Ask-A-Salty: Heart Rate Spikes and Wrist Monitors

JJH in Utah writes:

I am 49, just started running about a year ago, just got a watch with
a heart rate monitor in it. I am perimenopausal and am taking quite a
few supplements, estrogen and DHEA. Lately, I’ve seen my heart rate go
up as high at 196 at certain points in my runs. My average is about
172-174. Do you think I should be concerned? Or is the average more of
what I should pay attention to?

Wow, JJH, It’s very flattering that you trust us with an important thing like your health!

That said, we’re not doctors. Any time you’re on medication, we strongly encourage you to reach out to the medical professional that prescribed the medication to check for potential side effects that could be exacerbated by heavy exercise.

Our first question is, how hard to you feel like you’re running? If those readings are coming during an easy jog, see below.

But, if you’re getting those readings and you feel any sort of heart flutters or palpitations; if you’re feeling dizzy, short-of-breath, seeing spots, etc. STOP RUNNING. Seek medical attention before you continue.

Okay, but what about the heart rate spikes?

It should be pointed out that wrist-based heart rate monitors are notoriously inaccurate. Even chest strap monitors can have their issues — they need batteries replaced, not to mention you need to have a conducive liquid applied to the electrodes. It is possible, and even pretty likely, that your device isn’t reading your heart rate accurately.

Also remember a number of things can cause your heart rate to be higher than normal: being sick, taking different medications, being stressed, etc.

What numbers should I be looking for?

There are a lot of variables here: age and weekly mileage are two important ones. Provided everything is working correctly … those numbers are way high.

Experts have put out a number of formulae for calculating your max heart rate; some recent studies have adjusted women’s to be 206 minus 88 percent of a woman’s age. For a 49-year-old woman like JJH, that’ 163. MAXIMUM. As in, your heart can literally not beat faster than that. Again, these are fairly generic ways to ballpark your max, and everyone is different.

Generally, regardless of your max HR, easy runs should be 50-70% of your max HR. Speedwork will take you 75-90% depending on the workout — for example, you might do 200m repeats at 90% but tempo runs at 80%.

This primer on pacing may be a good refresher on deciding your pace for a workout.

Hope that helps, and best of luck!

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. JJH-
    Healthcare provider here (Hospitalist internal medicine nurse practitioner). If your HR monitor is accurate, then it’s very concerning. Next time you get a reading >160 bpm, stop and manually count your pulse (carotid is best). If it’s truly >160, I strongly, strongly recommend you go into your primary care provider as soon as possible and ask for a cardiology referral. You should probably have a Holter monitor study done.

    It’s also probably best to immediately stop all non-essential supplements until your primary provider has reviewed them. Many of them can have dangerous interactions.

    Hope this helps and please keep us at Salty posted!