What Does a High Heart Rate Mean?

A high heart rate can be very valuable training feedback, but it can also be quite normal for you! What this means is, it's important to determine what exactly is a high heart rate for you as an individual runner before you can say that your heart rate is 'high'.

For example, two runners of equivalent fitness running at the same pace can have very different heart rates from each other simply due to a difference in their respective maximum heart rates . Since maximum heart rate is largely genetically determined and not an accurate reflection of running fitness, the higher heart rate in the one runner would be normal.

So this leads to the first consideration regarding what you might consider to be a high heart rate. You must first know what your individual maximum heart rate is before you can figure out if your heart rate is unusually high. Once you've determined your max HR, you can then reference the heart rate chart which will give you a solid idea if your heart rate is within reasonable parameters during running.

That said, if you do regularly train by heart rate and therefore possess the awareness that your heart rate is unusually high during any given day for a given running effort, it might be a sign that you are not allowing yourself adequate recovery during your training program .

The following are some of the more common reasons for experiencing a higher than usual heart rate:

  • Heat - exercising in the heat causes an unusually high heart rate as your heart works harder to circulate your blood in an attempt to cool your core temperature down. If you're experiencing a high heart rate while running in the heat, it can be the early signs of heat exhaustion and can lead to a dangerous situation so don't take this lightly.
  • Stress/Anxiety - even while sitting still you can literally cause your heart rate to increase by focussing on a particularly stressful or worrisome situation. I often immediately experience an increased heart rate when thinking about an upcoming race or important presentation. Try and recognize if you are under stress or worried about something in the future unnecessarily - it might help explain your heart rate situation.
  • Chemical Stimulants - while you can become quite immune to stimulants such as coffee, if you overdo it and consume more than you are used to, you can definitely experience an elevated heart rate even during an easy run. Other stimulants such as ephedrine cause an increased heart rate during exercise and can be a dangerous to mix with caffeine.
  • Dehydration - your body relies heavily on water, particularly during exercise, so it's important to pay attention to your water intake. Running while dehydrated causes your heart to work harder and therefore your heart rate to increase unnecessarily.
  • Inadequate recovery - inadequate recovery from your previous higher intensity workouts or races can lead to overtraining or more seriously, chronic overtraining which can be hard to manage as a dedicated runner. It's useful to monitor your waking heart rate to determine if you are experiencing signs of inadequate recovery. The solution is obvious. Back off of hard training and focus on more rest.
  • Sickness - if your body is immune-compromised due to a virus of some kind, and you decide to 'run through it', don't be surprised if you have a higher than usual heart rate.

If none of the above explains your high heart rate, be sure to consult with your doctor to rule out other possibly more serious root causes before continuing your training!

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