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Checking Your Pulse

15 September 2012

What does my heart do?


image courtesy of

Your heart is a pump and is central to your body’s engine. It pumps blood through your lungs to get rid of used carbon dioxide and swap it for  oxygen out of the air you breath. Then it pumps that oxygen rich blood around the rest of your body so you can get active.

The pump works in spurts,  as the muscle expands and contracts. It’s a pulsing action; and one you can feel if you know how. That’s your pulse.

Why is it important?

Your heart rate (or pulse)  is the single most important indicator of your body’s ability to cope with exercise and exertion at any particular moment. You will benefit from keeping track of it when you are out on the hills.

Caution: Hillwalking is a strenuous activity. Consider if there are any reasons why you might need to consult a doctor before engaging in the sport.; whether you need to tell them what you plan on doing and to get their professional response.

What should my pulse rate be?..

Everyone’s pulse is different. There are general guidelines, but everyone is unique. You may be young and fit, office work may have left you sedentary, or you may be overweight. The important thing is to make sure you don’t make your heart work too hard; and most certainly not too hard for too long. The good news is that properly done, hillwalking can help you to train your heart to get fitter for exertion and endurance.

Maximum Heart Rate: So the first important piece of information you’ll need to find is going to be your maximum heart rate (MHR), which we measure in bpm (beats per minute). (More about that in a moment).

Training rate: You don’t need to be a cardiac specialist to know that working your heart flat-out is not going to be good for it.  So we need to ask the question: What percentage of my MHR (Maximum Heart Rate) is going to treat my heart kindly, but let it get enough exercise to get fitter and stronger. Specialists call that a “Training Rate”.

Stopping & resting: And if you find your hill walking exercise is taking your pulse over your training rate, the next step is simple: You stop and rest, and let your heart catch up with your body’s exertions. Do this as often as necessary. It will make your heart fitter and stronger.

Stick with your training rate and look after your heart.

How do I find my Maximum Heart Rate?

walking_sq_05There are three ways to do this:

  • …..1: A rule of thumb formula
  • ….. 2: Using a heart-rate monitor
  • ….. 3: At a sports clinic.

The old formula says: your Estimated-MHR is: 220 bpm minus your age . So if you are 40 your MHR would be 220-40=180 bpm. But because we are all different it could be lower (say 170 bpm) or higher (say 190 bpm).

 As a result American sports scientists came up with a more accurate formula for men and women: 214-(0.8 x age) for men, and 209-(0.9 x age) for women. So a 40 year old man could be 182 bpm (ie 214 – 32) and a woman 173 bpm (ie 209-36). But still that could be 173 to 189 bpm for a man and 166 to 180 bpm for a woman. So if you use this as a guideline, you must listen to your body when you are walking on those hills. You must learn to take your pulse (more below).

A heart rate monitor:


Polar A300

I’ve been using Polar Heart Rate Monitors for around 20 years at the same time as I’ve been getting professional monitoring and support. I’ve used their web sites and followed their training programmes. And I’ve learned to trust them. So I contacted Polar, explained the purpose and asked them to recommend suitable wrist-watch style hear rate monitors. (Though they are much more than that now). These are the questions I asked:


Maximum Heart Rate & suitable models: Can you please advise me, which current models are able to predict the wearers maximum heart rate. And that you would consider suitable for these activities: hill walking, trekking and general mountaineering? Please provide a range of prices.

Here is what they said…

Out of our current range the most suitable devices that will meet the requirements that you have outlined to us, are the Polar A300 HR (£74.50), M400 HR (£119.50) and A360 (£149.50)   Click here to view the monitors using their comparison tool.


Polar M400


The differences can be seen from the comparison tool, but essentially the A300 & M400 use a wireless chest strap that reports your heart beat to the monitor. The M400 features the addition of GPS. The A360 monitors your hear-rate at the wrist and uses a touch screen. All will help you determine your MHR and monitor your heart rate/training rate on the hills.



Polar A360

Number crunching: All of them can be connected to a computer.
The modern cardio-gym: If you use the treadmills, stair-climbers and elliptical machines in a modern gym, you may notice that they work with your Polar chest belt, and report your heart rate on the screen in front of you as you exercise. I use this facility three or four times a week, for a programme of heart-rate training.


Sports clinic:

I last tried this about five years ago, and I’m due to go again soon. And although there has been a great improvement in equipment, the procedure is essentially the same.  Wearing a chest strap, and a mask, (they were measuring my volume of oxygen uptake too), with attendants manually monitoring my blood pressure and my pulse, I started on the treadmill that went progressively faster and steeper, until the doctor and his team had the info they wanted. Then I had to sit around for a while until they were happy to release me, clutching the report of my MHR in my hand.

stress_testStock footage from Beaumont Hospital Dublin. (Wikipedia)

How do I find my Training Rate?

