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Heart Rate getting worse despite training

Old 04-12-23, 11:51 AM
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M.Lou.B
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Heart Rate getting worse despite training

Hi there,


for the past 3 months I have been training for a voluntary fire fighter health checkup/test after 10 months of illness. I'm not a super-fit athlete but was fit enough before getting sick.
The test is a simple ramp test with 10min warm up at low watt, then 5 "steps" of 3min each with the last one being 3 watts per kg for men and 2.5 watts per kg for women, followed by another 10min cool down.
The whole thing takes 35min total. The goal is for your Max HR to remain below 170bpm while also not running out of strength to pedal. Dedicated cyclists might laugh at this as well as my low wattage but it's a basic fitness test to determine if you're suited to use the breathing apparatus.

So for me this would look as follows:
10min warm up at 50w
3min at 55w
3min at 85w
3min at 115w
3min at 145w
3min at 175w
10min cool down at 50w

I had started training at 185w for the hardest interval, training 3x/week (Mo, We, Sa), using a smart trainer, but I've been noticing something weird. Instead of improving, my Max HR keeps getting higher.

Feb 4th: Max HR 178 at 185w
March 7th: Max HR 181 at 185w
March 26: Max HR 184 at 185w
March 29: Max HR 186 at 185w
lowered the watt to 170
April 1: Max HR 172 at 170w
April 8: Max HR 172 at 170w
April 12: Max HR 176 at 170w

So it is clearly getting worse. I'm a healthy 32yo female, don't take any medication, blood pressure 100:80, I don't smoke or do drugs, I ride my bike to and from work every day which takes about 20 min, and I tend to do a longer ride on the weekend. I try to eat fairly healthfully, lots of fruits, veg, iron, vitamin C, protein.

I don't understand why/how this is getting worse instead of improving. What am I doing wrong?
At this point it's just demoralizing and frustrating.
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Old 04-12-23, 12:37 PM
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If you're always training hard, you won't be building up an aerobic base, and you may be accumulating fatigue.

Try riding easier endurance pace twice per week, with one hard ride once per week. This will help build your aerobic capacity, and it will give you more time to recover after your hard effort.
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Old 04-12-23, 03:54 PM
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M.Lou.B, I salute you for volunteering as a fire fighter.

I'd suggest backing off the high intensity stuff to once or twice a week, as Terry mentioned. But backfill and possibly add some easier rides to build up your base, perhaps 45 minutes to an hour 2-3 times a week where you just get on your bike and go for easy rides: pedal most of the way but don't worry about pushing it. Build up your aerobic base so you'll have that to work off of.

Another thing would be to give it some time. If you've been seriously ill for 10 months, give yourself at least five months (and 8-10 months would be better) to work yourself back into shape.

This test seems kind of arbitrary to me with the 170 peak pulse goal. If none of the above works, keep training for 10-20 years. When your peak heart rate is 165 bpm, keeping your pulse under 170 will be easy.
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Old 04-12-23, 04:10 PM
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As a super-fit athlete in my early twenties, I used to run distances. Mostly hilly routes through coastal mountains (up to 2000ft or so). Had a couple years where I had to recover from a bad injury. Coming back, following that two years of recoveryt, it took a good year to regain most of my earlier cardio capacity, despite having maintained all of the fitness I could via methods other than running during the down-time. Still took a year. (IOW: 3mos isn't much time, starting from a modest fitness point and following a long illness.)

Depending on what your 10mos of illness was, in terms of the extent to which it impacted your cardiovascular and respiratory capacities, you will almost certainly require more time to be improving on the fitness. Adaptation to a seriously different training regimen can take awhile to become part of you.


From a cardio standpoint, you might well try rowing on a gym station three possibly four times per week. (In addition to your 20min bike commuting routes.) Half of those sessions, strive for higher-cardio interval type sessions, and half of those sessions try for longer, steadier, deeper breathing sessions (though still a challenge for cardio). If you can afford the time, I suspect that 3-4 such 20-40min cardio sessions weekly will have a markedly better impact on your cardiovascular capacity in a handful of months from now. Depending on whether any residual from your illness is still hanging around. Eat well, with highly-nutritious foods, and get plenty of rest. In time, the fitness will come.
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Old 04-12-23, 04:12 PM
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Yeah, it sounds to me that you're entering the area of "over-trained". It's easy to do, especially for people new to a certain activity.

BTW, is it normal for you to have such a low systolic number, but your diastolic is at the borderline (100/80)? That could be a warning sign, I'm sure nothing too immediate, but I'd get it checked out.


This is a great little ted talk from Dr Seiler on how we all tend to overdo it, which results in not developing our aerobic system to an optimum condition.


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Old 04-12-23, 05:28 PM
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I associate overtraining with an inability to attain a high HR. Been there, did that.

