Heart Rate Training: Find Your Maximum Heart Rate

Developing a training programme involves measuring just how hard your heart can work - but it's not as simple as you might think

Posted: 5 June 2000
by Joe Dunbar


If you're the proud owner of a new heart rate monitor, you’ll doubtless be wondering just how high you can make it go. And it wouldnt be a bad idea. Coaches and athletes often like to establish a maximal heart rate (or MHR) in order to calculate training heart rates – usually as a percentage of this value.

The traditional strategy is to use the formula of 220 minus age to ‘guestimate your max. This is often used in health clubs. Here, charts show age-related MHR and training heart rates for cardiovascular fitness development. For example, if you are 40, your estimated MHR would be 180 (ie 220-40). You can then calculate training heart rates from this, using a formula such as 70 per cent MHR (which would be 126).

Its quite simple, but unfortunately its not accurate for everyone. American sports scientists have modified the basic formula to allow for gender: 214-(0.8 x age) for men, and 209-(0.9 x age) for women. However, this still gives a generalised result.

If you want to find your true MHR, youll have to do a little work and some measurement with your heart rate monitor. But its not as straightforward as taking a peak reading from a race or a hard training session, no matter how exhausted you might make yourself. When it comes to your heart, its how you work up to your max that counts.

Sports science laboratories often use a graded treadmill run to establish MHR. The speed of the track is gradually increased until you can no longer keep up, and your heart rate at this point is assumed to be your MHR.

However, findings from Oslo have suggested that a combination of short runs will give you higher readings still, and this would seem to be your best option. Run as fast as you can evenly for three minutes (ideally on a treadmill), rest with two or three minutes gentle running, and then repeat your three-minute maximal run. During the second run you should get a higher MHR value than with any other method, though use your monitor to take readings throughout it, as your heart rate may peak before the end (see below). Shorter, faster bursts dont appear to work, as the leg muscles then become exhausted before the cardio-respiratory system.

Other factors contribute to MHR values (see below) and should be taken into account before you set off on your rush to exhaustion. Needless to say, you should be in good physical health before you do any intensive exercise, let alone running to your bodys upper limits. If you are in any doubt at all, always get a medical check-up.

Recording your MHR

  • Make sure you're healthy and well clear of injury and infection.
  • Ensure that your transmitter belt is attached securely and dampen the electrodes.
  • Warm up thoroughly for the task.
  • If your heart rate monitor records data, set the recording interval to five seconds and view the data after your test.
  • Otherwise, view the receiver every 10 seconds in the last minute of your effort, as the max may not be at the very end.

Factors affecting your MHR

Both the duration and intensity of your warm-up will affect your heart rates in your test. A longer warm-up of moderate intensity will give higher readings than a quick, light jog, because your body temperature and muscle blood flow will be greater.

Previous activity
You need to be fresh to be able to perform at your true max. If you have trained hard on the previous couple of days, you are unlikely to be able to run at sufficient intensity to register your genuine MHR.

Rather than one continuous run to exhaustion, or a graded test, try a couple of hard three-minute bursts after a thorough warm-up.

Running environment
Research has shown that you are likely to get slightly higher readings if you run on a treadmill rather than outside. A treadmill can also help you keep level pace in your three-minute bursts, and may help to prevent you setting off way too fast and fatiguing early.

Mode of exercise
Its important that you use the mode of activity that youre training for. For example, your MHR from a cycle test is almost certain to be lower than your running MHR, unless youre also a highly trained cyclist.

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Heart Beat: Getting To Know Your Heart Rates
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Heart Beat: Finding Your Threshold Heart Rate

heart rate maximum, Maximum Heart Rate

Discuss this article

I know this may be an old chestnut which has been covered before but I have been guilty of too much effort and subsequent injury following speed work.

I have a heart monitor and have been encoraged to use it more effectively. It is said that 70% of MHR is ok for most running. So far so good?

I have just been out for a nice steady run (7 miles). I was concsious not to push it and felt really comfortable at 135-140.

My MHR is 182 but I have just read on the RW website that 70% of 180 is 127. At 127 it would feel like a real daudle. Plus, I would be out half the night. For interval work that makes 155 around 80%. Am I to beleive that I am supposed to run at 127. Coz I had better start walking!

