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Determining Your Maximum Heart Rate

Last updated 2011-03-14 - Send Feedback
Related: heart rate, training

Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.

Your personal maximum heart rate is a key number that you must know to help guide your training. But first, some key points:

  • The rule of 220 - age (men) or 210 - age (women) can vary widely for individuals— it’s a crude estimate that can be way off for some individuals.
  • Max heart rate varies by sport according to the amount of muscle mass employed by the sport.
  • Max heart rate tends to drop about one beat per year, e.g. if your max was 192 at age 30, it might be 182 at age 40. This has certainly been true for me personally.
  • The maximum heart rate is somewhat related to fitness, and can actually drop slightly as your fitness improves.
  • It is not advised, and there is no need to determine maximum heart rate when starting a training program. For someone starting out, at least 3-4 months of consistent aerobic training should be undertaken before even considering a max heart rate effort. Some harder efforts over a month or two should also be incorporated before attempting a heart rate max test.
  • It’s always a good idea to have a physical exam including an EKG before pushing the limits of your body.
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Determining your maximum heart rate

You must be in good physical condition, ideally with 3-4 months of steady training prior to attempting a max heart rate challenge. Do not attempt when out of shape or when carrying excess body fat— it’s pointless and disposes you to injury; get to a reasonably high level of fitness first, gauging your efforts by comfort level. You don’t need to know the max heart rate anyway if you are not already in solid condition.

You’ll need a heart rate monitor (a stopwatch and a pulse are no good, since the heart rate drops rapidly, especially the more fit you are).

Choose an unobstructed course (no traffic stop signs or stop lights, etc) so that you can maintain a steady effort. Make sure the temperature is reasonable, e.g. in the 70° F range, but generally not over 85°. A slight or moderate hill at the end of the course is very helpful in maxing-out your efforts.

Expect to spend half an hour for the test. This protocol demands that you already have a reasonably high level of fitness.

  1. Start at a moderately fast aerobic pace for 5 minutes or so (a 15-20 minute warmup prior is even better).
  2. From the 5-20 minute time, increase the pace steadily. By the 20 minute mark, conversation should now be somewhat awkward, as breathing is quite rapid.
  3. Ramp up effort to the 25 minute mark so that conversation now becomes difficult and the legs are definitely fluctuating around the “burn” of lactic acid.
  4. For the last 5 minutes, go as hard as you can. This will not be pleasant (use whatever “dentist’s chair” faculty you have to distract yourself), and your legs should feel swollen with blood and somewhat wobbly from the effort. Don’t crash your bike.
  5. When you can’t push any harder, and have maintained all-out effort for at least 30 seconds, check your heart rate (or you might have been watching it on a watch or other readout). This is your max heart rate. Even better is a recording heart rate monitor so you can see the entire effort.

That’s it. You now have an excellent reference point from which to derive workouts.

Get your heart rate up!


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