minute lower than what you would do for running.

    How do you measure your heart rate during swimming?

  3. My measurement method is crude. After warming-up and swimming a number of laps (4-5) at my normal pace, I take a 1 min. break. I watch a nearby digital clock and count my pulse for the first fifteen seconds. Continuity of effort during the swim is assured by turning laps in under one minute.

  4. Interesting, I got to this page, looking for some information about heart rate monitors. Here is my story of running. Maybe you can get some useful tip from it. I describe my running story because you can relate to it as is a typical couch potato story. In the end I describe why you MAY be OK at 160 bpm or above at a slow pace as shown in your graph.
    I started running 2 years ago. One day, I just put on my shoes and started running. No stop watch, no HRM, no GPS. I ran as far as I could at comfortable pace (found out later that it was 0.7 miles). I started increasing distance slowly. I was measuring distnace in number of blocks run on the road at that time.
    After running for about 3 months, I got some motivation. I bought running shorts, nylon shirt and light running shoes. Then I drove around the route I was running at that time in my car. I found out, I was running about 2.8 miles. I was running that route for about 4 times a week. Note that till that point I had not used any stopwatch or HRM. I used to check wall clock, walked to road from apartment, then started running, then after finishing, I slowly walked back with some stretches in the way and noted time on same wall clock. Huge margin of error for 2.8 miles run with this method. I estimated by this method that I was about 9 minutes per mile. Pretty ordinary but I was doing what the body was telling me and never overstressing it. I had no goal in mind, I was just running for aerobic activity.
    But you cannot run long without a goal in mind. In running, you need motivation. You either have a goal or get fed up and stop.
    I decided, I wanted to run fast for a half marathon distance. How fast, I did not know.
    So I decided to go online and get some advice. From some advice from http://www.runnersworld.com, I prepared a plan. I started including slow, tempo, fartleks, different routes etc for my goal. But still had no stop watch or HRM.
    I ran with that and other plans for about 1 more year, increasing distance and speed. I would do 2,3,4 laps of the basic route (2.8 miles). But same route (a wrong practice). Then I started running to work and back.
    One day a friend asked me to run a race with him. It was my first race with distance 15K (about 9.4 miles). As usual I ran without any watch, HRM, or GPS. To my surprise, I finished the race at pace of 7:37 a mile. From wall clock method, I was running 9 miles at 8 minutes a mile and had run a maximum of 12 miles at pace of 9 minutes a mile. But you run faster in races. Then I ran a 5K at 7:17 a mile (bad day as I was sick). On my regular route, I was running 2.8 miles at 7:20 a mile on tough days.
    I decide to buy a HRM and stop watch after a few races as I was getting more serious with running.
    So I used the formula 220 – age to obtain the max heart rate. To my surprise, I was running for an hour at 90% of my calculated max heart rate (172 bpm) at medium to lower hard pace. I immediately knew that there was a problem with this formula because running at 100% max HR is very painful (from my reading online) and 90% should not be medium effort either. I also found out that I can easily run for 2 hours with heart rate of 155 (80%) and a lousy pace of 10 minutes a mile. I can take my heart rate above calculated MHR in races. What I have found through various information available that everyone is different when max heart rate is compared for same age. Some people have max heart rate that is higher than their rate calculated by formula, and some have lower.
    The key is to find your max heart rate by running at max effort then find percentages of it, rather than using a statistical formula. There are plenty of ways to find MHR, but the most reliable way is to head to a lab and spend some moolah.
    By beginning my running life without these gadgets, I have not missed anything. I just listened to my body and never over stressed it. I never had any injury. Only after I was running at a respectable pace and a distance, I felt I needed to train better with help from electronics.

    So dont worry if your max heart rate is higher than normal for your age. You may be a max HR statistical freak like I am.

  5. zak: You seem to have been a very fit couch potato. 🙂

    Thanks for recounting your experience.

    I don’t think the maximum heart rate formula is much wrong in my case, though its estimate is probably a little low. I can sustain 170 beats per minute (91% of maximum according to the 220-Age formula) for some time but do get extremely tired at higher rates.

