Your heart rate isn't just another health metric to track in your training journal — it's an important indicator of how hard your body is working during a run.
As the intensity of your workout increases, your heart rate increases, too. But working too hard, and raising your heart rate too much, can actually damage the heart and lead to serious health complications.
Knowing how to calculate a safe range for your heart rate and learning how to manage your heart rate when it gets too high can help protect you from these potentially dangerous health issues. Plus, maintaining the right heart rate zone for your age, sex and lifestyle is key to improving the heart rate while running and ensuring your workout is helping — not hurting — your heart.
Here's what you need to know about safe heart rate zones and what to do if your heart rate is too high.
Calculating Your Heart Rate Zones
To calculate your maximum and target heart rate, simply subtract your age from 220. A 20-year-old runner, for example, would expect a maximum heart rate of 200. According to the American Heart Association, the target heart rate for moderate intensity activities should be 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate and 70 to 85 percent for vigorous activities. That's about 100 to 170 beats per minute for a 20-year-old.
It's important to note: Age, sex, stress levels and certain medications can affect your heart rate and safe rate zones. If you're taking a medication that affects your heart rate, your doctor can help you develop a safe exercise routine.
Wearing an activity tracker makes it easy to monitor your heart rate during your run, but if you don't have a wearable, you can check it manually, too. First, use the tips of your index and middle fingers to locate your pulse on the inside of your wrist. Then, count your heart beats for 30 seconds and multiply by two to determine beats per minute.
Signs of High Heart Rate
There are countless benefits to aerobic exercise — from reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, to stronger muscles and bones, to improved mood — but working too hard can put stress on your heart, lungs and muscles, and potentially lead to serious health complications. That's why it's important to monitor your heart rate during your run and ensure it doesn't reach (or exceed) your maximum heart rate.
In addition to monitoring your heart rate with your activity tracker or manually, look out for uncomfortable symptoms such as:
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
If you experience any of these symptoms, stop exercising and take the necessary steps to reduce your heart rate. If you experience chest pain, heart palpitations or fainting, seek emergency medical care immediately.
It's important to note: Exercising in hot, humid weather can also raise your heart rate to potentially dangerous levels, so always check the temperature and humidity before heading out on your run. Being prepared can help you ensure you're properly dressed and hydrated for warm weather running.
Improving Heart Rate While Running
If your heart rate reading is too rapid or you begin to feel dizzy, nauseated or breathless during your run, there are steps you can take to bring it down to a safe, comfortable range.
Reduce your intensity. Slowing your pace or taking walking breaks between intervals can help you catch your breath, so your body can more efficiently deliver oxygen-rich blood to the heart, organs and muscles. As you decrease intensity, aim for the lower range of your target heart rate, or about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can also try the "talk test" — if you're able to speak without difficulty, you've lowered your intensity to a safe level.
Practice deep breathing techniques. Deep breathing, often referred to as "belly breathing" or "diaphragmatic breathing," has been shown to slow the heartbeat and reduce blood pressure. If your heart rate is too high, stop running, find a comfortable place to sit down and try breathing deeply through your nose until your belly expands, then exhaling through your nose or mouth. Repeat until your heart rate has slowed.
Read More: Benefits of Deep Breathing
Avoid Stimulants Before a Run. Stimulants, like caffeine or nicotine, and alcohol can contribute to dehydration, which can put additional stress on the heart. If you must have your morning cup of coffee before your run, be sure to rehydrate by drinking 8 ounces of water before you leave, and 6 to 8 ounces every 20 minutes during your run.
Boost Your Aerobic Fitness. It's not an immediate fix, but increasing your aerobic fitness is vital to improving the heart rate while running. Why? Aerobic exercise — light activity that can be sustained over a longer period of time — strengthens the heart, enabling it to pump blood more efficiently. In turn, your heart won't need to beat as quickly when you're at-rest or during activity. Some common aerobic exercises include jogging, walking, swimming or cycling.
Feeling light-headed, nauseated or breathless during a run can be scary, but fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your heart rate and feel better. If you're new to exercise, be careful not to overdo it. Start with 10 to 15 minute workouts that gradually increase in duration, and aim for the lower end of your target heart rate zone, or about 50 percent of your maximum.
- The American Heart Association: "Know Your Target Heart Rates for Exercise, Losing Weight and Health"
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Physical Activity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Safe Exercise: Know the Warning Signs of Pushing Too Hard"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: "The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the Healthy Human"
- International Marathon Medical Directors Association: "Updated Fluid Recommendation: Position Statement From the International Marathon Medical Directors Association (IMMDA)"
- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: "Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise Training Effects on the Cardiovascular System"
- RunningPaceCalculator.com: Training