Whether you are a hardcore professional athlete, a keen amateur, or just starting out on your fitness journey, calculating your maximum heart rate is a task that will quickly become second nature, and which is very important to your overall fitness and wellbeing.
If you are an athlete who relies on your heart rate, then learning how to calculate your maximum heart rate is crucial to your success. This will allow you to pace your workouts, set up training zones to optimize results and ensure that your sessions are well structured, and keep you safe and healthy.
In the simplest terms, your maximum heart rate refers to the level at which your heart is beating with between moderate and high intensity. Reaching your maximum heart rate pushes you to the limit – and even beyond this point.
What Is Maximum Heart Rate?
The Maximum Heart Rate – also known as “Max HR” or MHR”, refers to the number of times that your heart beats in one minute when it is placed under the maximum amount of stress, and pushed to the limits.
This figure is used as a benchmark to determine the maximum output that an athlete or individual’s body is capable of producing, and can be useful for structuring training sessions.
The Maximum Heart Rate can be different from person to person, and having a low or a high maximum heart rate is neither inherently a good nor bad thing – it is just one of those things that a person is born with.
Why Measure Maximum Heart Rate?
Once you have an understanding of your maximum heart rate, you will be able to work with your trainer to structure and plan your training progress, around specific, targeted training intensities – also known as “training zones”. This helps to ensure that every training session is optimized to produce the best possible results.
In the best training plans, there is a focus on specific exercise intensities, known as “training zones”, and these make the most significant difference to your progress.
There are five so-called “training zones”, ranging from very light to full effort, and these are defined as a percentage of the maximum heart rate. It is important, therefore, to know how to determine maximum heart rate to allow you to achieve the desired results from your training.
In summary, learning to measure and monitor your maximum heart rate tells you how intense your training should be in a particular session, to allow you to reach your training goals.
The Importance of Training Zones
Before we take a closer look at the best ways to measure your heart rate, it is worth taking a few moments to explore the idea of training zones in a little more detail. By monitoring your heart rate during training, you can gain a better idea of your current fitness levels and condition.
Unlike power or speed, monitoring heart rate gives a good indication of just how much effort is actually being put on the body at any given time. The more stress the body is under, and the more intense the effort, the higher the heart rate will be.
If, for example, an athlete is struggling due to a bad night’s sleep, or feeling slightly under the weather, then heart rate will indicate this and can help tell you that adjusting training plans may be necessary – going at the usual speed and effort may not be the best option here.
Your heart rate is the best indicator of your current condition, helping you to stay safe and avoid pushing your body over the limit. Instead, you can focus on training at the intensity that is best for your body in that particular session.
By analyzing heart rate data after every workout session, you can get a better idea of how well the training plan or program has been executed, as well as a good understanding of just how your body reacts.
While training can be tough psychologically – it takes a great deal of mental strength and ability to push through the hard parts while training – it is also worth noting that it can be just as difficult – if not harder – to know when to pull back for the best results.
This analysis can offer valuable information on how your body responds to stress, the impact of different intensities and types of training, and the ways in which you can adjust and adapt training plans to enjoy the best possible results.
In short, learning to take and monitor your maximum heart rate can have a hugely beneficial impact on your training, and allow you to see results more quickly.
The Five Training Zones
Before you start on the range of tests available to you to determine your maximum heart rate, it can be useful to obtain a better understanding of the five training zones.
The “training zones’ ‘ refers to the percentage of work done, and these are based on the maximum heart rate – we will explore how to find this in just a moment. Training zones are very useful for coaches and offer a key insight into how the body increases in intensity.
Before we take a closer look at the training zones, it is worth touching briefly on the idea of the heart rate reserve – this is the difference between your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate and refers to the range of heart rate values that you can use for an individual.
At the lowest, the athlete is at rest, and at the highest, this is the maximum that an individual can achieve through exertion.
Your heart rate reserve can be found through calculating your maximum heart rate using one of the methods we will discuss shortly, calculating your resting heart rate by taking your heart rate first thing in the morning, and then subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.
There are five zones to consider:
At the most basic level, Zone 1 is used for warm-ups, cooldowns, and recovery periods during interval training. Here, you will gently and carefully warm the muscles to avoid injuries, start to elevate the heart rate, and get your body out for the workout to follow.
At Zone 1, you will still be able to talk with little effort, and the body will perspire, as the effort allows you to start feeling warm. Here, you will be working at around 60%-70% of your heart rate reserve.
When working at Zone 2, you will be working at your “all-day” pace for longer bouts of exercise, such as that endured by a long bike ride.
You will still feel like you are having fun at this rate, and still be able to speak in sentences, but you will find that speech is a little trickier, and you are perspiring a little more. Here, you will be working at about 70% and 80% of your heart rate reserve.
Zone 3 sees your core temperature rise as you work harder, and this means that your body will perspire more, your breathing rate will increase, and your heart rate will rise – these all help to ensure that your muscles have the oxygen that they need to work.
