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The average athlete's heart rate during a marathon will be 65 to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate.
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The average athlete's heart rate during a marathon is 160 beats per minute. That's based on a person in his or her 20s who has a resting heart rate of 55 bpm and a maximum heart rate of 200 bpm. A person's maximum heart rate is determined by her age - your MHR declines as you get older - and her genetics, but you can roughly determine your MHR by subtracting your age from 220.
Staying in the Zone
Most runners complete the 26.2-mile race running at 65 to 80 percent of their MHR. Their goal is to remain in a comfortable aerobic zone where their muscles are drawing on oxygen, as well as glucose and fatty acids carried in their blood, to produce the andenosine triphosphate energy their muscles need to contract. If their heart rate climbs too high and they are gasping for oxygen, they have crossed what's called the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold, which means lactate will build up and they'll tire out much more quickly.
The goal in marathon running is to maintain the highest possible average heart rate you can while remaining in that comfortable aerobic zone. Runners train to expand that zone by performing regular interval workouts - characterized by short bursts of running that pushes their heart into the anaerobic zone - or tempo workouts, where they run continuously at the highest range of their aerobic zone. Their maximum heart rate won't change, but this type of training will allow them to increase their average heart rate during a marathon.
World-class runners have a very high lactate threshold - anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of their MHR - so their average heart rate in the marathon could be more than 180 bpm. This is why they can run 26.2 miles at a pace of 5 minutes a mile - a speed even very good runners can't sustain for even one mile.
A person's maximum oxygen consumption, called a VO2 max, also affects his average heart rate in a marathon. A person running 6 mph consumes 36 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight. If you have a very high VO2 max, you can exercise at a faster pace while still getting enough oxygen to remain in the aerobic zone.
Hitting the Wall
An average runner's heart rate in a marathon will decline if she вЂњbonksвЂќ or вЂњhits the wall,вЂќ two terms used to indicate a point where pace falls off dramatically and she has trouble continuing. This can be caused by dehydration, low blood sugar -- from not eating enough -- overheating and running too fast early in the race.
One time-honored and scientifically backed strategy for avoiding вЂњthe wallвЂќ is to eat an abundance of carbohydrates at least 12 hours before a marathon. How much you should eat is determined by many factors, including your age, weight, resting heart rate and the pace you want to run for the marathon. For example, a 45-year-old, 120-pound woman with a goal of running 9:09 minutes a mile would have to eat five servings of pasta the night before her race to have enough energy to maintain that pace and run through the wall. If her resting heart rate were 70, she'd have to eat about 6 cups.