3 Ways To Calculate Maximum Heart Rate And Why It’s Needed
For those athletes who rely on heart rate in their training knowing maximum heart rate is crucial. It will allow to set up training zones correctly, which will bring structure to sessions and optimize training results. However, the way to calculate maximum heart rate can be a bit of a challenge…
In contrast to speed or power, heart rate doesn’t jump to it’s maximum value straight away. Instead, reaching maximum heart rate pushes an athlete to the limit and beyond.
And this requires a lot of mental strength to do.
For those who are keen on suffering a little (or a lot), there are 3 different ways that allow athletes to calculate maximum heart rate with good accuracy. Scroll down to learn all about those.
What is maximum heart rate?
Maximum Heart Rate (or Max HR or MHR) is the amount of beats a heart makes in a minute under maximum stress.
Max HR is used as a benchmark for maximum output the athlete’s body can produce. Knowing that number enables the athlete and his coach to structure the training process around specific training intensities or ‘training zones’.
Maximum heart rate can vary significantly from person to person. In fact, high or low Max HR is neither good nor bad. It’s just what a person is born with.
Instead, using it as a reference to build a structured training plan focused on specific exercise intensities is what makes all the difference.
All 5 of the training zones (from very light to a ‘full gas’ effort) are defined as a percentage of maximum heart rate. Which is why it’s critical to determine maximum heart rate that is accurate to achieve desired results from training.
Read also: What Is Target Heart Rate Zone And How To Calculate Yours
#1 – Estimate maximum heart rate with a maximum heart rate formula
The easiest way to calculate maximum heart rate is to use the formula to estimate it. It is also the safest approach which is perfect for beginners.
There are many studies on maximum heart rate formulas. Most popular of them are:
- [ 220 – Age ] – most common and widely used maximum heart rate formula
- [ 207 – 0.7 x Age ] – more precise formula, adjusted for people over the age of 40
- [ 211 – 0.64 x Age ] – slightly more precise formula, adjusted for generally active people
Unfortunately, neither of above-mentioned formulas are gender-adjusted. Generally women tend to have a 5-to-10-beat higher maximum HR than men, so that is additional something to account for.
If you’re new to this, it’s better to check several formulas and choose a middle ground. Personally, I found formula adjusted for active people to be almost spot on among people I trained with:
Maximum Heart Rate = 211 – 0.64 x Age
Keep in mind that these formulas focus on the ‘theoretical’ maximum heart rate. The actual maximum heart rate that an athlete can reach will vary across different sports.
For example, running involves more muscles than cycling and overall maximum heart rate tends to be a little higher. At the same time, maximum heart rate while swimming is lower due to a cooler environment and using mostly upper body muscles which are smaller in size.
Therefore, it’s important to calculate Max HR for a specific sport to be able to set up training zones correctly.
Can I go over my estimated maximum heart rate?
The answer is yes.
But it’s not in a sense that the heart would explode if someone goes beyond what formula would suggest is Max HR. No, it’s because formula generalizes people and tends to get imprecise for very fit athletes and people of older age who are very active.
Maximum heart rate does decrease with age, but not nearly as much as formulas would suggest (especially for fit people). It goes down mostly due to the decreased level of overall activity.
In fact, trained athletes don’t really see a drop in maximum heart rate until they end their careers and reduce training volume. It’s not uncommon to see a 40-year-old athlete with a maximum heart rate of 195 where a formula would suggest only 180.
Setting a Max HR benchmark too low would force athlete to under-exert himself and not get the optimal benefit from training.
In any case, if an athlete is serious about his training, estimating maximum heart rate should only be a starting point. After getting into a structured training or competing in races it should become clearer where the true maximum heart rate is.
#2 – Calculate maximum heart rate during a laboratory test
A much more formal (and accurate) way to calculate maximum heart rate would be to take a supervised laboratory test. Also known as VO2 max test, such analysis is a test of athlete’s physiological capabilities and, therefore, pushes athletes to the absolute maximum.
The protocol is quite simple – athlete runs on a treadmill (or cycles/kayaks/etc. on an ergometer) with an ever-increasing speed/power until complete exhaustion. Throughout the test a lot of data is gathered about athlete’s current fitness (including oxygen intake, speed of lactate build-up and lots of other ‘fun’ data).
Ultimately, the test determines not only the Max HR, but also aerobic, anaerobic and lactate thresholds. All this data helps to analyse how training is impacting the body and if something should be changed/adjusted.
VO2 max tests are always supervised by exercise physiologist or cardiologist and/or other personnel, which makes it a much safer environment than a field test.