What is the formula because I do not know many runners who run at that rate.
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:00

you cant apply a formula to an individual
you need to test it for yourself
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:08

But surely if my MHR is 182 the percentages are a matter of maths fact. Do other runners feel mega-comfortable at a so-called 70% of threashold?
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:22

How did you measure your MHR
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:29

I can't run at anything below about 130-160, my max is about 185.
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:45

Posted: 17/02/2004 at 22:45

If this appears twice, sorry - it just dissapeared off my screen and I don't know where it went!

MHR - the usual maths. 220 minus age (I get it, you just wanted to know how old we all are :) 182

Also 300mtr reps - to almost throwing up point somewhere mid third at 180. It felt fairly conclusive my MHR or perhaps I am just soft!

Same question - do others feel really too comfortable at 70%?
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:02

the others arent in kepping with the formula

its individual

One lass on base training is comfortable at 180

Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:06

my max should be 178 but on my bike i often reach 194,(am i dead now...)it dosnt feel good but im not totally out of breath,so either im very fit or my mother DID find me under a gooseberry bush and doesnt know how old i am(also my bodys knackered for a 26 year old!!!!!)
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:17

andat 70% of my max, if i went by formula, id be walking
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:21

my supposed formuls max is 182

well, my comfy training rate is 150

and my LT(done by practical means0 is 175
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:24

mrs slainte`s doctor once told her she had a resting heart rate of 46,and then said she had the heart of an athlete,and the body of a slob,she`s now lost 3st 8 lb ,and runs 3 times a week to try to get the body to match her heart......
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:32

brave doc
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:32

not realy,she knew he was right [g]and she`s a sweet heart with a g.s.o.h. she needs it with an old fart like me around...
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:39

your wife, or the doc
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:41

It is not what your max should be, it is what it is that counts. If you get to 194 on the bike, your max is not 178, whether it should be or not.

I have a friend who runs at the club - he is a better runner than me but when I am at 160 he is at 185. I think his max is 200 - he did spend £100 on a VO2 max test. He also cannot run at 70%. To him that is 140 and he just cannot get that low whilst running - he is at a very slow in-efficient jog.

At a heart rate of 127 I cannot imagine enjoying a run very much, as I said it would be better to walk fast. By the numbers 70% is 127 but it no way feels like 70%. My heart is already at 25-30% when resting so jogging only a little bit more than doubles my heart rate of when I am sitting watching the fish swim around the tank. Maybe I should buy a book! I see there is an idiots guide to heart rate monitors - that must be the one!
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:45

the base traiing thing gets you used to that low HR slowly, and then builds you up
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:47


Your figures are about what I reckon -150 is just about enough for a good run and anything under 140 is nice and gentle. But it just dont figure with the advice we get!
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:49

Slainte, did you say 26?

Oh dear I do feel tired all of a sudden.
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:52

No cat
150 is a gentle jog for me
Posted: 17/02/2004 at 23:53

I am feeling tireder and tireder. But before I retire - You said that your formula MHR was 182. Is that your actual MHR coz if it is you are in a similar boat to me - worse even. If you are gently jogging at 150 you are around 85% and would find it even tougher to get down to running at 127. What is your actual MHR?
Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:04

thats me formula HR
havent done a max HR test

But done a Had test

so know me lactate threshold
i think
Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:07

used to do 220 in aerobics classs
was a while ago tho
Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:08

and now im to bed
Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:09

Me too.

I think I shall leave the HM at home tomorrow and get on the bike.

Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:17

The formula for MHR I use(and I got it from a book) is

220-(0.7xage) which is is for you = 193

70% of this is about 135, which is waht you say you are comfortable at.

Hope this helps a bit.

Good luck

Posted: 18/02/2004 at 00:51


you really don't want to use any of the set formulae to calculate your max. HR as they have been known to be as far out as 15-20 bpm.

You need to do a max HR test. Find a decent length hill and do 3 to 4 reps up the hill hard with a slow jog back to the bottom. Towards the end of your 3rd or 4th rep you should reach your highest HR and should take this as your max. If on a run at some later point your HR goes higher than this you should use the updated figure for your max. HR.

Also work out your resting HR (best done first thing in the morning or when asleep as you are very relaxed and haven't started moving around then).

Once you have these two figures you can work out your 70% level with the following formula (70% refers to 70% of Working Heart Rate).

