Is this good exertion or bad exertion - heart rate question
October 23, 2011 5:49 PM   Subscribe

How much I should be concerned about high heart rates while running? Question about exercise and heart rates.

I've been a fitness swimmer for 5-6 years [swimming a mile or two a week, nothing too strenuous] and over the last year or two I've started doing a little bit of running [running a mile or two] and rowing machine workouts to mix it up a little. This has been going fine. However when I'm on the treadmill which has the little grippy things that take your pulse, my pulse is frequently up in the high 180 range. This seems high to me and I'm wondering if that's worth getting checked out, or within normal tolerances? I don't otherwise feel bad, just tired afterwards at a normal level.

Usually when I'm swimming my pulse is around 140 and when cycling it's between 140-160. My resting pulse is high, between 76-80 most of the time. I have low blood pressure [100/60-ish]. I'm 43. I have occasional exertional asthma and I have a rescue inhaler in case I have problems. This pulse rate thing has been true for the past year or so, so getting better at running and in better shape doesn't seem to be changing anything.

There is a history of heart disease on my dad's side of the family, I've always checked out fine. I'm not trying to lose weight actively with exercise, just stay fit and keep my cholesterol reasonable. I live in a rural community where going to the doctor if there's nothing actively wrong would be a little weird but I'd do it if it was important. I've read some of the information on heart rate stuff and I get that 180+ is closer to my maximum than a good training rate but I'm not sure what, if anything I should do about this other than stop running.

If someone could suggest some good links to read up on this or just outline it in an easy-to-understand way or give me some advice, I'd appreciate it. Run differently? Go to the doc? Keep on keeping on? Thank you.
posted by jessamyn to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
How fast are you running? Is it all out or a jog? Slow down. Your body needs many miles on it to learn how to rum with all of your systems functioning together.

Also, yes, ask your doctor.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:56 PM on October 23, 2011

I would recommend looking into a chest band/wristwatch type heart rate monitor - the grippy things on treadmills always tell me my heart is about to tear its way out of my chest, even when I'm plodding along watching Ellen. I strongly suspect they're not all that accurate/well calibrated.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:04 PM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Those grippy things are pretty unreliable, in my experience. If you get that reading by another, more reliable source (I use a wrist pulse monitor), I'd try either running a little slower, or alternatively, see how you do with intervals, which would let you recover a little more between sprints.
posted by *s at 6:04 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about the treadmill heart things, they're pretty crummy. You might try a standalone heart rate monitor and mention it to your MD next time you're in for an appointment.
posted by ghharr at 6:10 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The other thing is this--those charts are one-size fits all. The best way to figure all of this out is to get a heart rate monitor and do a special set of sprints to find out where your optimal range is. You'll find you could be anywhere.

To be safe, check with your doctor before doing the baseline test.

This is a good quick-and-dirty way from the CDC.

More involved and accurate ones involve doing a set of sprints followed by measuring your heart rate. I learned mine was way lower than the chart thingie would suggest.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:12 PM on October 23, 2011

You can count your bpm yourself by feeling your heart rate in your neck. See if the bpm the machine tells you is accurate.
Probably not.
posted by joost de vries at 6:12 PM on October 23, 2011

Response by poster: How fast are you running? Is it all out or a jog?

I do a 12 minute mile, but usually by alternating between a 20 minute mile [and using the grippy things and getting some water] and speeding up to a more sprinty ten minute mile. It feels strenuous but not "I'm going to pass out" crazy. Since I've never run before I'm not totally sure what it's supposed to feel like but I definitely get tired out with running whereas with cycling and swimming and rowing I feel like I could keep it up for longer. I'll try a slower pace and see if it makes a heart rate difference and see if I can borrow a monitor. Thanks folks.
posted by jessamyn at 6:38 PM on October 23, 2011

Best answer: I just want to throw out there that heart-rate guides are very much in the median, and lots of people are significantly higher or lower than that media, and - crucially - that's just fine for them.