#3 – Calculate maximum heart rate with a field test
It’s not a coincidence that this comes as number 3. Field tests should only be attempted by athletes with a solid aerobic foundation who know what they are doing. Inexperienced athletes are better off estimating their Max HR and structuring the training process first, before pushing the body to the limit.
Some beginner athletes may not even be able to exercise 20 minutes non-stop, let alone go ‘full gas’ for that amount of time. This can cause a variety of injuries (including heart-related).
In fact, beginners may not even get the full benefit from the test. The test will require a lot of mental strength (which experienced athletes train daily), because such level of suffering is hard to maintain.
Beginners will quit or slow down long before they reach their true maximum capacity.
For everyone else tests below are listed in an order of increasing complexity – from easiest to more complex.
For optimal results, each of these tests requires total freshness. Avoid scheduling any intense sessions at least 2 days before the test and get enough sleep beforehand.
Also, do a thorough warm up for these sessions, as you’re going to go really hard. Most optimal would be to include both:
- 10 minutes of full-body exercises, taking all joints through a full range of motion and
- a 10-15 minute jog with 4×20-second gradual speed pick-ups. Aim to reach & maintain maximum speed for the last 5 seconds.
Obviously, adjust the warmup according to your sport (cycling, kayaking, etc.)
Read also: Polarized Training Model – 6 Steps To Better Performance & Productivity
Max HR test #1: the 20-minute test
First one is your regular ‘5K test’. For well-trained individuals 20 minutes should be enough to complete 5 kilometers. If you can – run 5K. If not – just run 20 minutes.
Since it’s a maximum capacity test, the aim is to go hard. Generally, within the first 3 minutes the heart rate will increase beyond 90% of maximum and to beyond 95% within 10 minutes.
Pick up the pace for the last kilometer where you feel you can’t possibly maintain it until the finish and then go all-out for the last 200m. The heart rate at the finish is most definitely your maximum heart rate.
This will require some time to recover from, so better reserve this effort for an actual race.
Max HR test #2: the 4×2 test
This test is more interactive and is based on VO2 max-type of training. The idea is that you don’t let the body fully recover by having a rest interval shorter than the speed interval.
Traditional VO2 max training is targeted to build power and speed endurance, as well as teach the body to tolerate the build-up of lactate in the body.
The difference in this test is that we focus on reaching the maximum heart rate. Therefore, every interval should be performed at maximum speed and not the lactate threshold (Zone 4) speed.
The protocol is: do 4 repeats of 2 minutes at maximum effort with 1 minute rest interval. I bet after second you’ll already see your heart rate redlining and after third you’ll be quite close to the absolute maximum.
Max HR test #3: Partner-assisted stress test
This test involves a buddy and is mentally a bit easier. The idea is to simulate a lab test, but instead of fancy equipment have a friend next to you controlling the test.
Have a partner ride a bike next to you while you run (preferably on a track). Wear a chest strap and give the heart rate monitor to your partner, so that only he is able to see the data.
It’s important that the partner wears the watch, so that you can focus on digging deep and not being distracted looking at the watch. This will help you calculate maximum heart rate with more accuracy.
The protocol is similar to the VO2 max test: start the test at around 100-120 beats per minute and increase heart rate (by running faster) by ~5 beats every 15 seconds until you can no longer increase it.
Your partner’s role is to look at the watch and shout total time and heart rate every 15 seconds. After you can no longer increase your heart rate for more than two 15-second intervals it’s time to stop. By that time you should have reached your maximum heart rate.
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I determined my max HR – what’s next?
Calculating individual max HR is a starting point in the whole heart rate training journey. When you know your maximum heart rate – by means of calculating with a formula or testing – put it into this heart rate zone calculator. The tool will show your heart rate ranges for each of the training zones, which you can use to make the training process more efficient.
Once you’ve set up your heart rate training zones, it’s time to sit down with the coach and create a training plan that focus on improving your fitness and making you fitter and faster.
Have you had some experience with heart rate training zones already? Or are you just learning about it? Either way, share your experience in the comment section below.
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How did I get here?
Hey there! My name is Andrejs and I am here to inspire, entertain and get you fit for any adventure.
I went from being an over trained pro athlete to an endurance coach sharing how to listen to your body and live life to the fullest.
Traveling, new sports & activities brought new meaning to my training and made it much more effective, fun and enjoyable. And I'm here to help you do the same.
