aging · fitness · training

Sam’s max heart rate is slowing down but that’s okay, she isn’t

A beating cartoon heart

So I’m back training again. I’m riding and racing on Zwift. I’m working with a coach. Hi Chris! And that means I’m paying attention to data.

I’m also paying attention to some comparative data. Because I’ve been riding and using a Garmin and Strava for years, some things are interesting to track over time.

My ftp has gone up. (FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power and represents the highest wattage number you can expect to average over an hour.) All good. It’s fun. I like measuring and tracking progress.


Except what’s striking is that my maximum heart rate has gone down, like way down. A lot. Fifteen years ago when I used to race crits, do short distance duathlons and do flying laps at the velodrome, I had a max heart rate of 182.

Here’s younger Sam racing in a crit. Thanks Greg Long for the photo.

Now my max heart rate is 164 or so. I used to do time trials at 168. Now my time trial heart is more like 150. That’s the highest heart rate I can maintain for a good chunk of time without blowing up.

Remember the old formula? 220 minus your age? That’s pretty much right for me now. I suppose I shouldn’t care. My top speeds haven’t gone down and neither has my power output. But what’s it all about?

See Heart rate and age: “The relationship between the heart and exercise has been studied for more than six decades and the research is clear: Max heart rate—the highest heart rate you can safely hit during exercise—decreases with age regardless of lifestyle or level of fitness. Why the drop? The reasons aren’t completely known, but a 2013 University of Colorado Medical School study found that one reason could be slower electrical activity in the heart’s pacemaker cells. Basically, “your heart can’t beat as often,” says Roy Benson, running coach and co-author of Heart Rate Training.
However, a lower max heart rate may not necessarily affect your splits. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that a decrease in heart rate max means a decline in performance,” says Joe Friel, coach and author of Fast After 50 and The Triathlete’s Training Bible. “That’s a very common but unsupported view of athletes who are ill informed about the science behind heart rate. They assume a high heart rate means a high level of performance. Not true.”

I started to go down the rabbit hole of reading journal articles about why max heart rate declines. But really, do I need to know? I am still puzzled about why it doesn’t seem to matter as much as I thought it might.

I’ve written about heart rate training before.

See here:

Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1

Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2

Obviously, I need to open up my Garmin/Strava settings and put in some new numbers.

Do you track heart rate while exercising? Have you noticed it dropping with age?

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

Active adventures in Iceland: Sam hikes to a hot river and gets her heart rate up in the process

I confess that although I list substantial dog hikes (not the everyday ‘around the block a few times’ kind but the kind where we go to the park for an hour or two) in the Facebook group 217 in 2017, somehow in my mind I don’t really think they count as exercise.

They’re not strength training. And I thought, they’re not really cardio either. (Unless, I dog-jog, and then they’re cardio.)

I now admit I might be wrong. At least if hills are involved.

This week, I’m in Iceland during our school’s fall break. Autumn temperatures hadn’t really hit Ontario yet so I took a drastic measure of finding cooler weather by flying North. Also cheap flights thanks to Iceland’s discount airline, WOW.

I went from 23 degrees for a high outdoor temperature last Monday to 8 for a high last Tuesday.

Our first day in Iceland was a bit sleepy. Our “overnight” flight got in at 5 am (1 am, Ontario time) and some exercise seemed in order to keep us moving. I also liked the idea of the hike to the hot river, because “hot” also sounded good.

It’s a 1 hour very hilly hike to the river in the Reykjadalur Valley. And looking at my Garmin watch data I may need to rethink my view that hikes aren’t really exercise. It seems hilly ones are hard as riding my bike at a good clip.

Here’s what the hilly part of my walk looked like on my Garmin.

Here’s me, all bundled up, near the start of the trail:

Here is the hot part of the river you can bathe in. It’s about 40 degrees. Much better than the hot water above with the warning sign. That can reach up to 100! Not for bathing…

Here is the whole area with lovely wooden board walks and privacy screens for changing.

You need to hike through some steam on your way to the river!

Geothermal activity is awfully pretty to look at!

There’s no selfies from the hot river because I was too nervous about losing my phone. It would be a great story to tell losing the phone in a hot river in Iceland but traveling is never a good time to lose your phone.

Guest Post · weight loss

40 years & 40 lbs (Guest Post)

I’ve seriously debated writing this post, I’m torn really, but in the spirit of open and honest discussions about fitness and feminism I can’t ignore my changing body and writing about it. I’ve shared with readers and friends about my journey from last April’s high blood pressure diagnosis to therapy around overeating and even hitting a tertiary benchmark, losing 20 lbs.

