Q+A: Is my heart rate too high in my steady runs?

Q Following your advice, I did a treadmill test using a heart rate monitor to work out my maximum heart rate. The result was 177bpm. However, during 40-minute steady runs my pulse easily reaches 165bpm, about 94 per cent of max! Am I training too hard? (It doesn’t feel like it.)

A Heart rate monitors should, in theory, be easy to use and a great tool for runners. This isn’t always the case in practice, however. While heart rate monitors are all pretty similar, runners aren’t, and that can lead to some anomalies.

I suspect that you are a ‘high beater’. This simply means that your heart muscles beat at a faster rate across the various levels of exercise and training than your peers’ do. This isn’t a ‘bad’ thing, merely a personal idiosyncrasy that needs to be taken into account when planning and assessing your training.

The results of your treadmill test were interesting. If you really did reach your maximum effort at 177 heart rate then yes, you are training too hard every run. As you say, 165 is 94 per cent of 177, and an effort of 94 per cent of your MHR for 40 minutes or more would be incredibly debilitating, if not near impossible.

In fact, it’s best to get away from the idea at working at a percentage of your MHR anyway, and think instead about your working heart rate (WHR). You still need to find your maximum, but once you’ve got that, subtract from it your resting heart rate. To find the rate to run at – for example 75 per cent effort – simply multiply your WHR by 0.75 and add the resulting figure to your resting heart rate – that’s the rate to aim for.

However, I’d be surprised if you found your actual maximum during the treadmill test. While doing such a test your heart rate should reach its max during the second of two three-minute runs. However, unless your monitor actually logs your max – and not all do – you can miss it. One suggestion I’d make is that you try a proper lab-based maximal exercise test. In such conditions you should reach your real ‘max’, although it’s a pretty unpleasant feeling!

You could also try only breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth when running. This will automatically set you to an appropriate moderate intensity. Note your heart rate at this comfortable level, and use it as the basis for the majority of your running training.—Joe Beer, sports scientist and level-two triathlon coach