  6. I have been working out fairly consistently for years. I have done several olympic-distance triathlons, and am now training for a half-ironman. Like Captain Arrgh, I had never used any fancy equipment until now. I started using my HR monitor for biking, and it worked well. I had no problem keeping within the aerobic zone. Then I tried it out on the treadmill- and wow! I had a similar experience as Zack. I can run a 9:15-9:30 minute mile for 5-8 miles normally, but when I tried to stay within my aerobic training zone (155 bpm and below), I practically had to walk! It was very strange. As soon as I started to run even a 12-minute mile, my HR climbed up over 159 and I had to walk again. It makes me feel out of shape- but I’m not! What to do??

  7. kelly: These heart rate calculations are usually very approximate. So they may not apply to you. Have you tried to figure out what your actual maximum heart rate is? Do you tire easily when your heart rate goes above 159? If you can run 8 miles at a reasonable pace but an elevated heart rate, you are probably ok and just have a higher max heart rate.

  8. Hi Zack,

    I think you would be reassured by a treadmill stress test in which your VO2 max is measured and your vitals monitored while you run. As soon as I bought my first heart rate monitor five years ago while training for Grandma’s Marathon I realized that my heart rate is substantially higher than the recommended training ranges and was concerned about having some undiagnosed underlying heart condition. After having a battery of tests, including a stress echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI, cardiologists have reassured me that there’s nothing to worry about. I just happen to be a woman with an abnormally high VO2 max and maximum heart rate. For example, I ran 12 miles yesterday at an 8:51 pace with an average heart rate of 185. I reached 191 for several minutes running up a steep hill. I would predict that none of the other seven runners in my group were above 170 at any time our run. I have to admit, before having these tests done I ran across articles about sudden cardiac death in athletes and really wondered if I was putting myself at risk running in what most charts refer to as the “red zone.” I have no worries about this now.

  9. Diana:

    I think you would be reassured by a treadmill stress test

    How and where can I get it done? And is it expensive?

  10. I have some problem with my running heart rate. It’s too high. I am 29 years old. At last 4 hour race the avarage was 182 bpm. Max goes over 200 bpm. And that with relatively low speed. This was my first race with heart rate monitor, so don’t know how high it was before.
    Now i have realized, that after training over 160 bpm, I feel little heart ache a day after.
    I went to doctor, do all heart and blood chekings – the answer was – heart is on excelent condition and there is everything OK in blood too.
    May be this is some kind of overtraining?, – Probably after some hard races (4 and 5 hours long)this winter.

  11. Artic: If the max goes above 200 then your natural max heart rate is quite high. You might be better off either getting some actual measurements of your maximum or training based on fatigue rather than heart rate.

  12. You have to mix your workouts. Some days run slow or walk fast for long distances. Some days run fast but for short intervals.

    And listen to your body. Never hesitate to take rest days if tired but do not become lazy.

    And keep motiviation up. Here is a quote:
    (Joan Benoit Samuelson)
    When I first started running, I was so embarrassed, I’d walk when cars passed me. I’d pretend I was looking at the flowers.

  13. I have been running for about 10 years now I am 42 and weigh 200lbs. I just checked my last run and I averaged 170 bmp with a max of 193. Most miles were clocked at 185 bmp after the first mile 8:30 pace. I know that my heart rate for the past 3 years has always been over 190 for my max heart rate. My resting heart rate is 58-62.

  14. Wow. This is old, but still relevant.

    I am very comforted to see everyone here with high average heart rates.

    I am a new runner, but I have a good fitness foundation (aerobic videos). My Garmin HR monitor tells me that when I run I am staying mostly between 170 and 180. Sometimes I get up to 185. I don’t feel crazy out of breath. I feel pretty good.

  15. Hi everyone, I have been running for six years. I am 64 years ols and had never practiced any kind of sport before running. I decided one day to try it and after one month in a gym, alone I launched myself out on the road. I managed 1.2 km, and was exhausted. I kept at it, running three times a week and within three weeks was doing 10km, without problems. I bought an HRM and discovered I was constantly between 160 and 170 BPM. Everyone, including my doctor told me it was too high so I tried to ease-up. Now I am at 170 when going uphill 15% or more and 155 on the flat. I have not noticed any problems. I can run without the HRM now as I can estimate my HR quite easily!! I know when I need to ease-up.
    Just one anecdote: I was always injuring my legs, shin splints and knee pain etc.. Purely by chance I discovered, after forgetting ( too busy) to stretch for several runs, that I had no longer “pains”. Two years on, without stretching (which I did with a running club, under “expert” supervision) I have never any pains or injuries. My fingers are crossed. I hope my experiences are of interest. Good luck to all and enjoy your runs. Terry.

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