IME terrymorse is correct. Lots of moderate hours will increase your aerobic ability. Don't worry about the high end. Those 3' intervals are too short to overstress your anaerobic ability. You don't say how many weeks you have to train, which might make a difference. To do a "moderate" training session, keep your breathing rate below the level where you start breathing more rapidly. I suggest trying 130w for at least an hour per session, preferably working up to 2 hours steady. If that's too much or too little power, figure out what's correct for you. When you start dong this, you'll probably see your HR rise by the end of the hour, even though power has been steady. Gradually this HR rise will become smaller or disappear entirely. It's called "heart rate drift." And your HR at that power will gradually decrease or you'll find you can use more power at that same breathing rate, recommended. That HR drop or power increase is what you're looking for.

Probably TMI, but this study is a good look at male vs. female hearts: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles...22.831179/full
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Old 04-12-23, 10:44 PM
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Wow, thank you guys so, so much for all your amazing responses. I really appreciate you taking the time to explain what might be happening here and it makes a lot of sense. Looks like it's overtraining then. Thanks so much for the advice!

The Test will be in less than two weeks. I'll follow your advice and take it easier. Can't do longer low-intensity rides on weekdays so I'll keep doing that on the weekend, paired with commuting in a humane pace and 1 mock test training session. If you've got any more suggestions, I'm all ears.

work4bike as for the low blood pressure, it's always been 100:80 to 90:60 for me (when rested, not during training). My heart is otherwise healthy. It runs in the family. I feel normal, not like fainting all the time
My partner says my low blood pressure may be in part responsible with the high heart rate, though it wouldn't explain why it's been increasing.
As for my rested heart rate, it's around 64-70.

Thanks again to all of you for your help and support. I really appreciate it!

Last edited by M.Lou.B; 04-12-23 at 10:47 PM.
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Old 04-12-23, 11:59 PM
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If you haven't already done so, cut out caffeine and any energy drinks or snacks for a few days and see if it has any effect on your HR and BP. Ditto, prescription and OTC meds for allergies and asthma.

Conversely, some amino acids and other health supplements can lower BP and HR. Although I've never noticed that effect when I've taken l-arginine and other supplements.

I'm usually pretty careful about my intake of caffeine, etc., but occasionally I've bought snacks or drink mixes that were on sale just to try them out and didn't have my reading glasses to carefully study the fine print. A few weeks ago I had a sports drink that listed only electrolytes and natural fruit flavoring as the most legible ingredients. After I was still wide away at 4 AM I dug the can out of the trash and checked the label. It contained caffeine, guarana, ginseng and a few other "natural" stimulants.

I also occasionally need Sudafed (or generic) and oral ephedrine for severe sinus congestion pressure and pain, and asthma attacks. Those cause my heart rate and BP to spike. Some athletes supposedly gain some performance benefits from this kind of stimulant but I've never noticed any advantage in my own rides, runs and workouts.

I also use an HRV app and too many stimulants can provoke heart palpitations that drive the HRV results crazy.
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Old 04-13-23, 04:52 AM
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If you have chest congestion, that could throw your heart rate wacky.

I do wonder if the increasing heart rate while exercising is due to better fitness. But, in general, if you want to improve your fitness, you need to push yourself well outside of the comfort zone. In cycling people talk about intervals. So, doing short high intensity followed by a brief rest period and more high intensity. I also like the idea of doing longer rides, so if your typical ride is about 8 miles, then try a 20 to 50 mile ride, or even more.

Unfortunately you won't make major changes in 2 weeks, other than perhaps changing caffeine as mentioned above.

Make sure you take a couple of rest days or light days before the exam.
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Old 04-13-23, 05:46 AM
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I've got plenty of advice to dole out about building fitness, but I'll leave it at this for now. Whoever is setting the standard of 170bpm as some sort of metric needs to learn how physiology actually works. HR is so variable for people and not a really a good indicator of fitness on its own.
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Old 04-13-23, 05:48 AM
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Increased resting HR along with increased HR at a fixed load (185 watts here) indicates sympathetic overtraining. (Most of us long distance endurance types are more familiar with parasympathetic effects).

Since the bizarre criteria of 170 BPM is hard limit to your test, the best thing you can do is cut back your training over the next two weeks prior to your test. 3x intervals is a lot for anyone, but when recovering from illness, it is overloading your nervous system. I would do 1 interval session per week and then 3 other days do something really, really easy and relaxing. Like going for a walk or an easy bike ride.

Your training 3x intervals per week omitted the most important part which is the lower intensity work that Terry and Carbonfibreboy menttioned.

