The benefits of monitoring your heart for exercise & chronic fatigue
Exercising at the intensity, speed, distance, I used to, has been a struggle. I used to just be able to make a plan and stick with it, push through, the physical discomfort and continue to make improvements in my fitness.
Prior to falling ill there was a period of time where I was no longer making gains. I was not able to recover quickly, I was sore and my muscles twitched all the time. I felt more out of breath doing exercises that previously felt easy, and my need for sleep was insatiable. I didn’t think much of it, but it was my body trying to tell me, we can’t keep up this pace.
When I returned to running and lifting weights after my health had been stable once again for some time, I learned after multiple failed attempts that landed me back in bed fatigued for days, that I needed to listen to each of the tiny signals my body was telling me.
I continue to use this tool today to prevent myself from overdoing it with any stressor (inadequate sleep, work stress, or exercise.) And I use this tool with most of my 1-on-1 clients as well.
The reason why I do it at multiple points during my day (& night) is because for me it isn’t typically my resting heart rate upon waking that changes but rather my heart rate during sleep where I will see variations.
For example, I may see that my heart rate average during sleep may become slightly elevated. Normal sleeping heart rate for me is in the mid 40’s, and I have seen it rise into the 50’s when my body is stressed.
Another anomaly I’ll see is a spike in my heart rate in the middle of the night even when I do not recall waking up, randomly there will be a spike in heart rate all the way up to 80 or even 100.
Then I ask myself what did I eat yesterday evening, is there a chance my cortisol spiked due to a drop in blood sugar? If the answer is no, which it generally is since my last meal is typically vegetables and meat, then I know the elevation is likely related to a decrease in my adrenal reserves.
Now, let’s dive deeper and I’ll share with you how to utilize your heart rate in your training & recovery plan.
Reasons to monitor your heart rate
When you are dehydrated you may have an increase in your resting heart rate.
Stress will increase your resting heart rate. By regularly monitoring your heart rate, you may increase your awareness of how various situations impact your heart rate, and possibly blood pressure. Take note of your heart rate when at home relaxing, versus at work/sitting in traffic. If you know how these situations impact you, you can then take action to reduce the negative impact on your health heart and immune system.
Fighting an illness or if you have a flaring autoimmune disease
You may see an increase in heart rate prior to other overt signs you are fighting an illness or autoimmune flare. By becoming aware of this minimal change in physiological function, you may intervene early and either prevent falling ill, or minimize the severity of the illness or flare.
Anyone struggling with recovery knows the challenge of feeling good, doing a little more one day, and then paying for it for hours, days, or weeks thereafter. Identifying any changes in your resting heart rate can allow you to know when it’s a good day to do a little more and when your body needs a little more rest. I continue to use this regularly to keep chronic fatigue at bay.
To achieve new fitness goals
Monitoring heart rate during exercise is routinely used for aerobic exercise like cycling and running, however it can also be used for any other physical activity knowing how your heart rate responds given a particular distance, weight, speed, number of repetitions and watching it improve by decreasing as your fitness progresses.
One of the first signs of overtraining is an elevated heart rate. This could be very subtle or only evident at a particular time of the day or with a particular activity. The most obvious sign of overtraining is when the same exercise is repeated and the heart rate during that activity is higher than usual. However you can also simply take longer for your heart rate to recover after the bout of exercise.
Steps to start using heart rate monitor in your routine
Step 1: Identify your resting heart rate
An optimal resting heart rate (RHR) is between 60-90 beats per minute. For athletes your resting heart rate may be between 40-60 beats per minute. Knowing what your heart rate is when you are healthy will allow you to identify early signs that something is amiss.
If you don’t have a watch with a heart rate monitor here is how to find it your pulse the old fashion way.
As soon as you wake in the morning and before you sit up, check your pulse over your carotid artery. To find the carotid artery place your index and middle fingers on your neck to the side of your windpipe about 4 finger widths down from your earlobe.
When you feel your pulse, look at your watch and count the number of beats in 20 seconds. Multiply this number by 3 to get your heart rate per minute. Repeat for 5 consecutive days and take an average of the 5 days to find your average resting heart rate.
Step 2: Identify your target heart rate for training
This is essential whether you are an athlete or an individual recovering from chronic fatigue.
Get your maximum heart rate, (MHR) using one of the following methods:
📍For the most accurate measure of your MHR have a stress test performed by a trained professional
📍The basic formula for MHR uses the Fetal Heart Rate (FHR), which is 220 for men and 226 for women, and subtract your age
📌MHR = FHR - age
📍Dr. Dan Heil’s formula was created after studying 1500 walkers at the University of Massachusetts. This formula calculates MHR using weight & age.
