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How To Determine Maximum Heart Rate

by Sally Edwards - HeartZones Training and Education Company

I'll bet one of your first questions when you start training with a heart rate monitor is, "How do I determine my Max HR?" Your maximum heart rate is the basis for all of Heart Zone Training because it's the anchor point around which you set your five heart zones.

Your maximum heart rate (Max HR) is a specific number, the maximum number of contractions per minute that your heart can make. There are a number of basic facts about Max HR that we need for reference:

Max HR is genetically determined; in other words, you're born with it.
Max HR is a biomarker, it's your individual number.
Max HR does not reflect your level of fitness
Max HR is sensitive to certain variables such as altitude, drugs,  medication.
Max HR is a fixed number, unless you become unfit.
Max HR cannot be increased by training.
Max HR does not decline with age.
Max HR only declines with age in sedentary individuals.
Max HR tends to be higher in women than men.
Max HRs that are high do not predict better athletic performance.
Max HRs that are low do not predict worse athletic performance.
Max HR has great variability among people of the same age.
Max HR for children is frequently measured at over 200 bpm.
Max HR cannot be accurately predicted by any mathematic formula.
Max HR does not vary from day to day, but it is test-day sensitive.
Max HR testing requires the person to be fully rested.
Max HR testing needs to be done multiple times to determine the exact number.

For us, there's one more point to remember:

Max HR is the best index to set an individual's training zones, it's the anchor point.

Max HR is a critical piece of information, since you design your entire Heart Zone Training program around it. It serves as a marker for exercise intensity.  There are a number of different approaches to capturing this number. These include taking a Max HR test to determine the true number or doing a SubMax test from which you can predict your Max HR pretty accurately.

Guidelines for Determining Max HR
The first step is follow the guidelines that have been prescribed for exercise testing by the American College of Sports Medicine. Before taking any tests or following any exercise prescription, you should follow their prudent guidelines.

For more details refer to the ACSM's  Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, Fourth ed., 1991.

Here, briefly, is a synopsis of the recommendations:
Apparently healthy men greater than age 40, and apparently healthy women greater than age 50, should have a medical examination and diagnostic exercise test before starting a vigorous exercise program, as should symptomatic men and women of any age. However, these procedures are not essential when such persons begin a moderate intensity exercise regimen.
If in doubt, prior to engaging in any vigorous physical activity or exercise test, consult your physician for clearance. It's wise to see your physician on a regular basis regardless, so get a clearance while you are there.

SubMax HR Tests
If you aren't in shape and haven't been for awhile, you don't want to take a Max HR test designed to bring you to your actual maximum heart rate. Instead, there are best-guess methods which are much easier and accurate enough for you to use to begin training. These methods use sub-maximum testing to predict your Max HR. There is some error here, but these test/formula combos are better than just using the mathematical formulas alone, because they're specifically tailored to you.

Note: For the purposes of these tests, use the following definitions (these definitions refer to cardiovascular shape--not muscular):

Poor Shape--if you do not exercise at all, or if you have not exercised recently (last 8 weeks). Remember, you can be thin, have no weight-loss goals, and still be in poor shape.

Average Shape--you walk a mile 3 times a week, or participate in any aerobic activity 3 times a week for 20 minutes.

Excellent Shape--you regularly have training sessions that total more than 1 hour a week, or you walk or run at least 5 miles a week.

The SubMax 1-Mile Walking Test. Go to any high school or college track (most are 400 meters or 440 yards around) and walk or stride as fast as you can in your current condition. Walk as fast as is comfortable. Walk four continuous laps.

The last lap is the important one. Take your pulse, or use your heart rate monitor, to determine your average heart rate for only the last lap. The first three laps are just to get you to reach a heart rate plateau and to stay there for the last lap.

Add to this average last lap heart rate the one of the following that best matches your current fitness level:
1. Poor Shape: +40 bpm
2. Average Shape: +50 bpm
3. Excellent Shape: +60 bpm
This final number (for example, an average 135 bpm last lap plus 60 bpm, because I'm in excellent shape, would equal 195 bpm for me) should be fairly close to your Max HR.

The SubMax Step Test. Use an 8" step (almost any step in your home or in a club will do) and perform a 3-minute step test. After your warm-up, step up and down in a four-count sequence as follows: right foot up, left up, right down, left down. Each time you move a foot up or down, it counts as one step.

Count "up, up, down, down" for one set, with 20 sets to the minute. It is very important that you don't speed up the pace--keep it regular. After 2 minutes, you'll need to monitor your heart rate for the last minute. The SubMax Step Test now can be used to predict your Max HR. Add to your last minute's heart rate average one of the following numbers:

1. Poor Shape: +55 bpm
2. Average Shape: +65 bpm
3. Excellent Shape: +75 bpm

Your result should be pretty close to your Max HR. (Again, my last-minute heart rate average might be something like 120 bpm, to which I'd add 75 bpm, bringing the total to 195 bpm.)

5K Race Test. This can be taken by anyone skiing, running, biking, or snowshoeing. Enter a 5K race, and during the last 1-2 minutes go to a full sprint. Keep checking your heart rate monitor and add 5 beats to the highest number recorded there during this period. The result should be your Max HR (because of muscle fatigue, you can't drive yourself all the way to true Max
HR at this point).

