How we are not at home in our bodily being is one of the fundamental ways we are not “at home:” We think of “our bodies” when that is, in fact, what we are before we even develop a sense of self, remain even if we lose our mind, and always are as an integrated whole.

One particularly good case in point is our understanding of our hearts and heart rate in running.

Born to Run, Left Fast and High

For a species that may have been “born to run,” a surprisingly large number of us doesn’t even seem to want to walk anymore.
And among those who at least take up running, a common problem seems to be that they overdo it.

During the Beijing Marathon 2014

During the Beijing Marathon 2014

Driven by notions of competitiveness, perhaps, or by ideas of how running must equal speed, too many beginners apparently run all too fast. Heart rates skyrocket.

It doesn’t help that people who have become aware of the importance of heart rate tend to think they know all they need to know when they equate a lower heart rate with a higher fitness level.

I can hardly begin to tell you how often I heard someone see my heart rate and say that “You must be half dead, your heart rate is so high!” even when it was not out of exhaustion, but part of an individual difference.
(And admittedly, it is part of what got me into learning more about this issue, and into Suunto tools, as there may also be a problematic side to it…)

There really is a lot more to know and consider.

Listening to Your Lactate-Tested Heart Rate

For the everyday, there isn’t much of a need to obsess about heart rate except if you end up with palpitations and fear that something is wrong – then go and get yourself checked!

Even if you go running, as long as you just keep it at a comfortable pace and heart rate, you don’t necessarily need a heart rate monitor.

For the runner who wants to get halfway serious about his/her endurance building, however, heart rate-based training is all but an essential tool, and at least a little understanding of heart rate variability and the measures built on it is helpful.

Try to get to that, and you’ll probably quickly learn that you don’t know yourself even in this basic way: An inexperienced runner typically has a very different heart rate from what he or she would expect, just by feeling. And lactate testing for heart rate-based training guidance tends to hold surprises, too.

Sure, you can just start out with the simple guidance for the average beginner that your maximum heart rate might well be the old “220 minus your age.”

That “formula” does not take into account any of your own particular parameters, however, and it invites the abuse in and of fast runs that seem okay just as long as the pulse remains below that supposed maximum.

Go do lactate testing, get some training advice, and see what is actually real for you.

I recently went for a (follow-up) check-up and found that my fitness level had, not unexpectedly after the time spent (not) running in Beijing, declined.
My heart rate (and blood pressure) under exertion had also gone down, however.

Lactate Test Results

Heart rate (left y-axis, upper lines) and lactate (right y-axis, lower lines) at different speeds (x-axis).
Red line: recent test; green line: earlier test.

So, when I was trying to build my fitness again, using the heart rate zones from an earlier sports medical test to guide my training, I was actually, unwittingly, running too fast.

Rather than at 166 bpm, the upper heart rate limit for my moderate zone, which I should do most of my runs in, is now at 145 bpm…

Quick Outliers, Slow Speedsters

Should you care?

05_DonauWell, Tim Ferriss would disagree and, in “The Four-Hour Body“, tells you that you can also get to the necessary endurance foundation by only doing low doses of high-intensity training. And maybe you could (even if he didn’t).

HIIT (high intensity interval training) certainly is better than doing nothing and perhaps even better than always just going out for long slow distance (LSD) jogs without any interruption to that routine. You need to push yourself, at times, to get better.

The much-tested advice that has not just worked out for a few outliers, however, is that if you want to get fast, you often have to go slow.

In fact, for many a long run to build your endurance foundation, you need to go much slower than you probably expect and want to. But if you are serious about fitness training rather than just having fun – and there are things to be said for both of these two ways of training – that’s the slog to go through.

Learn where your heart rate zones lie, and especially the easy ones, and see how fit and fast you can get through training in those easy zones (with interruptions by intervals in other sessions).

Remember, running increases lifespan, and especially when it is not too fast or too far – and the fun (which such easy, slow runs tend not to be so much of) sometimes comes through the practice that isn’t all that much fun. But see your running performance increase and your fun runs become all better, and it’s all good.

The Non-Constant Beat of Your Heart

Get even more serious, if you so want to, having a look at heart rate variability.

Image from Firstbeat

Image from Firstbeat

Again, fun fact speaking to our not being at home: Any straight-thinking person would probably assume that a healthy heart rate is a very regular one. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?

At the micro(second)-level of differences between individual heart beats, however, it is high variability that is a measure of health, and it is a lack of variability which indicates that your sympathetic system, the one that makes you ready for fight or flight (as opposed to the parasympathetic system that gets you to recovery), is in overdrive.

You are stressed.

(And again, in one of those “not at home in the body”-ways, it is not just “your body” that is stressed, even if you don’t consciously feel that way, it will be the whole you. You won’t be feeling, and being, your best when you are in such a state of overdrive.
The opposite also applies, and is also visible in HRV: If you do feel stressed, even if that is just a result of your ruminating about some social slights that are all in your own mind, you will be stressed psychologically as well as physically; there really is very little separation.
Just ask anyone who can’t sleep…)

Fortunately, if you don’t want to get too technical about this, you don’t have to. There are apps that measure HRV and interpret the results; and even the new recovery tests (and running performance) features on the Suunto Ambit3 work with that.

For What Your Heart Beats

Finally, there’s one issue of the heart, albeit a metaphorical one, I’d also want to mention: Listen to your heart not just in practical ways, but also when there are issues you burn for and people you care deeply about.
Be careful not to let your feeling something make you think you have the truth, but do care. It’s not just your heart rate that counts, after all.