Very Informative. I’m an old (78yrs) ex triathlete and my max H/R is around 165-170. I keep reading blogs using the 220 minus your age formula for max H/R and this doesn’t make sense. Example- a fit 50 yr old marathoner vs. an obese 50 yr old couch potato…same max H/R ?, I don’t think so. Many good tips in this article to measure Max H/R, clearing away some misconceptions. Thanks
Thanks for the kind words, Bob! Yeah, if we could estimate everything with a formula, why race, then? We could upload our numbers and crown the winner 🙂
For the partner assisted stress test, do you know what final relative speed people do the test at (mile pace, 800 pace, etc.) Also, would it be okay to do it indoors on a treadmill? It’s cold where I live, so heart rate will decrease.
It will be very individual, so I wouldn’t put too much attention to the pace. After all, the aim is to determine max HR and calculate your zones more accurately. It also wouldn’t matter much if you do it indoors vs. outdoors, because you’ll be pushing yourself to the absolute limit anyway – just make sure you warm up properly if you do it in the cold. As for the treadmill – I wouldn’t do the test on a treadmill unless it’s done in a laboratory or treadmill is controlled by someone else.
Great article . For the 4×2 test, is the rest interval doing nothing at all, walking or jogging slowly? Cheers 🙂
It doesn’t really matter, because we’re after the maximum capacity, not really the training effect 🙂 But walking rest is always better
Great info! Finally something that’s different than mainstream max HR determining methods. The 4×2’/1′ test seems pretty logical to me, so will definitely try it. The only issue is it’s rather cold this time of year here in Transylvania (max temps around 3-4 °C). Should I wait for a slightly warmer period? Any thoughts on this? Thank you very much!
I wouldn’t worry about the weather – if you warm up well, the temperature shouldn’t be an issue. My absolute highest HR was at the end of a 9K trail run race in nearly freezing weather. More important is whether your body is ready for maximum intensity. If you’re just starting out, I’d train easy for 2 weeks before testing anything
I have recently got a Garmin 35 which measures H.R. At age 73 my max should be 147 but I am getting up to 194 in running Today’s 10 K in 44 25 gave average 157 max 190. I feel fine and am a committed runner and U.K age group champion. but are these rates too high?
Max HR formulas are only good for estimation and should serve as a starting point for those who have no other experience. Everyone’s physiology is different and heart rate will vary from person to person. What matters is how the effort/intensity compares to your maximum and which zones you train at – that’s where you can make some conclusions
Thanks, Andrejs. I recently got an HR watch, dialled in the old 220-age result, and figured I was in danger of killing myself. I’m a 60yo cross country skier. I do 20 km 2 or 3 times a week, and my recorded maximum HR for these workouts is consistently 178. I feel great during and after, but was scared I was pushing too hard. I think what you’re saying is 178 probably IS my true HR-max.
Hey Chris! Yes, the ‘age formula’ gets increasingly misleading for experienced athletes. And it’s important to remember that we’re more than numbers estimated by a formula 😉
Great article. I was getting concerned about high heart rate while running, compared to the 220 minus age formula. As a very fit 68 year old, I now see that there are better ways to look at max heart rate. Thanks for the info!
Refreshing article. My training has progressed until I tried zone three training (aerobic) using mainstream formulas when my stats plummeted. I used the people with good fitness which took my max HR from garmin suggested 173 to a 181. Also using your online calculator gave very different zones and garmins were a full zone lower than the sites. I was walking to stay in zone 3 so look forward to running again in a modified zone 3 where i can still talk and run without over reaching or under training. Many thanks
Thanks for taking the time to write this and give us some good information on max HR. As others have said, the main stream formula is not very accurate. It put me at 145 (72 years old) and I know from my bike riding that my max is probably around 162. Using your modified formula it shows 165 which is pretty accurate as you said. Thanks and appreciate the knowledge and effort from you! Will make HR zone training much better.
I am a 65 year old female who didn’t start running until the age of 50 and initially struggled to run 3 miles. I have since ran 8 marathons but still find running long distance extremely challenging and hoping to continue to run with increased safety, health and running efficiency. I’ve explored a range of different approaches for measuring max heart rate and your article has been the most comprehensive and informative yet and all conveyed succinctly and simplistically. Many many thanks for this. I will definitely share with my running group!
Thank you, Jenny! All the best for your next races!
Hi Andrejs, I’m 51yrs old, fairly active but the closest I get to being an IRONMAN is when my maid goes on leave (ironing cloths). The 220-Age does not work for me as when I looked into the whole year of exercises, my max heart rate is close to 179bpm. So, I’ve been confused till I read your article. Thanks for the clarity and sharing….it really helps!!!