This post though feels, vain, yes, definitely feels like a vanity to share I’m wearing smaller pants. I’ve changed a lot of things in my life that have impacted my weight but my primary goal has been to get my blood pressure down without medication. I’m currently on medications that are keeping my blood pressure in a healthy zone, YAY!

In the healthy range for blood pressure and pulse!
In the healthy range for blood pressure and pulse!

The downside is, as a result of the medication, I now have Raynaud’s Syndrome that restricts circulation to my hands and feet in the cold, making running below 0C very painful no matter how many layers I wear. I asked my doctor in January at what point my declining weight would impact my blood pressure and he said “You have to lose a lot.” Well crap! This was especially annoying because my pulse at the doctor’s office (post coffee, ya ya but honestly I also have a goal of being a non-violent person and coffee assists me with this) being under 60 bpm was pretty awesome considering it was 73 bpm in July and 80 bpm before that in May. My cardiovascular health is definitely improving, which was my secondary goal to support lowering my blood pressure.

My weight has dropped by what I thought was “a lot”. Honestly I didn’t think I could loose 40 lbs without starving myself, measuring food and obsessively counting calories. I do none of these things. I use Canada’s Food Guide and cook from scratch. I eat bread and cheese and on Valentines Day had wine with dinner and chocolate for breakfast.

Therapy around overeating was crucial for me to change my relationship to food, to see it both as nourishment AND joy without it being a way to numb my feelings.

So, while 4 months ago I was freaking out about turning 40, today I’m feeling fantastic and wearing a smaller dress than I have in a long time. So 40 can be a number I’m happy about for a bunch of reasons. I share with you not a before picture, not an after picture, but my picture of feeling great for my date with my life partner. (That’s what all this is about anyway, being around a long time and extracting a lot of joy, right?)

All dolled up for a hot date.
All dolled up for a hot date.

I have no idea where my weight will settle out, it seems to keep going down, so that is cool but I don’t know if I’ll get to the point where I can go off blood pressure medication. I think I just need to be ok with whatever comes next. That feels like a good plan.

athletes · competition · cycling · training

Why care about resting heart rate?

heart rate pictureIn May of 2012, I posted a note on Facebook that eventually led to my shared project with Tracy and which later led to this blog.

I wrote,

As I approach the two year countdown to 50 (I turn 48 at the end of this summer) I’d like to set an ambitious fitness goal. Roughly, I’d like to be the most fit I’ve ever been at 50. Fifty seems like a good time to peak and it’s doable given that I’m an adult onset athlete (no childhood sports trophies collecting dust in the cabinets for me!) There is a bit of a challenge given that I had a similar goal at 40 and I was 10 years younger then. But then I was starting from close to zero and my goal was to get in shape. Now I’ve got a pretty good basis on which to build. The big problem is how to measure. Not weight. That’s silly. I was my thinnest when I smoked and drank a lot of coffee and didn’t eat much actual food. Looked  great but was winded walking up stairs. Those days are gone. I’m strong, fit, robust, resilient but ‘thin’ I’ll never be. Body composition? Not weight but per cent body fat….maybe. Hard to care about that though and not focus on numbers on a scale, even if they are different numbers. Running? Maybe. I know my PBs for 5 and 10 km. But I’m also anxious not to invoke another stress fracture. Certainly more than 10km just isn’t doable. Strength? I do know what I’ve been lifting through the years so maybe. Might work. I’m loving the intensity of crossfit and they are good at measuring progress…. Cycling? Hmmm. Flying laps or centuries? Time trial times are a pretty good measure of fitness. Aikido: I could aim for a brown belt by 50 but that might be too ambitious. Yoga: No goals there. I just like to melt and stretch in the heat. Soccer: My only goal is to have fun….

Suggestions, fitness friends?

My fitness friends indeed had some intriguing suggestions:

One-handed inversions! One-handed inversions! Make *that* your Fit at Fifty goal! . (Also, you should obviously blog about this, right. A perfect 2-year blog project that you can put to be — and then turn into a book! — when you’re done.)

I suggest using strength. If you are doing Crossfit then you are getting used to some basic strength lifts such as squatting, dead lifting and benching. Dead lifting and squatting bodyweight is a great goal to build on and benching 1/2 bodyweight is another.

Distance cycling? On or around your 50th a 500k ride? Better yet a 1000k brevet!

But the most intriguing suggestion was also the simplest, resting heart rate.

Resting heart rate? The KISS principle.

What’s resting heart all about anyway?

First. your resting heart means really resting, as in in bed, before rising.

