I love this question, and it’s a common one: Why is my heart rate (HR) so high during easy runs? In this edition of #askcoachcourtney, I’ll explains the ins-and-outs of heart rate zones, why they matter, and steps you can take to better control and maintain a suitable heart rate for long-distance run training.
Why HR matters
On the surface, HR matters for the simple reason that if you run too fast, you’ll burn out, of course. Most of us have a story about how we took off too fast at the start of a race and ended up huffing, puffing, and doubling over with side-stitches. Other physical effects of running at a pace that jacks up your HR include the build up of lactic acid faster than the body can buffer it out. The result is muscle pain and cramps.
HR also matters for those who want to not only build aerobic endurance and fitness, but to lose weight, too. Keeping your max HR in check at about 60% can add in your quest to drop pounds. Running at 80% of your max HR might “feel” more like a workout, but if your goal is to lose weight, it won’t benefit you as much as you think.
Different HR zones
As you’ve likely assumed by now, there are different HR “zones.” This excellent graphic from the FitBit community illustrates them well:
When you are training for a distance race (anything from a 5k – ultra), you should plan to do most of your training in the light and moderate HR zone. As the infographic illustrates, running at 60%-80% of your max HR is key to building and improving aerobic fitness as well as burning fat.
With that in mind, don’t discount the benefits of running in the “hard” or “maximum” zones during those #TrackTuesday workouts! There are benefits to running in these zones in short bursts such as getting faster. For athletes who wish to decrease their pace at any distance, intervals in these zones matter and make a difference. The distance and time of those intervals not only depends on your current athletic ability, but it also depends on the type of race for which you are training. Running 200 meters to train for a marathon isn’t going to do much, and running 800 meters to train for a 5k isn’t ideal, either.
Anytime you’re scheduled for an easy run, aim to stick within that 60%-80% bracket. If you don’t have access to an HR monitor, utilize the “conversational pace” rule: If you are so out of breath and pushing so hard that you can’t have a conversation (I.e., a sentence or two followed by some breathing), you’re going way too fast for an easy run.
Reasons your HR is too high during easy runs and how to correct them
There could be many reasons why your HR spikes, or is generally too high, during easy miles. Below are a few of the most common as well as some tips regarding how to correct them:
You’re not warming up properly and/or enough. Have you ever seen those runners who seem to run a whole 5k before the race even begins? They’re not showing off; they’re smart! Warming up properly allows runners of all abilities to crank it out when it matters: during a race. Regardless of if you consider yourself a “fast” runner, warming up is essential to raising your HR in a safe, appropriate way even for easy runs!
If you step onto the treadmill or outside and just GO, you can expect your HR to spike. If you’re lost on how to warm-up, consider walking for 60 seconds followed by jogging for sixty seconds and repeat for a total of 5-6 minutes. Not a fan of that? Some jumping jacks will also work.
You’re running too fast. A lot of runners think they’re running at an appropriate pace for easy runs, but most aren’t. An HR above 150 is too high for easy runs. It’s easy to get out there and want to take off, but remember that easy runs are supposed to be easy and are in no way “junk miles.” You’re building your aerobic fitness and endurance, plus you’re avoiding injuries. After your warm up, your HR should be 149 or below (or, you should be at a conversational pace). The way to correct this is simple: slow down and let the pride go when it comes to being “fast.”
You’re getting sick or have an underlying medical condition. When I run through even a simple, common cold, my HR is waaaay higher than usual. The pace that usually produces an HR around 134 is suddenly at 159. If you’re running through some kind of sickness, be prepared for an abnormally heightened HR. You may also have a medical condition you are not aware of, and that is why it’s best to see a medical professional before deciding to train for a race of any distance.
The terrain on which you run affects you more than you realize. Running up hills at a 9:00/minute pace will jack your HR up MORE than running on flat terrain at a 9:00/minute pace. If you train on hilly terrain (like me), make it up those hills a bit slower. Don’t get too caught up in pace, and remember that hills slow everyone down a little bit. Your body and heart will thank you when you reach the top of those hills and can breathe! Now, your HR will likely always rise a bit up hills, but a dramatic spike over and over could compromise your training session.
You’re not breathing the right way. Your breathing technique matters. In on two steps, out on two steps — that’s the basic method I prescribe to all of my athletes when they’re just starting out. Breathing too quickly is probably the result of running too quickly, but sometimes, it’s also the result of just now knowing how to breathe properly during runs. Remember that it’s ok to take walk breaks. If you need to catch your breath, take a short walk break and follow the in-on-two/out-on-two method to get into a rhythm.
Hopefully these tips help you run happy! Have a question submission? Send me a DM on instagram: @seecourtneyrun. Interested in training with me and smashing some goals? Fill out the contact form!