You will feel as though you are working harder, and it will become more difficult to speak, going down to around a couple of words per breath. You need to focus in Zone 3, as it can be easy to drop back down into Zone 2, and this is between 81% and 93% of your heart rate reserve.
When you hit zone 4, your heart rate percent will start to creep up towards and over 90% of your maximum, and your blood lactate will start to form at levels that can be tricky to manage.
True Zone 4 effort cannot be sustained for longer than between 2 and 4 minutes, and even elite athletes will struggle to exceed this. You may be able to manage 1 to 2 words, but talking will be very difficult, and you will need to really concentrate to maintain Zone 4 effort.
At the top end, Zone 5 is the ultimate challenge, and you will only be able to sustain this for between 30 and 120 seconds, even if you are at the top levels of your fitness, and you will be unable to speak.
At Zone 5, you will reach maximum blood lactate levels, and will be physically unable to supply the level of oxygen that you need for the intensity of your workout. Here, your heart rate will be at the maximum level.
How To Use The Zones
Once you have calculated your maximum heart rate level – more on this below – you can use the Zones to optimize your training and help you to achieve the very best results.
In order to enjoy optimal performance, you will need intervals – these also help to decrease body fat quickly and build strength. By using different zones, you are constantly challenging your body, and building vitality, speed, and endurance.
HIIT training offers the most benefits here, and this typically starts at Zone 1, and then heads to Zone 4 or 5 for the workout, before returning to Zone 2 for recovery.
No matter your sport, interval, or HIIT training, can help – this develops muscle endurance, and helps improve your performance, as well as increasing speed and power, helping you to run faster or cycle further.
How To Measure Maximum Heart Rate
With all this in mind, it is important to learn how to calculate your Maximum Heart Rate – this is the secret figure that can optimize your training, and increase your chances of success.
There are three main methods to choose from when it comes to measuring your maximum heart rate, and these are as follows. When estimating, keep in mind that as a general rule, women tend to have a maximum heart rate of between 5 and 10 beats faster than men, so remember to take this into account when calculating.
In addition, you should note that each of the options will offer a “theoretical” maximum heart rate; the actual heart rate that you can reach typically varies from sport to sport.
As an example, running will use more muscles than cycling, and, as a result, the maximum heart rate will tend to be a little higher.
While swimming, however, this figure could fall thanks to the use of smaller upper body muscles, and a cooler workout environment in the water. As a result, you should measure your maximum heart rate for each specific sport.
Use The Maximum Heart Rate Formula
The formula is the easiest, fastest way to calculate your maximum heart rate, and this is often the most popular option for beginners due to its simplicity. There are two main options here:
- 220 minus your age: this is the most common, widely used formula for calculating MHR.
- 207 – 0.7 x your age: this is a little more precise, and is adjusted for use in people over the age of 40
- 211 – 0.64 x your age: this is slightly more precise, and adjusted for people who are generally fit and active.
It is well worth trying each of the options to see which offers the best results, but as a general rule, the “211 – 0.64 x age” method tends to be the best pick if you are generally fit, healthy and active.
Remember: this is a formula that tends to generalize people, simply because it is impossible to create a formula that would offer the perfect, most accurate result for every single person on the planet.
More specifically, the formula tends to be most inaccurate in those who are extremely fit, such as professional athletes, and older people who remain active.
As a result of this, you may find that your heart rate exceeds the number that has been determined by the formula as your maximum resting heart rate – there is no need to panic if this happens.
In addition, you are likely to find that your Max HR decreases as you age, but the formula is likely to suggest that this is a more dramatic drop than occurs in reality, particularly for those who keep themselves fit and active – most professional athletes are unlikely to see a drop until they retire from their chosen sport or activity.
Ultimately, your maximum resting heart rate should be a starting point for training, rather than a definitive, fixed number that must be strictly adhered to – more accurate data will emerge the more that you train and work.
In fact, a Max HR that was set too low could result in pro athletes under-exerting themselves, and this means that they will not enjoy optimal benefits from their training.
Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate with A Laboratory Test
While many amateur athletes and beginners will opt for the formula to test their Max HR, the more formal, accurate method involves undertaking a supervised laboratory exercise, known as the VO2 max test.
Carried out by a cardiologist or physiologist, the VO2 test is one of the most accurate, safe options. The format offers a thorough, accurate analysis of your physiological capabilities, and is designed to push participants to the absolute maximum limits.
During the test, the athlete will undertake a specific activity, such as running on a treadmill or undertaking cycling or kayaking using an ergometer, and a constant increase in speed and power until the athlete suffers total exhaustion.
Data is collected and analyzed throughout the duration of the test, with information on the current fitness level, oxygen intake, and speed of lactic acid build-up currently experienced by the individual.
One of the benefits of this type of test is that it can be used to determine not only the maximum heart rate of an individual, but also the aerobic, anaerobic, and lactate thresholds – all of which is useful in telling the athlete how their training is affecting the body, and what needs to be adjusted.
The aerobic threshold refers to the intensity level at which the body begins to experience muscle fatigue, and accumulate lactic acid. At this moment, the effort is not too hard, allowing the athlete to maintain it for a period of time.
