Your Maximum Heart Rate

Your maximum heart rate is genetically determined and while it does typically decline with age in sedentary folks, active athletes such as runners usually enjoy much less of a decline if at all.

Your MHR, simply put is the maximum rate at which your heart is currently capable of beating. This rate is most commonly expressed in terms of number of beats per minute (bpm). While your MHR is not an indicator of your fitness or fitness potential, it is really good to know what it is in order to establish proper heart rate training zones. Most training zones are based on a % calculation of your MHR. For example, your ideal aerobic zone for running generally falls between 55% and 65% of your MHR.

As a runner, if you plan to monitor your heart rate during training, which of course is a brilliant idea, finding out what your maximum heart rate is then, is absolutely necessary. The big reason for this is your MHR is a unique figure to you as an individual. That is to say, your max can be either average or 5 to 15 beats lower or higher than average! The problem this presents is when you train by heart rate and you’ve establish heart rate training zones based on a guess, you risk either running too slow or too fast for the goal of any given workout. When you’re running too slow, your heart rate will not be high enough to benefit from a training effect. When you’re running too fast, you will also miss out the opportunities for growth intended by your prescribed workout and put yourself at risk of over-training and injury.

How to Find Your Maximum Heart Rate

There are a few ways that you can go about finding your MHR - from most crude to most accurate.

Test 1 – Standard age-graded maximum heart rate calculations available such as:

  1. 220 – your age
  2. 205.8 − (0.685 × age)

These and other similar calculations can be quite inaccurate since there is great variation from individual to individual. For the first formula, it's been found that there is a standard deviation of 11 beats per minute or more. (mine is 9 beats lower than this calculation). The second calculation is more widely accepted in the exercise physiology community as it has shown to have an average deviation of around 6 bpm. While this doesn't sound like a big deal, both errors can mean the difference between exercising properly in your 'zone 3' or wasting your time tearing yourself down. We are all unique in our specific:

  • Physiology
  • Running Goals
  • Maximum Heart Rate
So while this method of estimating your max HR takes very little time, effort and cost it's clearly not your best route.

Test 2 – Maximum Effort 'stress' Test (crude, but better than above)

A somewhat structured stress test such as a warm up followed by hill/incline sprints. There are many ways to do this test but basically you are pushed to your perceived exercise limit while wearing a heart rate monitor. This type of test should always be administered by a trained fitness professional to ensure the safety of the runner. You would be surprised how much further you can push when someone is yelling at you!

This test can yield pretty accurate results within a few beats per minute and will very quickly give you an idea as to whether your maximum heart rate is below, on par or much greater than the average for your age.

Test 3 – Treadmill Step Test

This test is actually designed to determine all of your training zones based on your body's lactate buffering capabilities. Obtaining your maximum heart rate is only one piece of the data that is collected. A runner is put through a series of paces that gradually increase. Blood samples are taken at the end of each 'stage' before the pace is increased. By measuring your blood lactate levels, the tester is able to determine various bio-markers that reflect metabolic responses in your body. These in turn help to establish proper training zones for your ideal development and progress.

This test can be quite expensive (between $120 and $175) and should always be administered by an able exercise technician in a laboratory setting but it's by far the most accurate way to find your true maximum heart rate and also your heart rate training zones. If you're really serious about improving as a runner and think that you will get tested often or as a group, you might consider your own hand held blood lactate analyzer. I own the 'lactate pro' and am very happy with it.

For more information on this type of test and it's benefits, refer to my page on tempo runs.

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