Heart Rate Training: Find Your Maximum Heart Rate


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.