For example, I myself, am what you might call a "fast beater" - in my regular pace or even "slow" long runs my heart rate is typically 175 at the lowest, and going up to 190 at times. When I'm doing intervals I have been known to crack 200 in brief spurts.

These numbers are all way higher than is frequently recommended (around 150 or 160). It puzzled and worried me for a long time because - with the rightful exception of the intervals - I typically didn't _feel_ over exerted.

Concerned, I did a lot of research about this and if you browse around both running forums and articles etc, you'll find that people's heart rates are in actuality all over the shop, and it frequently doesn't mean much.

The best guide for running - always - is how you feel. If you are feeling tired, exhausted, can't breathe properly, you're going to fast for a steady state run. Hal Higdon uses the guide that if you can talk in sentences, you're going at the right pace for a long "regular" run; if you can talk in short bursts of words, you're going pretty fast; and if you can't talk at all because you're trying to get air in, you're going really fast and outside of intervals that's way too fast.

It's not a rock solid rule (I've learnt in years of running there's very very few rock solid rules), but it's a good general guide I've found. Trust yourself, listen to your body, and don't pay *too* much attention to numbers, especially not the numbers on bodgy gym equipment which are notoriously flaky.
posted by smoke at 6:49 PM on October 23, 2011 [8 favorites]

You might consider getting a chest strap monitor if you want to track your heart rate. The ones that are Polar-style (as opposed to the Garmin system) often integrate with commercial exercise machines. I can wear mine to the gym and whatever bike or treadmill I am on picks it up and shows it, removing the need to wear the goofy watch.

If you're so inclined you can also use it on some machinery that will use it do to interval training - it'll keep raising the resistance till you're in your target rate. I've found them to be pretty accurate though I haven't checked them at different exertion levels.
posted by phearlez at 6:53 PM on October 23, 2011

A couple of friends who have a family history of heart disease did treadmill tests in their early 40's to establish a healthy baseline. It makes detecting trouble a lot easier if trouble does emerge.

A little story: I neglected regular checkups for a long time, then I met someone who survived cancer because he had a baseline established for his blood work due to consistent yearly checkups. So when one checkup showed some slight deviation from his baseline, his doctor looked into it further and found something was indeed wrong. Early diagnosis and treatment saved his life. His doctor told him that the blood work was so close to "normal" he probably wouldn't have thought anything was amiss had he not had the baseline to compare it to.

It's an excellent idea to get a checkup and ask for a treadmill test, especially with a family history of heart disease. I have such a family history and my friend's tale scared me into encouraged me to finally get my checkup and stress test. It turns out that, aside from some slight arrhythmia, my heart is very healthy. The doctor didn't seem so concerned about the peak heart rate, as much as how quickly it returned to normal when resting. I was also diagnosed with high blood pressure, which is now under control with medication and healthier habits, and I see my doctor regularly to keep an eye on things.

So... I don't know what your heart rate should be while running, but yeah... make an appointment for a checkup. At best, it will give you a baseline and peace of mind. And the worst that can happen is you nip something in the bud before it's an issue.
posted by The Deej at 7:06 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing getting a Polar monitor. How long does it take to get to 180 and if you slow down, does it drop back pretty quickly? If you get a check up, get it with someone who works with athletes (so you don't get someone who tells you to stop running out of inexperience.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:13 PM on October 23, 2011

Best answer: I'm a 42yo woman and I swim and cycle too (or, um, used to, a lot) and ran occasionally enough that I would have expected it to get easier, heart-rate-wise. (I'm a big HR monitor user.) It never did. Swimming and cycling are easier on the body, more efficient. I was never able to bring my running HR down to a matched rate. Over time I've also come to think that running is harder on the curvy-hourglass woman's figure, and by harder I mean that body type expends additional energy toward alignment than straighter figures. This is completely unscientific, but supported a little bit by observations from some body-work-types I've worked with over the years.