You need to take your heart rate manually. It’s either that or wear your heart rate monitor to bed. I didn’t ever actually wear my heart rate monitor to bed. Too many jokes about things that might raise it. Sex, on the one hand, arguments about differences in politics on the other.

Measuring your morning heart rate is pretty simple. All you need is a digital watch,  a small notebook and a pen on your nightstand. As soon as you wake up in the morning, find your pulse on your neck, just under your chin, or on your wrist. Using the watch, count the number of times your heart beats for 20 seconds. Multiply this number by three and you have your resting heart rate (RHR) in beats per minute (bpm). Record this number in your notebook next to the day’s date. Now make sure to repeat this process every morning. See Think You’re Overtraining? Check Your Pulse – Competitor Running

It’s a useful measure of two things.

Your resting heart rate is often a good determination as to how fit you are, as well as indicating if you’re either over training or unwell which will show up as an unexplained increases in resting heart rate.

See What Does Your Resting Heart Rate Mean?

When I was bike training seriously morning heart rate was one of things our coach asked us to record. Over time, it’s a good measure of improvements in fitness. But it’s also an excellent way to see if you’re over training and not recovering from hard workouts. How do you tell if you’re over training? What do the numbers mean? Here’s what Competitive Runner has to say:

Keep an eye on your resting morning heart rate in the two or three days after a hard workout. If it’s significantly elevated from its normal average (7 or more beats per minute), that’s a sign that you’re not fully recovered from the workout. Remember, there is going to be some variability in your daily heart rate regardless of your recovery level, do don’t be concerned if you’re 3 to 4 bpm over your normal average on a given day. In my experience, it takes a reading that’s 7 bpm higher than normal to signify excessive training fatigue.

Changes matter more than comparing your resting heart to that of famous elite athletes. Gender and age both make a difference in addition to fitness.

While the normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute, conditioned athletes and other highly fit individuals might have normal resting heart rates of 40 to 60 beats per minute. This indicates a high level of cardiovascular fitness. Gender is another factor in resting heart rate norms because women at various fitness levels tend to have higher pulse rates on average than men of comparable fitness levels. For example, the average resting heart rate of an elite 30-year-old female athlete ranges from 54 to 59 beats per minute, while the resting heart rate for men of the same age and fitness level ranges from 49 to 54, according to the YMCA’s “Y’s Way to Fitness.” See Average Heart Rate for Athletes


cycling · running · training

Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2

heart_rate_monitorIn my last post on heart rate training, aimed at people new to the idea, Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1, I said that often we think we’re running easy when we’re not. Going easy is tough. It’s humbling to realize how slow you need to go to have the run count as easy for you when you first start out. But it can also be tough at the other end of the spectrum. Often we’re shocked to find we’re not working as hard as we thought either. When you first start running, or riding, there’s one natural speed you go at and it’s a challenge to get out of that zone in either direction.

Fern Oliner had been a runner for more than 25 years when she experienced a breakthrough in her performance. It happened at age 59, during a challenging half-marathon. “For the very first time, I felt like a true runner,” she recalls. “There I was on the uphill, passing people and feeling totally in control. I absolutely loved it.” Her secret? Oliner was wearing a heart-rate monitor. “I was breathing heavily as I was going up the hills, but the monitor told me I was okay. So I sped up,” she says. “If it weren’t for the monitor, I would’ve kept running at the slower pace, as I’d always done.” How To Use A Heart Rate Monitor

When do I use a heart rate monitor when going hard? Like Fern I’ve found it helpful on hills. I’ve reviewed heart rate data on climbs I thought were killing me only to discover, after the fact, that I was nowhere close to maxing out. I just hate hills.

I don’t look at my heart rate monitor while bike racing but I do review it after.

In my post about racing and about how racing forces you to go hard, I said:

I get that but to be fit you have to push yourself and trust me, you’ll never ever push yourself as hard in training as you do when racing. I wear a heart rate monitor when training on the bike and I’ve done VO2 max testing so I’ve got some idea of what the various sports training zones mean for me. I’ve also worn the heart rate monitor when criterium racing. The first time I did this and then looked at the data after I laughed out loud at how much time I’d spent in the red zone, E4. That’s something I just can’t make myself do for very long outside race situations. I won’t bore you with all the geeky gory details but here’s the my HR data from a crit last year: Avg HR 171, max HR 178 (32% in E4) Avg speed 33.2, max speed 42. No way I could do that outside a race.

The one exception to not looking at the heart rate monitor while racing are time trials.  What’s the difference?

During road races and criterium races you do everything you need to to stay with the pack. You’re not going to slow down because your heart rate monitor tells you to. There’s lots of spikes, lots of time in the red zone, but knowing about it won’t help. And even if you did want to look there isn’t time and you need to pay attention to what’s going on around you.