Resting HR + (Max. HR - Resting HR*0.7)

For example my 70% level is calculated as follows:

52 + (194-52 * 0.7) = 151.4 (I use 151 as 70% level)

Hope this is of some use Cat and presevere with the <70% training as this is a valuable tool to build any running base upon. I have been doing this for 3 months (having read John L. Parkers book "Heart Rate Training for the Compleat Idiot") and you find that you soon improve and you can start to run faster still keeping your HR under the 70% level.
Posted: 20/02/2004 at 14:44

Action Man,

Now your talking sense. I am glad someone knows what 70% actually means in real terms. That makes my 70% at 142bpm which feel much more like 70% than 127.

It took some time to get a decent answer but we got there. Thanks for the explaination. Now I can figure out all my percentages - Thanks!
Posted: 21/02/2004 at 01:02

Cat - this info is also in the beginners training section of the site. May take a bit of finding, but it is there!
Posted: 25/02/2004 at 10:46

that was a very funny thread! Reading it late i know.... I still cant figure mine out but who cares!!!!!!!! even have the bodylink system and cant read that!!! 2 books!!!
Posted: 17/03/2004 at 17:44

Action Man's post is spot on, and if anyone is confused, I'd strongly recommend (as many people have), Heart Rate Training for the Compleat Idiot.

It cuts through most of the complicated theories and makes everything very simple.

It also says very clearly that if you are on a recovery run, and you need to walk to stay under your Recovery Ceiling (70%), then you should walk. Running over it means you're not recovering anymore and you're burning glycogen - which means your next "hard" run will be a disaster.

The book also makes it clear that the first few weeks of using a heart monitor to regulate your easy sessions will leave you feeling frustrated and stractchy, but by following the rules you get fitter quicker and soon you able to do much more whilst remaining under the Recovery Ceiling.
Posted: 19/03/2004 at 20:09

So who is the the Heart Rate Training for the compleat idiot by please? I think i had better get a copy....
Posted: 22/03/2004 at 10:02


the book is by John L Parker and, as many people have, I got my copy from Amazon.

I can't recommend it highly enough. When I began 4 months ago I was doing 3 miles at 12 min / mile under recovery ceiling. Now I can do a 13 mile run at under 10 mins / mile and stay under recovery ceiling.

Best of luck.
Posted: 22/03/2004 at 12:23

Action Man

You are now obviously living up to your name! thanks for the recommendation, I shall definitely be buying the book!
Posted: 22/03/2004 at 12:26

Hi All,

I'm new to running, but I've been cycling competitively since 1989 and with a HRM since 1991.

No-one has mentioned 'perceived exertion', and I wonder if it is commonly used in running circles ?

If we're talking about 70% being the "recovery ceiling" (as mentioned by RJK above), then I imagine that the associated perceived exertion should be "moderate / not hurting / feel like you could easily go faster / able to hold a conversation with your training partner". Cyclists most commonly refer to it as 'level 2' and it forms the bulk of endurance training.

So, rather than getting hung up about wildly differing formulae, or even the various methods which exist measuring MHR, I would suggest trying to run along at a pace which matches the exertion level you're aiming for, and then reading off your HR for future reference.

So for example, if you want to go out for a "recovery ceiling" run, get out there until you perceive your exertion to be "moderate, etc ...", and then make a note of your HR.

Of course, it might make you wonder why you need a HR for that kind of session if you're going to judge pace by perceived exertion anyway ... and perhaps you'd be right to ask ;-)

I'm all for technical aids in sport, but sometimes, your senses will serve you just as well, if not better.


Posted: 24/03/2004 at 12:33

Good thought T. I tend to use my HRM like that, but then it is good to have the monitor to judge when you are overexerting yourself! I do think that we all get bogged down with all the technology and accessories which are available to us! ( I am a major culprit and own everything). I feel like a robot sometimes with the amount of technology I rely on when out for an "enjoyable" run!
Posted: 24/03/2004 at 12:40

Hi E,

I'm certainly surprised at the amount of technology there is to be had in running.

I'm most impressed by the GPS systems that calculate your speed (although sadly a bit expensive for my budget) !

Posted: 24/03/2004 at 12:52

As I said, i own everything, even that! BUT it takes ages to learn how to use it! (well it does me) 2 books to trawl through, I think I have just managed to get the hang of it! yes it is impressive! Save up or have you got a birthday coming up and a rich relative/friend?

Posted: 24/03/2004 at 12:56

Got plenty of birthdays (is it me or do they come around quicker past a certain age ?), but will have to work on the rich relatives and friends :-)

Cheers !
Posted: 24/03/2004 at 15:59

No not you they come around quickly - why do you think I am called Eldest?!
Good luck!
Posted: 24/03/2004 at 16:01

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