Biggest Number Test. This is one of those that is simply obvious. Given that you've worn your heart rate monitor a while, especially during hard workouts, your Max HR is the biggest number you have ever seen on your heart rate monitor (the biggest reasonable number, not 300 bpm, say--you don't want to take one that's influenced by interference).

The Best-Fit Formula. After years of searching for an arithmetic formula that's more accurate, we have developed the "best-fit" formula and believe it to be the most accurate to date. Use this formula in conjunction with the sub-max tests above to determine your maximum. When you average all of these sub-max and arithmetic formula's together, you'll be close to your true
maximum heart rate. Here's the formula:

210 minus 50% of your age minus 5% of your body weight (pounds) + 4 if male and 0 if female = Estimated Maximum heart rate.

Max HR Tests
There are a lot of ways to determine your Max HR and, of course, the least-risky method is to have your physician supervise your test. If a physician does this, also ask for a ventilatory threshold or anaerobic threshold test at the same time so you can have an accurate value for your
anaerobic threshold heart rate as well (but more on this later). You can also take a supervised graded stress test (GSX) at a sports laboratory.  Call your local sports club for a referral.

Many fitness testing facilities offer sub-maximal exercise tests designed to bring you to 75-85% of your age-determined Max HR. The usefulness of these SubMax tests is questionable. Besides comparing your results to tables that suggest how "fit" you are based on your chronological, not biological age, their basic value is in recording your current exercise workload and corresponding heart rate in hopes that you will re-test and see changes (this might be helpful, but you'll very probably know you are getting fitter without it). Some testing facilities will say they are taking you to your Max HR, but really they will only take you to your age-predicted Max HR
(calculated as 220-age). This test is not what you want because it doesn't give you your "true" Max HR, just the mathematical one. Make sure you know what they are going to do in advance or request (maybe demand) a true Max HR test.

If you want an adequate test and exercise screening, invest in a Max HR test performed by an Exercise Test Technologist, certified by the ACSM, at a qualified facility. There is a broad range of fees and types of tests but the normal range for just a Max HR test is $75-$150 (or less if you are a student). Add another $100-$300 for a blood workup and VO2max test. Many times, your health insurance will cover some or all of these costs. By taking these tests, you are also able to keep a record of your fitness levels and changes as you age. It's advisable to take these tests every five years and compare the results over that time. This practice is good, sound preventive
medicine because you take responsibility for measuring and monitoring your aging process.

An alternative is to take one of the self-administered Max HR tests described below--if you are apparently healthy and have no risks for cardiovascular or other diseases and meet the ACSM Guidelines outlined above -- the fun begins.

2-4 Minute Test. This is a protocol that we have developed and refined that requires (without warm-up and warm-down time) between 2 and 4 minutes to complete. The test is best taken on a track, and it requires a partner who can run/bike with you throughout the test, to give heart rate readings aloud and set the pace. The runner being tested wears the chest transmitter belt
and the partner wears the wrist monitor.

Start the test with an easy warm-up of at least 5 minutes or 2 laps. Your goal during the warm-up is to get your heart beating to 100-120 bpm (or to an estimated 60% of your Max HR). Without stopping, begin the test by gradually accelerating your speed so that your heart rate climbs about 5 bpm every 15 seconds. At each 15-second interval, your partner should tell you the exercise time and your heart rate and offer encouragement as he or she gradually, very gradually pushes you faster.

Within a 2- to 4-minute period, if your partner has set the pace correctly, your heart rate will cease to climb even with increased effort and pace. You'll know you are there when you can no longer accelerate and you hear your partner repeating the same number. At this point you've reached your Max HR and either you or your partner can call an end to the test. 

Here's how a graph of this test might look.

200 . Max HR =
200 bpm
120 . Test starts
100 I I I I
Warm-up 0 1 2 3 4
Warm down Test Time in Minutes

10 9 8 7
10 12
Minute Per Mile Running Pace

Maximum heart rate is sport specific so you need to do a maximum heart rate test for each of your different sports activities.  I'll give you an example because I am a triathlete.

I am now 52 years old and have trained my entire life. My maximum heart rate has not dropped one single beat in those 52 years of being fit. Here are my numbers:

Activity Maximum Heart Rate
Running 195 beats per minute
Biking 185 beats per minute
Swimming       170 beats per minute

I train in different heart zones in different sports workouts because my zones are different based on the different maximum heart rate numbers that I have. The reason that most concur that maximum heart rate is different in different sport is the nature of the activity. For example, when you swim you are in a cooler ambient environment, water. You are in a prone position so your heart doesn't have to pump blood against gravity as in running. You are using mostly upper body muscles which are smaller in mass and don't require the same cardiac demands. Maximum heart rates in swimming are lower than in other sports.

The reason that we use Max HR to set training zones is that it's a fixed number and doesn't change. Your resting heart rate changes and drops when you get fitter. Your anaerobic threshold heart rate changes and increases when you get fitter. Using either of those two numbers to set zones then requires constant re-testing as you get conditioned or deconditioned and that can be
difficult and expensive tests. It requires changing your training zones as you get fitter or less fit.

In summary, knowing your max is key. The best way to determine it accurately is to take a maximum heart rate test. This is only for those who are fit and qualify according to the American College of Sports Medicines Guidelines. The next best way is to take a "sub-max" test. I recommend that you take at least four of these and then average the results and use that number as your "predicted" maximum heart rate. Once you have your anchor point, your maximum heart rate, you are set to train in your heart zones. Enjoy.

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