[NOTE: For men only, there is a constant value of 4.5 added to the final result. Leave off the addition of 4.5 for women]
📌211.415 - (0.5 X age) - (0.05 X weight in lbs) + 4.5
Step 3: Identify your training zone heart rate:
Whether you are recovering from fatigue or are an athlete, knowing how your heart rate responds to various activities can help you get the most out of your exercise, and protect you from overtraining.
Your heart rate reserve (HRR) represents cushion heartbeats available for exercise
1️⃣Use your maximum heart rate that you identified above (mine is 215 beats per minute, bpm)
2️⃣Use your resting heart rate that you identified above (mine is 46 bpm)
3️⃣Calculate (HRR) by subtracting RHR from MHR.
(mine: 215-46 = 169 bpm)
4️⃣Calculate training heart rate
📍Low intensity (40% HRR)
📍Moderate intensity (60%)
📍High intensity (80%)
169x 0.4= 68 bpm
169x 0.6= 101 bpm
169x 0.8= 135 bpm
5️⃣Now use these numbers plus RHR to get target training heart rate.
40%= 68+46= 114
60%= 101+46= 147
80%= 135+46= 181
Curious how this differs from just using a percentage of your heart rate max as a training and monitoring method? This method gives you an exercise intensity that is equivalent to the desired percentage of one’s VO2R, maximal oxygen uptake reserve. I prefer using this method, because it more accurately represent how the body is capable of extracting oxygen and mobilizing energy sources to allow one to engage in activities.
This technique is very effective for overcoming training plateaus, however it is equally effective in treating the overtrained and those with chronic fatigue.
Those with chronic fatigue, due to adrenal or mitochondrial dysfunction often present with impairments in the calculated target training heart rate using this method and their actual heart rate response once they become fatigued. Monitoring these deviations when training without exceeding this person’s reserves allows for more linear improvements in the individuals recovery from fatigue.
If you monitor your heart rate regularly and see that your heart rate is elevated during that same exercise you did previously, you may prevent overtraining:
End the work-out early
Here are a few other signals that “it’s too much” my body will give me, and I have found that are common amongst those recovering from fatigue with whom I work:
Elevated resting or target exercise heart rate
Pins and needles sensation on legs/arms during the exercise
A stitch in your side (often the right side)
A need to use the toilet
Shortness of breath with an activity that didn’t previously cause shortness of breath
When these things happen I suggest noting your heart rate in that moment and either ending the exercise or taking a break immediately until the symptom has resolved.
What this looks like in real life
Today I did a 400 meter workout. I had a plan to do 8-12 splits depending on how I felt. My goal was to have a target heart rate of 75-80%. For me this is 173-181 beats per minute. With a recovery until my heart rate reaches 55%-60%, for me this is 139-147.
Here were my splits:
1️⃣ 1:27; recovery 1:15
2️⃣ 1:27; recovery 1:17
3️⃣ 1:25; recovery 1:15
4️⃣ 1:25; recovery 1:26
5️⃣ 1:21; recovery 3:01
6️⃣ 1:21; recovery 1:22
7️⃣ 1:19; recovery 1:36
8️⃣ 1:19; Cool Down 5 mins
The old me would ignore what my body was telling me, but after that 4th 400, my recovery time started to elongate. The 5th 400 I had a little twinge of a pain on the right side of my belly, about 40 seconds into my split.
I finished the split but I took three minutes to recover and see how my body was feeling. When I went back to it, I felt great, and was able to do 3 more 400 at a fairly good clip.
I knew after that 7th split it would be good to wrap it up after this one.
The old me would have pushed it to complete 12 splits versus 8.
The old me would have told myself to pick up the pace, because my target heart rate was to get up to 181, but I only made it to 177 today.
The old me would have felt bad about not having achieved more consistency with the recoveries.
Now I approach my exercise with more love and compassion for myself. I approach each bout of exercise with an openness and willingness to modify the plan based on what my body is telling me.
When I see these changes in heart rate or hear the signals by body give me, the interventions I personally find helpful are:
Focusing on restorative practices such as: giving my body as much sleep as it wants, listening to calming music or vibrational tones, taking a bath, deep breathing exercises and yogic chanting, doing yoga or going for leisure short walks throughout the day for a few minutes to break up the work day, and refocus on being present in my body in nature without distraction
Taking adrenal supports such as rhodiola, passion flower, ashwaganda, and l-theanine, tyrosine, phosphatidylserine
Eating nutrient dense foods while sticking to my low carbohydrate and low sugar lifestyle
Giving and receiving hugs and cuddles