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 process to determine maximum heart rate is 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 determine 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’.

How to determine maximum heart rate
It’s important to determine maximum heart rate accurately. Athletes use it as a reference to focus on specific training intensities to optimize training results

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.

Related: 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 determine 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 determine 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 – Determine maximum heart rate with a laboratory test

A much more formal (and accurate) way to determine 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.

Determine Maximum Heart Rate
VO2 max tests are designed to push athletes to their limits and determine their physiological capabilities

#3 – Determine 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.)

Max HR test #1: the 20-minute test

First one is your regular ‘5K test’. For a fit individual 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 determine 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 shoud have reached your maximum heart rate.