Cross-Country Running: A More Accurate Method for Determining Heart Rates

Cross-Country Running: A More Accurate Method for Determining Heart Rates

Dick Moss, Editor, PE

Training according to heart rate is an excellent way to individualize running paces for each athlete.

Your athletes' heart rate can tell you how hard they are working, in what training zone they are running (ie aerobic/anaerobic) and whether they have recovered enough for another repetition. And heart rates can be used to determine pace when the exact distance of your running course isn't known.

Problems With Traditional Heart-Rate Measurement
However, there are difficulties in obtaining accurate heart rates in the field.  Standard practice is to count the number of heart beats in a six-second period, then multiply by 10 for a beats-per-minute rate.

This leaves great potential for inaccuracy.  For example, it's easy to be off by half a beat at the beginning and end of your six-second time period.  This can make a difference of 10 beats when you calculate your per-minute heart rate.  (For example, a change from 170 to 180 bpm).

It's also difficult to be precise about the actual start of the six-second period. For example, a start at .8 and a finish at 6.2 is common—again, leading to an inaccurate count of up to 10 beats per minute.

The following method of determining heart rate is more accurate.  Instead of counting the number of heart beats in a specific period of time, it measures the amount of time it takes for the completion of 10 beats.

A More Accurate Method
The method is quite simple.  Your athletes measure the time it takes to complete 10 heart beats.  Have them start their watch at the beginning of the first heart beat—counting that beat as “0”— and stop their watch at the beginning of the 10th beat.

They then use the chart provided on the next page to determine their heart rate in beats per minute.

Why It's More Accurate
This method reduces the problem of starting and stopping halfway through a beat.  It also reduces the margin of error on a miscounted beat from 10 bpm to only 3-5 bpm. Finally, since measurements can usually be taken in 3-4 seconds, there is less chance that an athlete's quick recovery will affect the  measurement.

Problems and Solutions
While this method is more accurate, it does have its problems.

1.     Everybody can't carry a chart.
    The first problem with this method is that it requires athletes to carry a chart. However, you can solve this problem by telling your athletes the training range, in seconds for 10 beats, in which you want them to run.  For example, instruct them to run at a 4.0 to 3.5 heart-rate pace (150 bpm to 171 bpm).  Or, to recover until their heart rate is down to 5.0.  After a while, you'll find that they memorize the times which define the intensities at which they must run.

  2.     Not enough hands to take heart rate.
The second problem is that you can't time 10 heart beats while using a wristwatch.  Since both hands are needed for this operation, you have no hands left to check your pulse (just try it).  And taking a wristwatch off after each rep is time-consuming and inconvenient.

A solution is to have your runners hold their watches in their hand while running.  This actually makes it easier for them to take their own running times and it leaves them with a free hand for checking their heart rate afterwards.

Printable Heart Rate Chart
Printable Heart Rate Chart

Another solution is to keep a number of inexpensive stopwatches on a table near the finish line of each run or interval. You can keep a laminated copy of the heart rate chart on the same table.  Then, when your runners finish their run, they pick up a watch from the table, take their pulse, and determine their heart rate from the chart.

Printable Chart
See printable heart rate chart on the PDF version of this article - download at the bottom of this page.


Reference: Heart rate chart information from the Williams Pace Calculator, c/o Bob Williams, Distance Running Guidance Systems.

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