Why Care About Your Exercise Heart Rate?

Paying regular attention to your exercise heart rate is a great and reliable way to monitor adaptations taking place in your body brought about by your training. While no amount of training will change certain factors like your maximum heart rate, with persistent and correct training you will realize an adaptation that will result in a stronger and hence more efficient heart that yields a stronger blood stroke.

FACT: a healthy heart does not lie! Your heart rate during exercise provides an objective measurement of workload - how hard your heart has to work to handle the oxygen demand that you are placing on your body as a result of your effort and pace.

The first benefit we can obtain from this fact about your heart has to do with becoming a stronger and faster runner. The faster you run or harder you work (running up an incline), the faster your heart will need to pump blood to provide oxygen to your working muscles.

As you become more fit, not only does your heart become stronger but so does your body become more efficient at processing delivered oxygen and making energy. This translates to a lower heart rate at a previously equivalent pace.

Let’s say one of your routine runs is 3 miles on the treadmill at a pace of 6.0 mph. After a mile and a half warm up, your heart rate averages 136 bpm. After 3 weeks of consistent training along with the appropriate rest periods, your body adapts to that workout and grows stronger. The run at 6.0 mph might then only require your heart to beat 132 bpm to get the job done. This is why, to continue to progress in your fitness and become more efficient which will naturally lead to increased speed, you need to be aware of these changes so that you will know when to switch things up such as add more speed to challenge yourself.

The second benefit you can obtain from the reliable and objective nature of your exercise heart rate, is to know when you need to go hard or simply back off.

After a long day at work, you might feel particularly drained mentally. This can have the effect of tapping your motivation to get your run in after work if you let it. If mentally you are tired, you can convince yourself that you just don’t have any gas in the tank to get a quality run in that day. More often than not however, you will find that once you get out there, and let the feedback from your heart rate tell you how you are feeling that day, it will tell you quite a different story.

TIP: A good way to beat these motivationally draining feelings is to commit to nothing more than a 15-20 minute easy warm up period before you make the decision to run or not. 90% of the time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how great you’ll feel once the warm up is over.

Inversely, your exercise heart rate can be telling a different story if it’s presenting a higher than usual heart rate for a given effort. Sticking to a training program takes habit, dedication and commitment. This is why it can be very hard for the motivated runner who is mentally ready to tackle a run and go hard to take a much needed day off rather than run. In these cases, recovery rather than running will provide more training benefit by allowing adaptation to take place rather than placing more stress on the body. You can also get an accurate picture of how your body is responding to your training by regularly monitoring your resting heart rate. An elevated waking heart rate is usually a sign of fatigue. In order for this to be an accurate measure for you however, you would have to be familiar with your individual normal resting heart rate.

So in summary, regularly monitoring and listening to what your exercise heart rate is telling you, is an invaluable training tool by keeping your relative efforts placed where they should be – go easy on easy days and go hard enough on hard days.

How to Measure Your Exercise Heart Rate

There are several methods to obtain your exercise heart rate, some easier and more accurate than others, including the following:

  1. Two Fingers on the Neck - Placing your first and middle finger together on your carotid artery (deep in your neck under either side of your jaw) – count how many beats your heart pumps in a 10 second period. Multiply this number by 6 to get your exercise heart rate. The only downside to this method is it’s difficult to execute on the fly so you usually have to slow down to a walk to obtain your heart rate accurately. This will obviously skew your results somewhat since your running intensity will have changed and you’ll likely get a slightly lower reading.
  2. Treadmill Grips – most treadmills are equipped with heart rate monitoring devices that pick up your pulse from your finger tips. All that is required is to grip the bars and allow for enough time to elapse before your heart rate can be displayed. The challenge with this method is like the finger on the neck method, it is easier to obtain if you are walking than when you are running since keeping your hands in one place will change your running form and may feel quite awkward.
  3. Heart Rate Monitors – this is by far the most convenient and accurate method for measuring your heart rate. Most monitors work with a chest transmitter belt that is secured around your chest a sends a real time signal to your receiving device for the duration of your workout. For full portability, a heart rate monitor watch is required and most commercial treadmills are Polar heart rate compliant. This means, if you wear the transmitter belt, your exercise heart rate will be automatically displayed on the treadmill.

Owning a heart rate monitor is an absolute must if you plan on establishing and adhering to your individual heart rate training zones. Training by heart rate is arguably the smartest way to ensure your continuing running progress while avoiding injury.

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