The higher the aerobic threshold, the faster the athlete will be able to run, cycle or swim for extended periods of time. The anaerobic threshold, then, is the intensity level at which the body can no longer deal with muscle fatigue.
This will build up quickly, and intensity can only be maintained for a few minutes at a time, rather than hours – more time spent training the anaerobic threshold will make muscles more resistant to the build-up of lactic acid, allowing higher speeds to be maintained for longer.
Accumulating information on aerobic and anaerobic thresholds is crucial in informing future training opportunities and potential.
Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate With A Field Test
Another option, not typically recommended unless as an absolute last resort, is a field test. These should only be attempted by an athlete with a strong, solid aerobic foundation, who has a good understanding of their own fitness.
Those who are new and inexperienced in this field are better off sticking to estimates using the formula, and then building and structuring a training process, waiting until they are more experienced before they push their bodies to the limit.
Newbies are unlikely to have the fitness or capacity to push themselves to the limit, and trying to go too hard can result in injuries, and, in some cases, even heart injuries. As a result, the field and lab are unlikely to offer any benefits, as beginners will be tempted to falter or slow long before they reach their full potential.
For those more experienced athletes who are looking to use a field test, there are a few options available, and these range from super simple to more complex.
Ultimately, the choice is yours, but it is a good idea to approach the test as fresh as possible – this means you should try and limit any intensive workout sessions for at least two days prior to the test, make sure that you gets a good night’s sleep beforehand, and always take the time to do a thorough warm-up before each session – this is extremely important, as these tests can be very intense and it is easy to injure yourself or pull a muscle.
Ideally, you should aim for around ten minutes of full-body exercises, making sure that you are working all of your joints, and taking each of them through a full range of motion.
Then, opt for a ten to fifteen-minute jog, which includes 4 x 20-second gradual speed pick-ups, and aim to reach and maintain your maximum speed for the last five seconds. This warm-up is extremely important, no matter which of the tests you choose to use.
The Twenty Minute Test
The first option you have is a regular “5k test”. Depending on your level of fitness, you should be able to complete 5k in around 20 minutes, but if this is not possible, then just run as hard as you can for 20 minutes.
The main priority is to go as hard as you can – this is a maximum capacity test, and going as hard as you can will help you to obtain a more accurate result.
As a general rule, the heart will increase beyond 90% of the maximum within the first three minutes of your running and will increase to beyond 95% maximum within the first ten minutes of your test.
It can be hard to keep going with the Twenty Minute Test, but try your best to pick up the pace as you hit the last kilometer – the moment you feel that you cannot go any further is the moment you need to pick it up until you are going all out for the last 200m of the session.
When you finish, take your heart rate immediately – this is your maximum heart rate. Remember that this test will take a lot out of you so make sure that you have plenty of time to rest and recover, and do not try this before a major event.
The 4×2 Test
The second option for conducting a field test is the 4 x 2 test. Rather than simply going as hard as you can, this is more interactive and is a technique based on VO2 max-type training, designed to build speed, power, and endurance, while still teaching the body to tolerate an increasing build-up of lactate in the muscles.
The goal is to ensure that the body does not have a chance to fully recover, and so the structure sees rest intervals that are shorter than speed intervals, and the overall aim is to focus on reaching the maximum heart rate.
This means that every single interval will need to be performed at your absolute maximum speed, rather than the lactate threshold speed – this is Zone 4 in the descriptions we saw earlier.
As the name suggests, the 4 x 2 test suggests 4 reapers of 2 minutes at absolute maximum effort, followed by a 1-minute rest interval. After the second session, your heart rate will already be redlining, and you should be close to maximum by the third round.
Partner-Assisted Stress Test
If you are looking for something that is a little easier psychologically, then this can be a great option, as it allows you to involve a buddy which can be great for additional motivation. The overall test basically simulates a lab test, but you will have a friend with you rather than equipment and scientists.
To carry out the test, you should run on a track wearing a chest strap, while your partner rides alongside you on a bike, wearing and looking at the heart rate monitor – this allows you to focus on giving it your all without distraction, offering a more accurate result.
As with the VO2 max test, you should start the test with a heart rate of around 100 to 120 beats per minute, and run faster to increase your heart rate by up to five beats per fifteen seconds until you reach a maximum.
Your buddy will look at the watch, and shout out the total heart rate and time at 15-second intervals. Once you can no longer increase your heart rate for over two 15 second intervals, you have reached your maximum heart rate and can stop the test.
So What Now?
Once you have learned to calculate your maximum heart rate, you unlock the tools to improve your entire training journey.
Once you know the figure, you can use a number of tools or apps to help calculate your heart rate ranges for each of the training zones that we outlined above, calculating your heart rate range to build and develop the ultimate plan.
Ultimately, learning how to calculate your maximum heart rate is the ideal way to help you train harder, faster and smarter, ensuring that you are making every single bead of sweat work for you and that you maximize every second of every workout.
For any athlete looking to take their performance to the next level, this is absolutely essential.
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