You’ve almost reached the top of the hill. Your muscles feel like they’re on fire. You’re gasping. You look down at your heart rate monitor. It reads 160. You speed up and push to what feels like your edge. Now it’s 166. You reach the top of the hill, catch your breath, and your heart rate begins to drop. You’re coasting on flat ground and within a few minutes, it’s back to 143.
What are these numbers actually telling you? And would you know if your heart rate was too high?
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Knowing Your Resting and Maximum Heart Rates
Your heart rate tells you how hard you are working. But the number isn’t terribly helpful without context. You need a scale — with your resting heart rate (RHR) at one end and your maximum heart rate (MHR) at the other end.
A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). Many athletes have an RHR lower than 60 because their heart is stronger and more efficient.
To get your true RHR, take it before you get up in the morning. Wearing your heart rate monitor while resting is an easy way to find yours.
You can also take your RHR manually. Here’s how:
- Place your first two fingers inside your wrist and find your pulse
- Using a stopwatch or the second hand of a clock, count the beats for 30 seconds
- Multiply by two to find your RHR
The standard formula for finding your MHR is 220 minus your age. Using this formula, a 50-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be 170.
However, a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that this formula often overestimates for women and underestimates for men. For that reason, it’s important to remember that 220 minus your age is a general guide, not an exact number.
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Target Heart Rates During Exercise
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for vigorous exercise, your target heart rate should be between 77% and 93% of your maximum heart rate. To find that range, multiply your MHR by 0.77 (for the low end) and 0.93 (for the high end).
The American Heart Association simplifies the range to 70% to 85% and offers this chart to help you find your target heart rate.
Don’t be concerned that the two don’t agree. It’s important that you have a solid sense of how hard you’re working and when something feels off.
Perceived exertion means how hard it feels like you’re working, from 0 to 10. Vigorous exercise should feel like a 7 or 8. If you can talk — but not sing — while exercising, you’re doing moderate exercise. With vigorous exercise, you gasp between words — and likely can’t speak at all during a full-out sprint.
When to Be Concerned About a High Heart Rate
An abnormally high heart rate is called tachycardia. There are different types and causes of tachycardia. Most have to do with a high resting heart rate. But if you have tachycardia, exercise could be a factor in causing your heart rate to spike.
The more data you have about your resting and maximum heart rate, the more you will know if something isn’t right. If your heart rate seems too high for the effort you’re making, take note. See if it happens again. Your heart rate monitor may be malfunctioning (monitors built into gym equipment are notoriously unreliable).
You may also want to consider using your RHR to determine if you are overtraining. Kentaro Onishi, DO, a physiatrist at UPMC Sports Medicine and an avid runner, recommends recording your normal, true RHR before beginning any training program. If your true RHR increases by more than seven BPM after you begin a training regimen, then you may be overtraining. Overtraining should be avoided. It can result in less interest in continuing to train as well as injuries.
If you notice a high heart rate along with dizziness or nausea, stop immediately and call your doctor. Always listen to your body over any piece of wearable technology or a heart rate chart. If something feels off, it probably is. To be safe, it’s best to talk with your doctor.
To learn more or schedule an appointment, please call 1-855-93-SPORT (77678) or visit UPMC Sports Medicine.
American Heart Association, All About Heart Rate, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/the-facts-about-high-blood-pressure/all-about-heart-rate-pulse
Frontiers in Physiology, Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate in Recreational Marathon Runners: A Cross-Sectional Study on Fox's and Tanaka's Equations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5862813/
The Centers for Disease Control, Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Ratehttps://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm
American Heart Association, Target Heart Rates Chart. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/target-heart-rates
The New York Times, Scared of High-Intensity Interval Training? A Heart Monitor Can Make It Fun and Easy, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/well/move/high-intensity-interval-training-heart-rate-monitor-hiit-exercise-fitness.html
American Heart Association, Tachycardia: Fast Heart Rate. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/arrhythmia/about-arrhythmia/tachycardia--fast-heart-rate
About Sports Medicine
Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.