Over the last 10 years of run coaching, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the benefits of low heart rate training. Which has lead a lot of you to wonder if your heart rate is too high when running.
You’ll message me that on easy days you find your HR at 160 and sometimes even hitting 180.
Since most guides consider 180 a max HR, this always leads me to some immediate questions.
Are you training with a chest strap or a wrist based optical HR monitor? We know that wrist based is quite frequently incorrect. So the first thing to do is get a good HR monitor for running and make sure you’re working with accurate numbers.
Is it Bad to Run With a High Heart Rate?
If you’ve confirmed that the HR reading your getting is in fact accurate, then it’s time to look at what we consider normal and determine if that’s also normal for you.
In general, runners have a lower resting HR than the average population. Which is another reason that we should have a bigger gap from our relaxation rate to our running BPM and shouldn’t go over when not doing an intense workout.
The standard running target heart rate zones are defined as follows:
- Zone 1: Very Light – 50 to 60 percent of MHR
- Zone 2: Light – 60 to 70 percent of MHR
- Zone 3: Moderate – 70 to 80 percent of MHR
- Zone 4: Intervals or Fartleks, 80 to 90 percent of MHR
- Zone 5: 400 repeats or finishing a race, 90 to 100 percent of MHR
This is just a basic understanding, for more details please read this article on HR Zones for running>>
Usually, you’re reaching out because you’re finding that on easy days you end up in heart rate Zone 4 and 5, instead of staying in Zone 2. Or worse you’re doing everything in the Grey Zone training of Zone 3.
Let’s look at a few common culprits.
Why is My Heart Rate so High When Exercising?
There are a number of reasons that you might be finding your HR creeping up to what are considered dangerous or abnormal levels that don’t have any medical issue.
But, please, ALWAYS talk to your Dr and rule out issues if you’ve noticed a trend that continues even after checking in with some of these common culprits.
You’re Running Too Hard
This seems obvious, but let’s talk it through.
Runs should be a variety of different paces. Starting out nearly all of your runs should be done at what we call and easy pace.
That doesn’t mean running is ever easy, but it’s a description to remind you that it should NOT be a sprint or your race pace. In fact, one of the easiest ways to start learning about different effort levels is the running RPE Chart.
- Try using run/walk intervals to allow your body to adjust
- That will help keep HR down and improve endurance
- Reminder yourself that slowing down is what allows you to run farther
- You should not be gasping for air. On easy runs you should be able to carry on light conversation.
Another issue here could be caffeine!
Either it’s given you a boost and now you’re all pumped up for vigorous activity and simply going too hard.
Or because it’s in the stimulants family, it’s simply caused your HR to go up. I’m someone who is really sensitive to caffeine, so I notice if it’s in any pre-workout I try that my target heart rate range is suddenly harder to stay within.
Heart Rate Monitor is Inaccurate
As noted at the beginning, your elevated heart rate reading could be wrong which is causing you to stress about something that’s not an issue.
Though your stress will also increase your heart rate.
- Try taking your pulse with your finger on your neck (count beats for 10 seconds then x 6)
- Does that number match what your watch is saying?
- Can you feel your heart beating really hard?
- If the answer to these two options is no, then it’s time to get a chest strap.
Chest straps work with nearly every single running watch and are considered the gold standard. Pairing through bluetooth, it will show your HR on the watch or even through an app on your phone.
The handrail on your treadmill is notoriously wrong.
My preferred chest strap is the Polar H9 (cheaper than the 10 and works just as well).
Your wrist based could be inaccurate simply because many of them are, because it’s cold and you have less blood flow or because you have a darker skin tone and it doesn’t read as well.
You Have a Higher Max HR
In some cases, you actually do have a higher max heart rate and the standard formulas don’t work.
The only way to know this for sure is to run a test and find your absolute max. It’s not the most pleasant workout, but absolutely worthwhile if you’ve ruled out health issues and want to find the correct HR Zones for running.
Option 1: Get a VO2 Max Test. This requires finding a facility and paying to have it done, but it’s highly accurate.
Option 2: Run a track test or treadmill test.
- Start with a one to two-mile warm up
- Run a mile at tempo pace
- Run 400m faster
- Run 400m as fast as you can go.
