Heart Beat: Finding Your Threshold Heart Rate

How to establish your ideal rate for threshold sessions

Posted: 5 June 2000
by Joe Dunbar

We've already highlighted the difficulties of trying to establish your maximal heart rate. Now you’ve mastered that, here’s another problem: once you’ve found your true maximum, how do you know exactly what heart rates you should be training at? We often see round figures quoted in general guides, ranging from 70-90 per cent of MHR. Unfortunately, the reason they’re so vague is that – as we’ve found out – we’re all different.

In the early days, you’d have needed a physiological lab test to find the right percentage for you. In the 80s, however, an Italian physiologist called Francesco Conconi developed a test to make things a little more convenient. It was designed to pinpoint the ‘threshold intensity’. This is among the most popular – and certainly fashionable – training zones, used for quality aerobic workouts.

The Conconi test was developed using 210 runners, and centres on the principle of increasing heart rate with increasing intensity, or speed. What happens is that you run progressively faster during the test (see below) and your heart rate increases in a linear fashion until it plateaus a little. If you plotted your heart rate against speed on a graph, there would be a clear point at which the gradient of the line changed. This is referred to as the deflection point, and is said to be the threshold. It is, therefore, this heart rate that you should use for your threshold sessions.

After the original work on runners in 1982, further studies applied the test to other sports, and it soon became popular with cyclists, swimmers and canoeists. The beauty of the test is that it can be carried out in the normal training environment and is specific to each individual, rather than generalising by age or any other factors.

The threshold intensity is the sort of pace that you use for a tempo run of 20-25 minutes, preceded by a warm-up and followed by a cool-down. You can also split the work into reps, common examples being 4-6 x 1 mile with a couple of minutes’ recovery. The intensity will not be far off 10K pace, but is certainly a little faster than marathon race pace. This gives you a reasonable-quality session, so much so that you would aim to use it only once or twice a week.

However, getting the intensity right is vital. If you go too slow, you’re not training as hard as you might; but go too fast, and your session changes from an optimal aerobic workout to more of a hard slog, in which anaerobic metabolism plays a greater part.

There’s been a good deal of analysis of the Conconi test, and not all of it has been positive. Tests often fail to find a true and distinctive deflection point that is repeatable and reliable. In some individuals there is no obvious deflection point, and in others it’s ambiguous at best. If this applies to you, don’t worry, we’ll be explaining alternative methods in future issues. As with all tests and measures, give it a try, but remember that even the best aren’t completely foolproof.

Performing A Conconi Test

Ideally, you need a heart rate monitor that will record and store heart rate information for assessment afterwards. Alternatively, take along a partner who can write down your measurements as you give them. Perform the test on either a running track or a treadmill. NB: This is an intense test – only perform it if you’re in good physical health.

  • Warm up thoroughly, as you would for a race or track session
  • Your starting pace should be about 70 seconds for 200m (or 10km/h on a treadmill)
  • Once started, you need to increase your pace each and every 200m
  • At each 200m point, press the store button on your HRM (or tell your partner your rate)
  • Speed increase should be about 2-3 seconds per 200m (or 0.5km/h on a treadmill)
  • Keep going until you can’t increase your pace
  • Jog gently afterwards to cool down gradually
  • Plot your heart rate on a graph, against speed
  • Find the deflection point

Previous article
Heart Rate Training: Find Your Maximum Heart Rate
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Heart Rate Training: Monitoring Your Progress

Conconi, threshold, lactate

Discuss this article

Hi all,
I'm trying to calculate my various thresholds. ie Aerobic, anaerobic and lactate thresholds.
There seems to be various methods of calculating various thresholds. Can somebody
explain what HR %'s are Aerobic, Anaerobic and lactate thresholds.

I'm 30, MaxHR is 190, restingHR is 50.

