Racing With A Heart Rate Monitor

Data from a heart rate monitor can help you optimise your race performance - but you have to be careful how you go about using it

Posted: 5 June 2000
by Joe Dunbar

It would seem natural that your heart rate monitor should be your greatest ally when it comes to race day – but as ever, the reasoning is not that simple. While you can use your experience from previous competitions to your advantage, you'll find that you can't just transfer what you've learnt from ordinary training onto the race course.

If you've worn your HRM in races before, one of the first things you'll have noticed is that, unlike in training, your heart rate rises extremely quickly once the race starts. You'll also have seen that the readings are much higher than usual.

Research from South Africa has found the same thing. The conclusion is that it just wouldn't make sense to base your racing heart rate on heart rate figures from non-competitive training sessions. Racing is clearly different from ordinary fast running, and it's largely because in a race, your heart rate is affected by more than just the amount of work your body is doing. One of the major influences is thought to be arousal and the associated adrenaline surge that accompanies a competitive situation, though this has yet to be scientifically established.

If you did use your HRM in a race and paced yourself according to your training rates, you'd probably be holding yourself back rather than gaining an edge. For a start, the anticipation and adrenaline we've mentioned will give you artificially high heart rate readings, which won't reflect your pace. In addition, you'll often find that in a race situation you can maintain a higher heart rate than you're used to anyway.

Heart rate information from training sessions can only occasionally be useful in a race situation. You may have decided to use a race simply as a controlled training run over an accurately measured distance, for example. Alternatively, you could be tackling a new distance with the sole aim of maintaining a steady 'get-you-round' pace. Otherwise – elementary as it may sound – research shows that the best approach to a proper race is to simply aim for a fast but level pace throughout.

The only useful way to establish a heart rate for racing is to do it retrospectively using real race data. Ideally, you need to be able to store your rates on your monitor as you run and then plot them on a graph afterwards. At the beginning of the graph, you would expect to see a sharp increase in your heart rate. Then, if you've raced well, the trace will remain high but virtually constant. It may increase by a few beats, but the only real variation should be a possible small jump at the end as a result of a finishing kick.

After a few races, you'll be able to identify your normal racing heart rate (though remember that factors such as heat and hilliness will have a pronounced effect), and then if you have a bad race, the graph can give hints as to why. One common cause is infection, which normally causes the heart rate to be much higher than usual throughout, despite a lower running speed. Another reason might be that you've simply started too fast. In this case, you struggle (unsuccessfully) to maintain your pace, but despite the fact that you're still working hard, your heart rate drops throughout the race. This pattern is not uncommon and can also be seen in overtrained athletes, who can find it hard to maintain their normal high heart rate despite putting in a lot of effort.

Whatever your performance, a decent collection of heart rate graphs will help you pinpoint the factors that made your race a success – or otherwise. Then it's just a question of looking to the future.

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Discuss this article

I am 41 and have been running for a little over a year. i have now completed a couple of half marathons and am down to do my first marathon shortly. The last half I did I completed in 1:56, a time I was more than happy with. However, i was concerned to see that my average heart rate during the entire race was 177bpm, i.e. not far off 100%. Is this safe/normal or am I about to expode!!
Posted: 15/03/2003 at 08:05

If that's an average then it's on the high side I would have thought. Are you the sort that can push themselves hard? If so, you could be asking too much from your current fitness level. Could be that you were harbouring a bug.
These things are always difficult to assess. I suspect the first reason.
Posted: 15/03/2003 at 08:44

Hi Mike,

Not met you before on the forums - are you new? If so, welcome!!

Wrt your question: (it's one that gets fairly frequently asked by newcomers)

How do you know your HR was not far off 100%? Have you done a MaxHR test? Or are you going by predictions based on formulae such as (220 - age) or (214 - (0.8 x age) )?

If the latter, please bear in mind they are very unreliable. There are loads of forumites who have Max HRs way above what the formulae would predict. I'm one of them - I'm 44 & last year saw my HR hit 192 at the end of a 5K race.

If you've got a marathon coming soon, I don't think trying to find out your max HR by the usual methods (short fast race OR 800m fast, v short recovery, 800m flat out) will be very helpful.

Instead, think back over your "halves". What did your HR peak at? How did you feel over the course of the race? Was it a matter of "this feels hard, but I'm in control", or did you end up having to drag yourself round to finish?
The answers to those questions ought to give you some idea of how close to your max HR you really were - and hopefully, some clue as to what pace to set for yourself for the marathon.

Good luck
Posted: 15/03/2003 at 10:45

Hi Mike, it's very unlikely, in fact it's probably impossible for you to have done a half marathon at just under your max HR. You could maybe expect to see such a reading in the final mile or so, but not the entire event. You probably would have exploded if this had happened.

You may find that, if you did a max hr test, your actual max hr is nearer 200 than the figure produced from the formulae as outlined by MikeS
Posted: 15/03/2003 at 13:31

Hi Mike, as Mike S and Drew say, you sound as if you haven't found your true max heart rate yet. I'm same age as Mike S and my max, seen on a race is 186, but trying to find my max by running fast only raised it to 179.
If your HR for most of the 1/2M was around 177, then that is likely to be around your 80-85% level with occasional peaks to 90% on hills. Get out a calculator and work out your max from that, then re-adjust your training figures.

Posted: 16/03/2003 at 18:56

Hi Mike - I echo the others - I think this HR stuff is an art not a science.

My max is c206 - I'm 40 yrs old (v nearly!) and I've done a 1/2M really slowly with a HR of 195 almost all the way - except for a few blips at 185 and 204.

OK Not everyone's like me (!) - but I'm still alive!

Posted: 16/03/2003 at 19:07

One thing anyone should be aware of when looking at average HR over a race is any interference your HRM may suffer can seriously affect it. THat can coem from a variety of sources - poor contacts on the sensors through to interference from mobile phones and POlice radios - I've often run by a police car and seen my HR shoot up to over 200 on an easy run thus making any AHR highly suspect.
Posted: 20/04/2004 at 04:51

Ditto what Paul has said, and also you can get interference from other HRMs. You may even be seeing someone elses HR.

On one of my off road runs there is a section where one of my HRMs says that I am not even breathing while the other shoots up to over 200 beats. It came as quite a shock when I first found out I was dead....
Posted: 20/04/2004 at 06:59

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