Ask Stew – Heart Rate During Running

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Members of Team Holloman participate in a physical fitness assessment at Holloman Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force photo by Aaron Montoya / Released).

Heart rate monitors, GPS watches and other fitness apps can help monitor your training and suggest how you should adjust your workouts as you build your conditioning. That’s especially true if you’re working towards the standard for a challenging competitive military program where you will be tested on a consistent basis.

Here is a question from a former college swimming athlete working to improve running times for future fitness tests within the military.

Hey Stew, I have been following your running programs to a T and am loving them. Feeling much better on my faster-paced runs. However, I track my heart rate with my watch and my heart rate stays around 150 for the first 10 minutes then it elevates to 185-190 for the remainder of the run no matter how slow or fast I go. Is this an indicator that I’m out of shape, or is this something that will come with time? I played water polo in college so I am “in shape” so just curious if this is something I should be working on. Thanks, Matthew

Matt - it could be a “running” conditioning issue. It depends on how long you have been running as it does take some time to become a conditioned runner where you achieve your desired pace at a lower heart rate (effort level). If you are not used to running much and spent most of your athletic career in zero gravity water, the impact on the body can be stressful at first.

Stress can increase your heart rate (real, perceived or imagined). You may also find that the conditioning for swimming and running is different. I see many great runners have a very difficult time in the water learning to swim faster and longer testing distances (500 meters, for example), but also see many swimmers have a difficult transition into running.

Overuse injuries (shin splints, tendonitis, stress fracture) or poor running technique can just make running harder, especially as you progress in time and distance. It could also be caffeine finally kicking in if you are drinking any prior to the workout.

If you do have caffeine or worse a pre-workout drink before you run, STOP. It artificially elevates the heart rate and can even be dangerous. People have died from over-using caffeine during cardio exercise and high intensity workouts.

Some other things that can affect your heart rate in the middle of a run:

- Just thinking can increase your heart rate. Emotions and anxiety can occur even during runs (adrenaline/cortisol).

- Dehydration and body temperature: If you get hot and sweat profusely or run in arid environments, you can dehydrate faster, increase body temperature and elevate your heart rate. Make sure you are hydrated when training.

- Hills: Changes in terrain can make running harder even if it’s just a gradual hill of 1-2% incline.

- Nutrition and diminishing glycogen stores: Glycogen and blood sugar are your muscles’ primary fuel source when running fast and at elevated heart rates. If you are beginning to bonk after going anaerobic too long, your heart rate will also increase and be a determining factor in you slowing down. Make sure you are fed and recovered from yesterday’s workout and fueled up for today’s workout. Running out of fuel will downshift your performance.

Figure out where your performance stands by assessing yourself during a run. Time yourself in a run of the distance you are required to master (1.5-, 2-, or 3-mile timed run).

Break up the run in 400 meter assessment points. If you are preparing for a 2-mile run, have 8 x 400 meter check points and you will see where your pace drops off and where your heart rate increases.

Adjust your training at that spot for a few weeks until you can master several sets at that distance (maybe 800 meters, 1200 meters, or 1-mile sets) at your goal mile pace. Rest 100% of the time that you ran, but build up to 50% of the time you ran. That is a work to rest ratio of 1:1 and 2:1 and your goal pace and rest time depends on your current level of fitness and your future goals.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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