220 - age = MaxHR
220 - 30 = 190, 85% of 190 = 162

maxHR - restingHR = WorkingHR
190-50=140, 85% of140 =119, 119+40=159
190-45=145, 85% of145 =123, 123+45=168
190-40=150, 85% of150 =128, 128+40=168

Posted: 30/01/2003 at 08:53

It will depend on the person. Especially anaerobic threshold will depend on how you have trained yourself. So there is no fixed %HR. It tendds to be about 80-95% depending on the person. In the summer I did a 5m with the last 2 miles at 190 bpm, my recorded max is 200, so in theory my threshold was 95% (basic), but that wasn't the case last weekend at the Cant 10, where going above 180 was causing problems...

I took a cycling maximal exhertion test with real-time mass-spec on my breath. That shows it very well. However, this kind of tech is only generally available for £££ unless you have sneaky access to a sports science lab.

Try this instead
When you do a 20+ minute run, warm up very well, then slowly increase your pace each minute. When you go from regular breathing to 'can't quite keep up' breathing that is probably you anaerobic threshold - or there abouts...

(Or have I got the wrong threshold?)
Posted: 30/01/2003 at 09:25

You first line of calc's is wrong.
You should have added your resting pulse rate at the end (+50). This would have given 169.

Can anyone explain the logic behind this way of working out %'s. According to this way, the lower your resting Hr, the lower your training Hr. This cannot be right. Surely as you get fitter, your resting Hr drops, and you can train at a higher Hr.
Posted: 30/01/2003 at 09:51

You're quite right, I should have added 50 and not 40. Just checking if you're awake. Top marks.
Posted: 30/01/2003 at 09:55

RickB, the logic IS correct. If your heart rate drops as you get fitter, you can do the same workload at a lower heart rate because your heart is working more efficiently. However, your anaerobic threshold will also (theoretically) increase and what limits maximum performance is the % of LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate) at which you can run. When your RHR drops, your WORKING HEART RATE RANGE is actually INCREASING (MHR minus RHR).
Posted: 30/01/2003 at 17:04

The formula you used for max HR may give a misleading result. I'm 47 but still have a max around 190-194 (max test). By your formula it would be 173 which is way out since 5-10K are run at above 180.
Posted: 31/01/2003 at 10:56

A couple of years ago I my maxHR was exactly 220 - age. Now I know I am not as fit as a I was and I cannot push my body hard enough to get to 220-age = 220-45=175.
I can get to about 166-167 before I am knackered.
Most of my running is at about 148-152 and my easier runs (mostly when I am tired/fed-up/can't be bothered) are at about 135ish.
I am struggling to find anywhere that takes into account the fact that you cannot get to the max through tired legs rather than a weak heart. PS My resting HR is about 56.
Can anybody advise please

Posted: 31/01/2003 at 23:16

Try this site for calculating thresholds
Posted: 01/02/2003 at 16:19

I have been running for a year now and decided to get a heart rate monitor and follow a novice training plan to train for the Great North Run(my 1st major race), the
only problem is my heart rate is 165bpm when
Im running which was fine until I saw I should of been training in Zone 2 which was max 137bpm which i found to easy, I mean i wasnt even out of breath at 165bpm.
Im 25 years old and I run on average 18mls
a week with cross training in between-what do you think is the maximum i can run at? Shall i just use my own judgement or go by the plan.
Posted: 19/06/2003 at 17:14

no real point predicting thresholds if you want to do serious training, as even the basic 220 - age is a generalisation... so every assumed percentage based upon it gets more and more spurious

if you are serious (and not scared of needles) you should get tested. birmingham university (and many others) do it

i have some contact information somewhere, if you want it
Posted: 19/06/2003 at 17:22

Please can you send me the details regarding
testing as I'm very serious about my training....thanks
Posted: 19/06/2003 at 17:30

anita toogood or catherine allen at birmingham university

a.toogood@bham.ac.uk or c.allen.a@bham.ac.uk

you get two lactate points (initial inflection and lactate threshold) and VO2max

of course the purpose of LT criss cross training is to push up the threshold so you might need to get it done again at some point!
Posted: 19/06/2003 at 17:48

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