You gotta have heart. Heart and soul. Take these chains from my heart and set me free.

The heart figures prominently in music lyrics and art.

The lungs, on the other hand, receive rather less attention there. For the casual walker or the endurance athlete, our lungs’ interactions with their teammate the heart deserve enormous attention.

For a runner, cyclist, hiker, or backpacker, monitoring your heart rate at rest and in exertion can reveal your fitness level. This is true whether you are running a canyon trail on a warm spring day, or have not yet rolled over to turn off the alarm on one of the snowy mornings that likely are yet to come.

Yes, by counting your pulse beats in the morning before even sitting up in bed, you can determine your own true resting heart rate. This baseline number is useful, because seeing a rise in the resting heart rate can give advance warning of overtraining.

Similarly, after a push to the top of a high altitude ridge on climbing skins, monitoring her pulse can tell a skier or boarder if she is in a training zone that will make her stronger. She does not want to be overdoing the pace of that climb, though.

Endangering an untrained cardiovascular system is possible due to overzealous ambition to keep up with the group or to beat the approaching storm. It is productive to know one’s own true resting heart rate, as well as one’s maximum heart rate.

As noted in these previous columns on the Outdoors page, you should consult with your health care professional before undertaking a strenuous exercise program. This is particularly true if you are, ahem, older than you used to be, or if you have other behavioral or inherited risk factors for heart disease.

Know thyself

What is anyone’s predicted maximal heart rate? As the American College of Sports Medicine points out, it is expressed in “beats per minute,” and generally is found by subtracting one’s age from 220. Therefore, someone 40 years old would have a max predicted to be 180 beats per minute.

A rather crude prediction, this can easily vary by 15 beats per minute higher or lower. Also, this manner of predicting is grossly underestimates a trained athlete’s max heart rate.

Instead, an electrocardiogram can give a much more accurate reading. The Monfort Family Health Performance Laboratory in Grand Junction can do this test while testing lung expiration.

As part of Colorado Mesa University, that facility can then reveal to an athlete their most effective training pace. So can a different test: the Lactate Threshold test, which is available at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.

What is lactate and why would an athlete care about its threshold?

Lactate is a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism, and it builds up in the blood and can be measured periodically during a treadmill run or while on a stationary bike. In this way one’s appropriate heart rate training zones can be determined based on the individual’s blood chemistry results, rather than by relying on the usual generalized age related formulas.

Say you are running the Black Canyon Ascent event, coming up in May at our own Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Doing your steady warm-up run for ten minutes along the flat highway, and in the first flat half-mile of the race itself, employs your aerobic system primarily.

The resulting lactate “exhaust” in your bloodstream can be reworked rather amazingly within your body to produce more blood glucose to keep you running on the level. You feel like you could run all day at this rate.

Instead, the climb to the National Park itself is in that next five and a half miles, and here it comes. As you propel yourself up the hill, your cardiovascular system gradually does more anaerobic and less aerobic work.

Soon you begin to produce more lactate in the bloodstream than your body can process, and crossing this threshold point begins to limit how much longer you can keep up the pace. Fatigue and exhaustion develop, and you either have to back off the pace soon or risk having to bail out of the latter part of the run, before the finish line by the campground and those marvelous views.

Training Your Lungs and Heart

Knowledge of your lactate threshold point can assist you in developing a training program to increase your speed and pace. This can let you, the athlete, perform more anaerobic work during your chosen sport before the threshold is reached and that dreaded fatigue sets in.

Spending time training at the heart rate near the lactate threshold can produce these gains in a healthy person. You can count the wrist pulse using fingertip pressure, or you can acquire an athlete’s basic heart rate monitor. Eventually it’s useful to be able to just perceive how you feel inside to run, ride, or hike at the appropriate intensities.

Spring beckons us all outdoors yet again, to be our best.

John T. Unger is a diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over 25 years of practice in Montrose. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at


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