My advice would be to figure out what your maximum heart-rate is using a DIY stress test like this one, possibly under a doctor's supervision but based on what you wrote that might seem weird, so definitely with a friend nearby to spot you. You can figure out where your 180bpm is on that range and go from there. Also look at your recovery rate, because that's a useful data point for heart health.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:29 PM on October 23, 2011

Hal Higdon uses the guide that if you can talk in sentences, you're going at the right pace for a long "regular" run; if you can talk in short bursts of words, you're going pretty fast; and if you can't talk at all because you're trying to get air in, you're going really fast and outside of intervals that's way too fast.

Here is a bit more on the current thinking of this 'common sense' standard:

posted by meinvt at 7:30 PM on October 23, 2011

When I start back into swimming when I've been out of it for a while, my HR is 190 after every goddamn lap. You might just not be finding your groove yet. If you're not getting lightheaded or sick, you're probably ok.

(Like you, I have relatively low BP. Unlike you, I have a low rest pulse - 48-52.)
posted by notsnot at 7:36 PM on October 23, 2011

The treadmill monitors are always high compared to my Polar chest band/watch combo so try one of those and see how it differs. Get checked out next time you go to the doctor in order to be reassured that you're not about to have the Alien burst out of your chest.
posted by arcticseal at 7:48 PM on October 23, 2011

Meinvt, that's a good link, but actually doesn't contradict Higdon's advice as it pertains to long distance running training at all. The bulk of running training should indeed be done at the "low moderate" end of the training threshold. See here for more detail. Key para: "the key message here (and the reason I use this pyramid) is that the majority of your runs should actually be quite easy — something I think many beginners don’t realize." (emph mine).

Jessamyn, I think that line is really the key to successful running, if it feels moderately easy to you, that's the important thing. Testing certainly won't hurt either. :)
posted by smoke at 8:31 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have an iPhone, Jess? Check out the "Heart Rate" app; it uses the iPhone's flash to find your heart beat. It's a really neat app, and I've found it more accurate than the treadmill pulse finders.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:52 PM on October 23, 2011

Best answer: First, you need to disregard the readings from your treadmill. Second, to really get a handle on your exercise and cardiovascular health and fitness, I would strongly recommend a stress test (by a cardiologist). The purpose of this is (1) to find if there is some very obvious CVD reading from the test (2) to establish that you can exercise safely at any given level of intensity and (3) to provide a baseline from which you can judge your level of fitness progress going forward. In general, your resting heart rate should be lower if you are fit - yours is somewhat highish for someone at your apparent level of fitness. Since there is some individual differences, it's hard to say what your baseline RHR is. Perhaps your present RHR, even though higher than average for your level of fitness, is still lower than it would have been had you not been fit. If you keep monitoring your HR, and you increase your exercise levels, your should see your RHR go down. Remember, for fitness benefits, intensity is more important than duration.

Finally, you want to establish your heart rate variability (this can be done during the stress test). The most important variable is not how high your HR goes, but the rate of variability as your heart beats respond during the exercise session. Healthy response: your HR goes up very quickly with exertion during exercise, and also goes down very quickly once you stop. Less healthy is a so-called "blunt" response - if your HR is slow to rise up when you start to exercise, and also slow to go down once you stop. The latter is associated with worse clinical outcomes. Here's another discussion - but caveat: study was done in men.

Therefore, a workup establishing your HR pattern can be valuable, because even if you don't at present have any CVD, you can take preventive measures to head off any future problems.

Bottom line: in answer to your question, for all the reasons above, I would recommend having a stress test done by a cardiologist before you set up your exercise regimen.

posted by VikingSword at 9:35 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, forgot the link to "intensity is more important than duration":

"A study conducted among cyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark showed that it is the relative intensity and not the duration of cycling which is of most importance in relation to all-cause mortality and even more pronounced for coronary heart disease mortality."

