Whether you're climbing a mountain or doing any other type of physical activity, the intensity of the exercise matters. The harder your body is working, the more calories you'll burn, and the more physically fit you'll become. One way to gauge how hard your body is working -- and what a safe level of exertion is -- is to monitor your heart rate. If you're hiking in the mountains, your target heart rate may be an important tool to ensure that you don't push yourself too hard while in higher elevations.
Target Heart Rate
The first step toward monitoring your heart rate is knowing what is normal for you, and what your "target" heart rate should be. The target heart rate is a range in which you'll get the most benefit from exercise -- too high and you risk over-training and hurting yourself, too low and you're not getting much of a workout. First, calculate your maximum heart rate -- the fastest your heart should beat during activity. For women, multiply your age by 0.88, and then subtract that number from 206. For men, subtract your age from 220. For ideal moderate exercise, your target heart rate is between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Vigorous exercise should be performed at between 70 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Now that you know what your target range is, you can monitor your heart rate during your next hike. Be sure to warm up for at least five to 10 minutes by walking slowly. At about 20 to 30 minutes into the hike, stop on the trail and place your index and middle fingers on the carotid artery on your neck, where your jaw meets your neck. Look at your watch and count the number of beats you feel in 10 seconds. Multiply that number by six to get your beats per minute -- or BPM. If you want intense exercise, that BPM should fall within 70 and 85 percent of your calculated maximum heart rate -- though the 50 to 70 percent range will also provide you a good workout. From there, hike faster or slower to stay within your target range.
Many hiking trails exist in mountain areas, where the altitude may be significantly higher than where you live and work. In higher altitude, there's less oxygen, causing your body to fight harder to get enough oxygen to the cells of your body. When you're hiking at a higher altitude, you may notice that your heart rate is more elevated than normal -- this is a natural response to the reduction in oxygen in your environment. You may notice this happening even with just a slight increase in altitude.
When you're in those higher-altitude situations, you may need to monitor your heart rate more closely, or simply pay attention to the signals of your body to stay within your target heart rate. Slow down when you start to get winded to avoid hyperventilating. If you plan to hike regularly, you will find that over several weeks or months, you'll become more acclimated to the reduction in oxygen. As an experiment, note your heart rate in altitude at 20 to 30 minutes into the hike, and record the number in a journal. Over time, you may notice that your heart rate is getting slower the longer you do the altitude hikes; this may mean you'll eventually leave the "take it slow" idea behind and be able to push yourself harder, even at altitude.
Nicole Vulcan has been a journalist since 1997, covering parenting and fitness for The Oregonian, careers for CareerAddict, and travel, gardening and fitness for Black Hills Woman and other publications. Vulcan holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and journalism from the University of Minnesota. She's also a lifelong athlete and is pursuing certification as a personal trainer.