Hillwalking is a healthy mix of moderate to intense physical activity which you can use to train your heart muscle for increased exertion and endurance. And companies like Polar who make heart-rate monitors for people like us, have their web sites full of valuable technical expertise on how to do that. Including personal training programmes designed to work with their heart-rate monitors.

Exercise intensity: Today, it’s generally recognised that moderately intense physical activity is going to exercise your heart at 50% to 70% of your MHR (maximum heart rate) as calculated from the age formula. Whilst vigorously intense physical activity is characterised by a pulse between 70% and 85% of your MHRAthletes under professional supervision will frequently train their hearts to 97% of their MHR for short bursts. But I emphasise “under professional supervision”.

But remember: If you are unfit or overweight your body my consider even a short walk up a local hillside to be a vigorous activity and your heart will respond and tell you so. So you may have to take it slow and build your fitness before venturing in to the bogs or on to the moors.


50 year old male: 214-(50 x 80/100) = 174 MHR x 85/100 = 148
But remember for some this could mean 142, 155 or somewhere in between, so treat these figures cautiously, and stop if you experience any distressing symptoms of any kind.

30 year old female: 209-(30 x 90/100) = 182 MHR x 85/100 = 155
Again remember for some this could mean 149, 161 or somewhere in between. And remember to be cautious.

How do I take my pulse?

There are several places, on the body, that people generally take their pulse: Neck, chest, elbow and wrist. But when you are out on the hills, checking your pulse at the radial artery on your wrist (the red line in this picture) is going to be easier. Here’s how…

IMG-20160904-WA0003_ed1: You are going to count the number of beats you can feel in your radial artery during a short period of  fifteen (15) seconds. Then you are going to times that by four (x4) to get the number of beats per minute (bpm) for your pulse.

2: Use this diagram to find your radial artery – by all means mark it’s position in your wrist with a felt-tip pen.

3: Take your right hand and place the tips of the index and middle fingers over the radial artery of your left wrist and press lightly. If you are holding your left arm upwards use your right thumb lightly, only to hold your right hand steady.


IMG-20160904-WA0001_ed4: Can you feel the pulsing sensation in your right hand finger tips? No, well gently move your finger tips around until you find it. Check the illustrations here on this page. Still having difficulty, try a little vigorous exercise to make your pulse more pronounced.

5: Once you’ve found the radial artery and can feel the pulse, start counting the beats to get used to the idea.

IMG-20160904-WA0005_ed6: Now either, using your own watch, or asking someone to say “start” and “stop”, count the number of pulse beats over fifteen (15) seconds.

7: Practice at home, but when you are in the hills, stop walking/climbing in a spot that’s safe to stand, and you have your balance. And take your pulse then. You will probably find the artery easier to find, and the pulse easier to sense when your heart is pumping from vigorous activity.

8: What zone are you in? How many beats per minute did you get? Right let’s see what Heart-Rate Zone you are in…

The 85% rule and other zones

Use these simple formulae to work-out the bpm for these two heart-rate zones:

Moderate intensity:
….. starts at: 50% of your MHR. To calculate:  Your MHR/100 x 50 =
….. ends at 70% of your MHR. To calculate:  Your MHR/100 x 70 =
Vigorous intensity
….. starts where moderate intensity ends… your MHR/100 x 70 =
…..ends at 85% of your MHR. To calculate: Your MHR/100 x 85

Example for someone with an MHR of 170 bpm.
…..Moderate intensity from 85 bpm to 119 bpm
…..Vigorous intensity from 119 to 145 bpm

REMEMBER, be wise and try to keep your pulse rate under 85% of your MHR.


  1. Learn to take your pulse accurately
  2. Check frequently that your pulse is below your training rate.
  3. Rest if your heart needs it.

One Last Word… Endurance…

There’s going to be a limit on the amount of time you can exercise your heart in that 70%- 85% zone of it’s MHR. As you continue your exercise, you’ll notice that it takes longer and longer for your heart rate to begin to slow down, and to drop below 70% of your MHR. You can time it if you like.  This recovery period is your heart giving notice about its endurance ability. Take note, ease off on the exertion, take a break (or two), shorten the walk, or avoid climbing the next hill. If you are exercising regularly you’ll find you can do just a little more next time.

Disclaimer: Yes my title is Dr. Marshall, but I’m not an MD, not a medical doctor. Just someone who has been an endurance athlete most of their life. And that is all I am. You should not treat the advice or information I have given here as coming from a medical professional or expert in the field. I am neither. Therefore, I, David Marshall, except for any liability that cannot be excluded by law, refuse any liability for personal injury or death arising directly or indirectly from information in this blog.


My photographer, Natasha Isabelle, snow-shoeing in the Pyrénees

Updated: 7 October 2016

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