Illness can really set you back. I got Covid in early December. My Garmin claims my VO2 max dropped from 62 to 47 ml/kg. My bike power is also 25% lower and hills take longer. Like you I have been exercising for 3 months to regain fitness and it is very slow to come back. I was very fit for an old fart. You were sick for 10 months, it might take a few more months to recovery sufficiently. I hope you pass the test. If not, follow what the others above said......your training needs more lower intensity work (I can explain if you want, it would be boring)
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Old 04-13-23, 07:57 AM
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One other thing. For a 32 year old woman, there may be benefits of trying a therapeutic dose of iron supplements up until the time of the test.

Perhaps look up some research.
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Old 04-13-23, 08:21 AM
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Overtraining.
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Old 04-13-23, 08:57 AM
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Two 20 minute daily rides to and from work and then a "longer" ride on the weekend isn't really much riding. And over the three month period you might just be expecting too much from too little.

Depending on how hard that ride actually is while you limit your HR to an arbitrary maximum then you might be overtraining or you might not. Your cycling ability will benefit from quantity of miles and time riding. If you don't have the ability to do that because of time available to you, then a cycling coach that fully knows you and what you are doing will benefit you.
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Old 04-13-23, 09:09 AM
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Originally Posted by hubcyclist
I've got plenty of advice to dole out about building fitness, but I'll leave it at this for now. Whoever is setting the standard of 170bpm as some sort of metric needs to learn how physiology actually works. HR is so variable for people and not a really a good indicator of fitness on its own.
It's sort of a "giant's bed" test. Those who pass through this sieve will be more physiologically similar than what exists in the general population. Whether or not that's a good idea for a fire department is a political question. FD's usually have similar political orientations for historical reasons. IMO it's a fight worth having. You go, OP!
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Old 04-13-23, 10:34 AM
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Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy
It's sort of a "giant's bed" test.
Procrustean.

Some people, especially older, can't get their HR above 170 bpm even when they're totally maxed out. So the test favors old men (and women)?
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Old 04-13-23, 11:01 AM
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Originally Posted by MinnMan
Procrustean.

Some people, especially older, can't get their HR above 170 bpm even when they're totally maxed out. So the test favors old men (and women)?
Well, that age-related decrease in max HR translates more or less directly to lower VO2max, so there's that.
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Old 04-13-23, 11:51 AM
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Originally Posted by MinnMan
Procrustean.

Some people, especially older, can't get their HR above 170 bpm even when they're totally maxed out. So the test favors old men (and women)?
Oooh, oooh, oooh, vocabulary! Yes, the bed of Procrustes, thanks.

Yeah, I could have passed it in my early 70s. Older males anyway, and disfavors young women. The theory of course in that your male FTP is maybe 250+, so 170 would be a long way from maxed out. IMO if you can carry the sandbag up and down the ladder, that should be good enough. Performance, not numbers. There's a bit of a shakeup going on in the NYC FD.
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Old 04-13-23, 11:55 AM
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I still think the OP is entering into over-trained territory, but I don't believe she's deeply over-trained, rather just getting a little too much, too soon.


However, about this test, I totally agree it sounds kind of silly by expecting everyone's heart rate to fall into such a small window. I wonder what they base this test on.

This is an old article, but it's a good one at busting the max h/r idea of 220-age and other issues around heart rates. It's a longish article, but really eye opening.

https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/24/h...hallenged.html

'Maximum' Heart Rate Theory Is Challenged

Donald Kirkendall, an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina, will never forget the time he put a heart-rate monitor on a member of the United States rowing team and asked the man to row as hard as he could for six minutes.

The standard formula for calculating how fast a human heart can beat calls for subtracting the person's age from 220. The rower was in his mid-20's.

Just getting the heart to its actual maximum rate is an immense effort and holding it there for even a minute is so painful that it is all but inconceivable for anyone who is not supremely motivated, Dr. Kirkendall said. But this rower confounded the predictions.

''His pulse rate hit 200 at 90 seconds into the test,'' Dr. Kirkendall said. ''And he held it there for the rest of the test.'' A local cardiologist was looking on in astonishment and told Dr. Kirkendall, ''You know, there's not a textbook in the world that says a person could have done that.''
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Old 04-13-23, 12:35 PM
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Originally Posted by work4bike
I still think the OP is entering into over-trained territory, but I don't believe she's deeply over-trained, rather just getting a little too much, too soon.


However, about this test, I totally agree it sounds kind of silly by expecting everyone's heart rate to fall into such a small window. I wonder what they base this test on.

This is an old article, but it's a good one at busting the max h/r idea of 220-age and other issues around heart rates. It's a longish article, but really eye opening.

https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/24/h...hallenged.html
The 220-age formula is not anywhere near accurate for me, and never has been. When I was at my fittest, in my early-30s, my max HR was 207 (seen a few times immediately following a sprint at the end of a race). At that time, my HR at AT was 192, and I could maintain that for extended climbs. 20 years later, I'm about 18bpm below that for both numbers.
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