Monitoring Your Wakeup Heart Rate

Whether we run for competition or for enjoyment (or both), we want to improve as runners or walkers. However, our hopes for improvement are often dashed on the rocks of injury. Some injuries may only set us back a few days of rest. Other injuries may set us back for weeks or months of no running while our bodies heal themselves. We need to recognize that our bodies are wonderful machines but they have limits. We need to recognize that our running or walking puts stress on our bodies, and if our bodies can't handle the stress, injury will likely occur. To solve this problem, we need to understand the signs that our bodies are nearing the "break-down" points where they will be overcome by stress.


Heart Rate

Fortunately, our bodies give indications about their health, and if we monitor those signals, we can know within a reasonable assurance how well our bodies are functioning. One of those signals is how fast our hearts are pumping blood, or our heart rate. Our hearts pump blood to all parts of our bodies. One of the prime things carried in the blood is oxygen. If our bodies need more oxygen, our hearts beat faster. If they need less oxygen, our hearts slow down. Heart rates are unique with each person, but typical values are around 70 beats per minute. Athletes usually have lower heart beats or rates. Older persons may have faster heart rates. By measuring our heart rates each day, we can get an idea of how hard our hearts are working.

My Procedure for Measuring Wakeup Heart Rate

Here is the procedure I use to measure my WHR. I wake up and walk into the bathroom and shut the door and turn on the light. If I stay in bed to measure my WHR, the light may wake up my wife. My walking into the bathroom causes my heart rate to increase, so I sit quietly for a minute or so to let my heart rate begin to come down. Then I put my fingers (don't use your thumb) on a pressure point and count the heart beats for one minute. I use the pressure point where the top of my ear connects to my head. Usually, my heart rate is still decreasing, so I repeat the measurements for as many times as needed until my heart rate reaches a more or less steady value. For example, the other day my first reading of my heart rate was 59. Subsequent readings gave 59, 58, 57, 56, 55, 56, 56, 55. My WHR began at 59 and decreased to 55 and 56, where it repeated those values. I thus took 55 as my value for my WHR. I felt pretty good during my stretches and situps, and I went running.

My Actual Heart Rates

I've measured my wakeup heart (WHR) rate for most of my running career, and I have a good understanding of how my heart behaves as my body receives stress. Below is a graph I made of my heart rate over a 14-month period. The graph has two plots. The blue plot is of the actual values of my WHR, and the red plot is a 7-day average of the WHR that smooths out the plot of the actual values but still shows the overall movements of the WHR.

First, notice that the actual values vary from day to day, indicating that my body needs more or less oxygen on a day-by-day basis. These variations could be caused by colds, insufficient sleep, hard physical activities such as running, mowing lawns, etc. Also notice that sometimes the actual values are above the red line and other times the actual values are below the red line. This comparison of the two lines shows how my heart was currently functioning relative to the past 7 days. At times my heart was more tired and at times less tired than it was during the past week.

The spike in the actual values shows how the heart behaves from the stress of an auto accident and three weeks of my being in an induced coma caused by drugs. High stress and a saturation of my body with drugs sent my heart into a very fast mode of operation, and my heart took an awfully long time to recover from the drugs.

Interpreting Wakeup Heart Rate

When I get up on a day that I will be running, I measure my WHR and decide if I will go running or go back to bed. The following table gives the conditions or algorithm that I use to make that decision.

Less than normalGo running
Less than normal + 10%Go running
Greater than normal + 20% Abort the run for that day

Of course as my WHR approaches or leaves +10% or +20%, I have to make a judgment call. I use my energy level to help me make judgment calls. Do I feel energetic or do I feel tired? Do I have a cold? Am I still tired from a heavy workout the day before? My normal WHR is 50, and the two numbers that I look for when I measure my WHR are 55 and 60. If my WHR is higher that 60, my body is tired and my heart is working 20% more than it usually does, and I may abort my run to give my body extra rest.

As I mentioned above, I've measured my WHR for many years, and, at least for me, WHR is a good indication of my body being tired or not. However WHR is a static test: my body is at rest. When I do my situps, my body is in motion, and I've found that my energy level during those situps is an even better indication of the condition of my body because it is a dynamic test. Thus, I use both parameters, WHR and energy level during my situps, to help me make my decision about running that day.

Some runners will run regardless of how they feel, because their schedule calls for a run that day, or because they are afraid they will lose conditioning if they don't run. These runners are being foolish, because if they feel tired, their WHR is elevated, and their body is already not handling stress; if they do run, they are giving even more stress to their bodies. This means they are on a path to injury, although that injury may not come for weeks or months. That injury may not come at all if they recognize their bodies need rest, and they give their bodies additional rest.

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