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Maximum Heart Rate and Altitude

by Esteban Suarez

Dear friends:

I live in Quito (Ecuador) at an altitude of 9300 ft.

I played soccer all my life, and have been climbing mountains (up to 19600 ft) since I was 15. Although I used to run frequently as part of my training for mountaineering, I only started running more systematically one year ago.

I am currently running about 35 km a week, and my runs usually involve several steep hills (it is very difficult to avoid hills where I live)... Recently I started using a heart rate monitor and I was wondering if I should be worried about my heart beat... After my long runs (10 to 12 km) I do not feel wasted and I am not in pain, but I am recording an average of 166 bpm... Is this too high? Does altitude has anything to do with my heart rate while running? I am 38, but my HRmax, estimated through field test is 188.

Thank you very much for any advice and best wishes from the Andes!


Answer by Dominique:

Hi Esteban,
Thanks for your running training question. I am from Holland, one of the flattest countries in the world so it is pretty funny you ask me a question about altitude running...

Altitude does have its effect on heart rate, although it is more a change in altitude that affects the body.

It's been proven that when you move to higher altitude your rest heart rate is higher, your exercise heart rate is higher, but your maximum heart rate is lower.

After having been at a certain altitude for about two weeks your body acclimatizes and heart rates would move back to their original levels.

That's the theory, but given you live quite high in the mountains, I am not sure if the body will ever fully acclimatize. It could simply mean that your exercise heart rate would always be higher than what you would see if you were to run at lower altitude.

You also mention that hills are pretty much unavoidable. They can really make your heart rate jump up. It would be interesting to not only see your average heart rate for a run, but also the spread and if the heart rate is actually at a lower level for part of your run, but goes up when you go up the steep hills. This could also be an explanation of the reason why your average heart rate is higher than what you'd expect.

Given the terrain and the altitude, I would definitely not go by heart rate monitor alone. "Run by feel". So make sure an easy run feels like an easy run first and foremost and worry less about the heart rate because I am not sure the standard heart rate monitor running theory applies to you.

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Hope this helps.

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