However, please keep in mind, that you should escalate your exercise intensity s-l-o-w-l-y. I cannot emphasize this enough - if you push yourself too hard too fast, you risk serious injury. Go slower than you think you could in escalating - we all get impatient, but it's important to establish fitness levels very firmly before each escalation. And get the stress test before you map out your exercise program, so you can do it from a position of knowledge and confidence - there's nothing worse than constantly worrying if you are pushing yourself too fast to injury or too little to benefit; having an objective test lets you relax and not worry while you exercise going forward.
posted by VikingSword at 9:56 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

when I'm on the treadmill which has the little grippy things that take your pulse, my pulse is frequently up in the high 180 range

A completely alternate explanation for this is that a lot of heartrate-enabled gym equipment is configured to pick up the wireless signals from peoples' strap-on monitors.

Is there any chance at all that your treadmill is picking up the wireless signal from anybody else in the vicinity? In my observation, some of the machines I use will default to displaying the strongest available signal, meaning that if somebody nearby has one of those chest strap sensors, and my hands are too sweaty / not sweaty enough / seamlessly replaced with robot hands by some kind of Matrix alien, then my machine will show the other person's heartrate.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:20 PM on October 23, 2011

How frequent are these runs that you've been doing for the last year or two? If you've been running two miles a couple times a week for two years and you have a 180 HR at a 12 minute mile, I think it probably warrants checking out, (after, as others have advised, first confirming that really is your HR, either with an actual HR monitor or at least just testing on a couple different machines). But if these little runs were less frequent, (e.g. one mile once a week or something) I'd give it a little time before worrying, because that's not really going to be enough to get your body to adapt to the exercise and be more efficient with its energy expenditure--when it does adapt it should decrease the need for your heart to pump so fast. When I first got back to running, even though I was in pretty good shape from lots of other fitness activities, my HR was way high when just jogging, but after I started getting in some more miles every week, my body adapted a little bit more, and then both my running HR and my resting HR dropped way down.
posted by gubenuj at 11:43 PM on October 23, 2011

Short of an stress test, echo or cardiac workup, the Karvonen formula gives a pretty good indication of your target heart rates.
posted by klarck at 4:34 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: [i have a monitor you can borrow. (watch is a little manly, and band is wanky, but it works.)]

All those silly charts about HR vs. age were waaaaaayyyyy too low for me. If I went by them, my HR was a good 50% higher during exercise. I mean, they were telling me to aim at like 120, but I aim for 185 or so. above that I find it runs away so i throttle back to maintain 180-185. for sprints... it goes over 200 sometimes for a bit, but i can't maintain that.

then again, i am old, as you know.

resting HR for me is in the 50's, high 40's sometimes.
posted by FauxScot at 5:31 AM on October 24, 2011

I also row and run and bike and my heart rate differs greatly for all of those things. Biking especially on a spin bike, does not get your heart rate up as much as a full body activity like running or rowing. My heart rate is always around the 170s - 180s when I run, and definitely always above 160 when I am rowing. This is not to say the grippy things are accurate, but that it wouldn't be unusual if they were.
posted by hepta at 5:44 AM on October 24, 2011

I use a chest strap monitor when I run and my heart rate is usually up into the 180s when I've been running at what I would consider a moderate-to-high level of exertion for more than a few minutes. (I never get anywhere near that high when I bike.) Like a lot of people are saying, there's a wide range of normal. (My sister is the same as me in this respect; I wouldn't be surprised if there were a genetic component to Max HR though I don't know of any studies.)
posted by mskyle at 6:43 AM on October 24, 2011

FWIW, I've always found that my heart rate is way higher at the same perceived level of exertion when I'm jogging vs. swimming. I always figured it was a combination of being more used to swimming (former high-school swimmer turned late-20's couch-to-5k'er here), along with gravity providing more resistance to blood flow while I'm upright instead of horizontal.
posted by vytae at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2011

Response by poster: Hey there -- just got the "hey let people know what happened" email from mathowie. Basically I wound up borrowing a heart rate monitor from a friend of mine and then have not been back running at the gym for a while [though I have been swimming where my heart rate is usually about 135-145]. I'll be making an appointment at the doc just to make sure nothing's remiss and I appreciate people taking the time to give me some answers and advice.
posted by jessamyn at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2011

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