But in time trials–like the bike bit of a triathlon–you’re riding alone. You set the pace. Ideally you know the magic number at which the cost of going fast is too high, you won’t recover well, and you aim to keep your heart rate just under that number. That means learning to pedal downhill and keep up the pace and not blow up by going too fast. In time trials the heart rate monitor is your best friend. It can keep you focused on working hard enough, but not too hard.

In my post about my identity as a data and gadget geek  I talked about my experiences having VO2 max testing done. I’d post the video but it’s truly not very exciting. Me on a bike wearing a special mask! I have thought about having it done again to have new benchmarks.

Four years ago I even had lactate threshold testing done along with V02 max testing so I could accurately chart my heart rate training zones. It was all done on my bike and I even have gripping video footage to prove it.

The results: V02 max starting 13.2, lactate threshold 35.5, peak 39.7; heart rate starting 120, lactate threshold 162, peak 177; calories per hour starting 329, max 983; METS starting 3.8, max 11.3; Recovery: max 177, 1 min 158 (34%), 2 min 124 (93%); Fitness level: superior.

I liked that, fitness level: superior. Not elite. But that’s fine. I have a day job.

But you needn’t go all fancy and have individual lab testing done to get good use out of a heart rate monitor. While the 220 minus your age formula is way too simple, you can calculate your own max heart rate using data from a race such as a 5 km time trial. There’s some good info on training zones (for running) and calculating your max heart rate here: Heart Rate Training: Is It Right for You?

Here’s the bike version from Heart rate monitor training for cyclists:

Many believe that you can calculate your maximum HR by using the formula of 220 minus your age. For some people this may be accurate, but for many it will be wildly out. I’m 54 years old so, using the formula, my max HR should be 166 (220-54). It’s actually 178, which is a big difference when training in very tight zones.

A much more accurate formula is 210 minus half your age, then subtract 5% of your body weight in pounds. Add four for a male and 0 for a female. The only way to get a truly accurate max HR figure is to get a physiological test at a sport science centre, such as Fletcher Sport Science, but you can get a reasonable estimate by doing your own max HR test. Only undertake this test if you are fit and exercise regularly, though.

Warm up thoroughly for at least 15 minutes. On a long, steady hill start off fairly briskly and increase your effort every minute. Do this seated for at least five minutes until you can’t go any faster. At this point get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds. Stop and get off the bike and immediately check your HR reading. This is your max HR.

“Don’t forget that your max HR figure is sport specific,” says Fletcher. “This means that your maximum on a bike will invariably be much lower than it is when you’re running because the bike is taking some of your weight.”

And here’s the Chris Carmichael version from Bicycling:

The Carmichael Training Systems Field Test
My field test consists of two eight-minute time-trial efforts separated by 10 minutes of easy spinning for recovery. If you’re riding outside, try to complete both efforts on the same course and from the same starting point. Spend the first 30 to 45 seconds getting up to speed, then settle into the highest intensity you can maintain for the full eight minutes. Do your best to keep your cadence at or above 90 rpm. For each effort, record average heart rate and/or power, distance covered, and average cadence. Then, use the higher of the two average heart rates to calculate your ideal training intensities, as indicated by the chart below.

NOTE: Your field-test heart rate is not the same as your lab-measured lactate threshold heart rate, so the calculations based on this heart rate are specific to this field test.

 Base aerobic
 50–91% The 91% is a ceiling to account for variables like hills. Aim to stay at 60 to 75% during the majority of your ride.
 Tempo  Aerobic power  88–90 Intervals should be long (20 to 25 minutes), with as little interruption as possible.
 Power at lactate
 92–94 Intervals should be 10 to 20 minutes each, with recoveries half as long as the intervals.
climbing power
 95–97 Targets the same energy system as Steady State; the intensity is higher because of the extra muscle  involved in climbing.
 Power at VO2
 101 or more Heart rate will lag behind your effort during these short (one to three minutes max) efforts. Go as hard as you can and use HR data for evaluation afterward.

What’s a tough workout at high heart rate?

You might try the T-Max Intervals:  Perform 2:30-minute intervals at 95 to 100 percent of max heart rate (the point at which you cannot speak), followed by recovery to 60 percent of max, or until you can speak in full sentences. Do two to six sets twice a week, with at least two days of spinning or rest between.

There’s lots of debate about how often to do interval training and how long the intervals should be but the biggest thing that makes a difference in performance results is intensity. You can read some of the discussion here.

Good luck! And you might want to reread the posts on throwing up and suffering before heading out.