- The highest recorded number is your max heart rate.
Weather is Impacting You
Did you know that when it’s both hot and humid your body cannot cool itself, therefore your heart rate quickly climbs?
- Slow down farther on super hot days
- Focus on sipping water throughout the run to prevent dehydration which also increases HR
- Make sure you’re eating a little before the run so that stress isn’t also increasing your HR
- Move workouts indoors in extreme heat
Signs of Over Training
Another culprit of a high heart rate is that you’ve simply been doing too much and your body is stressed out.
When you start a workout, it’s key to warm up and keep that first mile easy. Otherwise you will definitely notice a spike in HR, but after that if your HR just keeps climbing or won’t go down then it’s time to really assess what you’ve been doing.
- Are you sleeping enough? If not, your resting heart rate will climb and thus your HR during exercise.
- Are you fueling enough? If not then your body cannot recover and again your HR will increase.
- Have you added too much mileage too quickly? The body requires rest days to absorb the work and without it, the stress level will just keep climbing and try to force you to stop.
Potential Issues with High Heart Rate
It’s never a bad idea to check with a doctor if you’re concerned about your HR continuing to spike to rule out medical conditions. We don’t want to see you running over your maximum heart rate consistently.
It’s better to double check and make sure all systems are go!
A few things it could be signaling:
- New to exercise and immediately doing vigorous intensity could lead to a cardiac event
- Feeling dizziness or faint is a sign you’re blood pressure is now off
- Could also lead to heart palpitations, chest pain or hyperventilating
Additionally for anyone on Beta Blockers, know that it traditionally will slow your HR. So if you are seeing signs during cardio of your HR drifting too high, it’s definitely time to take note!
What to do when your running heart rate gets too high?
If you’re running and the intensity has your HR spiking, there are a couple of things to do.
Start with checking in on how you feel. This will give you a second to make sure that your watch isn’t reading incorrectly and throwing you off.
- Slow down to a walk – don’t just sit down, this could cause other issues
- Determine if there is something going on that caused the spike or if you’re simply running too hard
- During a race situation, try to take some deep breaths and control your pace
It’s not bad to have a high heart rate on days where you’re doing intervals, but for the majority of your runs you absolutely shouldn’t be seeing 160 and above. That’s a sign you are working too hard and it will lead to problems.
See below for a super common thing runners will notice that in the first mile their HR monitor will incorrectly read really high. So it’s important to know your body and if you are actually working hard or getting a bad reading.
How to Lower Your Heart Rate While Running?
The process of training itself is going to lower your heart rate over time. So part of the plan is simply patience.
For some reason, we all like to think that on day 1 we should be able to run a mile or even 3. But your muscles, joints, ligaments and heart need a chance to adjust and it’s key to recognize your current fitness level.
Instead of diving in and getting hurt or overwhelmed, start with a smart training plan that will help you build up gradually.
Couch to 5K is a fantastic program that have helped so many come back from injuries or years off of running.
Use Run/Walk Intervals
We think that being a runner means we don’t walk, but that’s just false.
Run walk is an approached used even by Boston Qualifying runners. It’s designed to helps particularly with heart rates that spike because the walk break gives your heart and muscles a break.
During that break, your HR will drop and then allow you to start running again without it immediately going too high.
Control Your Breathing
Learning how to breathe while running can indeed lower your HR. Picture a dog panting, that’s a sign they’re hot and overworked, it’s also when their HR is going up.
Now, if you are breathing with quick short inhales and exhales, your body thinks something bad is happening.
Instead, we want to practice taking slower breaths and longer exhales. I know that sounds easier said than done, so again this is something that we work on over time!
Read more on how to breathe while running >>
Check Your Thinking
Ever noticed how your heart starts pounding while watching a scary movie? You aren’t even doing anything, but your body is responding to your thoughts.
If you’re feeling stressed and nervous during a workout or on race day, your body will react accordingly. Work on controlling those thoughts.
A huge help for many of us is having a good running mantra!
All right now we’ve broken down the key things you need to know about running with a high heart rate. What’s next?
- Understanding Low Heart Rate Training
- Beginner Marathon Training Tips
- Find a good running coach to help you with a plan
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