Hi Xavier, happy to hear things are clearing up for you!
“For a fit individual 20 minutes should be enough to complete 5 kilometers.”
Are you sure about this? Running a 5k at 4:00/km is really not something average “fit individuals” can just do, based on my experience with normal people, not professional athletes. Just look at Parkrun finishing times: it’s just a handful that can make it in under 20 minutes.
That’s a good point, Frans. I’ve rephrased it a little
Excelente artigo. Estou preste a fazer 60 anos e minha HR Max é 200. Adequando este valor dentro da planilha de treino, consigo resultados reais, conseguindo dimensionar o treino às minhas intenções. Pratiquei esportes na minha vida inteira e hoje colho os frutos desta escolha. Minha capacidade respiratória é em média de 38 por cento acima dos outros velhinhos de minha faixa etária. Lembro também que é muito importante respeitar as necessidades do corpo, planilhado o descanso e treinos regenerativos.
Great read! Thanks for the clarity. This really helped. Started running 3 years ago at age 43. Did it to lose weight, but wound up falling in love with the sport! Ran my first 1/2 marathon last year and will be running more this year.
Great job, Joshua! Keep up the good work
Excellent. You cleared up a mystery; how is it that my Garmin can estimate my MaxHR? Because I input my age. Also, same as many other comments, I have a better understanding that “max” really does mean maximum sustained rate, so if I am regularly busting the limit on my watch it’s the watch limit that is wrong. Thanks for posting an informative article which is still making good SEO rankings 🙂
Thanks Neal! Yeah, technology is powerful when we combine it with listening to our bodies 😉
Thanks Andrejs, great article! I’m trying to get a better understanding of my exercising heart rate. I’m 51 and my marathon pace is a 150 bpm, seems very comfortable to me but the ‘stats’ tell me I’m overdoing it!? I’ll try to figure out my max this week, but worried about injury, I think I’ll do a long hill run rather than a fast run…
If that marathon was your best effort, you can estimate your maximum heart rate with that data as well. There are some calculators out there that can estimate it depending on the time and your resting heart rate. But a field test is always a more precise option 😉
This article suggests the “magic” is in the formula. The reality is the “magic” is in the training zones & how they are applied for an individuals specific event. In addition, BPM Max will differ depending on where the athlete is in their season. With hard training in a young athlete, Max BPM might be 210-220 BPM but only 170-180 BPM when they are more rested. An athlete who trains a lot at their Max aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR) might lower their BPM Max over time. Max BPM helps set training zones but Max BPM is not completely inflexible as Max BPM formulas might suggest. The reality is training zones are the end-all be-all of improvement AND these zones are APPROXIMATE as there are assumptions with all formulas & Max BPM can vary within an individual depending on training. Thanks for the 3 different formulas as it is valuable to know the general variability between individuals …… there does not seem to be one formula which works for all people in all situations. Also, thanks for pointing out Max BPM might generally vary between men & women. Max BPM seems to be, at this time, the best way to determine training zones but this does not mean it is fool-proof or that a better way might be determined in the future.
There is no magic – every individual is different and a single formula cannot standardize everyone. The post suggests experienced athletes should test themselves under supervision and unexperienced to start with a formula because it’s better than not doing anything. You have a good point about the phase of the season, though. If an athlete doesn’t train or race at high heart rate consistently, it would be hard for him/her to reach that even when testing out the maxHR. That’s because the body will switch on mechanisms to protect itself much earlier than for an experienced athlete.
Thank you, Thank you Thank you!!!! I loved this! I’ve been trying to push myself harder, but I am lost on what my max HR could be. When I run I can sustain a much higher HR than when on a road bike. I love the examples of the different tests I can run to make an educated guess on their max HR. Never thought my max HR could be different for running and biking. Now it makes more sense.
Glad it’s getting clearer for you now, Aimee 😉
Very informative and impressive post you have written, this is quite interesting and I have gone through it completely, an upgraded information is shared, and keep sharing such valuable information.
A smart watch is only as smart as the owner. I have a Garmin Fenix 7 and it constantly was telling me I was over doing my workouts. Problem was it didn’t know I was a very fit 75 year old and had followed the old 220 minus age formula. After reading your article I readjusted from a max of 145 to 163. Now my zones are fairly accurate and Garmin doesn’t complain as much. It still gives me longer recovery times than I actually need so I am thinking 170 or 175 is more accurate. Anyways, thanks for great article!
training zones are very individual and when you get those right all the training plans & workouts start to make a lot of sense 🙂 Glad you found it useful, Daniel!