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Managing heart rate during runs

Joined: 18 Oct 2020
Posts: 1
Utah, United States
Posted: Sun 18 Oct 2020 04:18 pm GMT   topTop
Hi all, I'm new to the forum and relatively new to backcountry trail running. I searched through the forum to see if my topic was discussed elsewhere but didn't see anything. I am hoping to obtain some advice from you experienced runners and experts, as I have much to learn, I'm sure.

I feel that my backstory is possibly important and relevant to my question. I'm 34 years old, male, 6 feet tall, and currently 186 pounds. I live in the mountains of Utah. During my teenage years, I ran on the cross country team and running was definitely my go-to sport. I was very fit back then. During my adult years, as happens to many people, my career and family took over and I, unfortunately, allowed myself to become very deconditioned. I gained a lot of weight and exercised rarely. Every few years, I would discover some motivation and run again (road running back then) for several months at a time. I've logged multiple 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons over the past 12 years, but was 40-60 pounds overweight the whole time. However, 2-3 years ago, I transitioned into a new phase of my career that centered on health and wellness. I dramatically changed my eating and the weight melted off. I'm now 186 pounds and am perhaps 10 pounds heavier than I was when I was 18. Running has become a massive part of my life over the past 12 months, particularly trail running. I live less than a mile from some amazing Utah trails and canyons. I ran a mountain 10K this last year, a road half marathon, and regularly run 8-9 miles on trails each weekend (in addition to 1-2 shorter runs during the week). I have a marathon on the docket for next June and hope to someday get into ultras, although I know I'm a long way from that right now. I'm realizing how much I don't know as I listen to podcasts and watch videos online.

Now, on to my question. I recently listened to a couple of podcast episodes talking about heart rate and distance running. It basically suggested that a good target heart rate for long-distance runs for the average-sized male is somewhere in the ballpark of 130-150 bpm. This pushed me into researching heart rate and running, and I've basically concluded that my heart rate is always sky high when I'm running. Even when I feel like I'm running at a "moderate" intensity and could theoretically "go forever," my Apple Watch is clocking my heart rate at around 180 (ranges between 172 and 185 bpm). I've been tracking it the past few weeks and my average heart rate on all my trail runs over 3 weeks is 177 bpm. Based on the rudimentary max heart rate equation, 186 is my max, and I'm almost there often. If I try to keep my heart rate down in the 40-60% of max heart rate range, I basically have to walk briskly. Even with the slowest of jogging, my heart rate is still 150-160... So my question for you experienced runner is this: What do I do? Does this suggest that I'm still pretty out of shape and just need to continue training? Am I just less fit than I think I am? Is there training I should do (besides trail running) that could help keep my heart rate lower while running? What should I do? Perhaps I should mention my resting heart rate is consistently 52-58 bpm.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and advice. I appreciate it.
Joined: 25 Aug 2006
Posts: 197
Utah, United States
Posted: Mon 19 Oct 2020 11:39 pm GMT   topTop
Thanks for your post. Good choice getting into trail running! :)

Those are some good questions. I'm not an expert at heart rate training but I'll give my two bits. I did monitor my heart rate for much of one training season. I quickly discovered that on trails the terrain varies so much it's a battle to keep heart consistent. Also, as I recall I had a similar experience as you, where my heart rate quickly got higher than so-called "training" level -- so when going uphill (even moderate hills) I had to walk to keep heart rate down. Some of this does have a lot to do with how fit you are -- and, unfortunately -- genetics. Uphill especially is a test of your raw/innate running ability, VO2 max, and all that. Regular folk like me have to walk more often than the elites to keep the effort the same.

Anyway, in the end, heart-rate training felt like overkill and too much work and attention, taking away from enjoying the mountains. I've gone by feel ever since.

Also everyone's heart rate is slightly different. Some people have a lower heart than others when measured at rest. Often that's a sign of better fitness, but it still varies from person to person even if they have the same athletic potential.

So I personally wouldn't worry too much about heart rate stuff. And if you end up doing ultras, you'll have to learn how to listen to your body versus letting a device tell you what to do.

That said, when I used a heart rate monitor, it WAS eye-opening for me to see how slow I really had to go in order to keep my heart rate down. I basically found out I was doing everything moderate, instead of doing a mix of easy and hard. I think that's one key to distance training. You really do have to learn how to get most of your miles in doing runs at an 'easy' effort. Then, on occasion do fartleks or intervals to 'sharpen the saw' and bump up your speed ability. Long, fun hikes/runs in the mountains, with the occasional speed work of various kinds. That's about it.

As far as determining if you really are at a pace you can run forever (or "easy") -- one test is simply the conversation test which I'm sure you know. Can you talk conversationally without breathing getting in the way too much? (Have a pretend conversation if you're alone). If so, you're fine. No device required. In an ultra, you HAVE to keep your effort at a conversational, easy-feeling pace to avoid blasting through energy stores; when you start breathing hard, it's a red flag to slow down. Again, no device required... just awareness.

The other test is if you can, in fact, *actually* run or continue going for a long time :-) If you find yourself crashing or really slowing down before you're done, or feeling destroyed at the end, then you weren't really running 'easy'. That's more "by feel" training versus relying on a device.

[edited: Mon 19 Oct 2020 11:41 pm]