Personal trainers and exercise instructors design fitness programs around an athlete’s “maximum heart rate”, and for many years that was determined with a simple formula, “maximum heart rate equals 220 minus age.” This formula was based on a 1970 study by Dr. William Haskell and Dr. Samuel Fox. It gained widespread attention and was considered the standard for many years – in fact the most popular supplier of heart rate monitors, Polar Electro sold more than 750,000 monitors a year in the United States and cited the ”220 minus your age” formula as a guide for training. But many exercise experts were skeptical of this formula and, as it turns out, the Haskell/Fox study did not include a representative sample of the population and was not intended as a guideline for every user.
Today, determining your accurate maximum heart rate takes more time than a 5-second calculation, but is still an important way to optimize your exercise experience. In fact, if you use proper Heart Rate Training (HRT) you will burn more calories and have a more effective workout every time. When it comes to Heart Rate Training, no one is more respected in the field than Sally Edwards, MA, MBA. Ms. Edwards is a professional triathlete and one of America ‘s leading experts in exercise science and fitness training. She has published more than 20 books and 500 articles on health and fitness and created HZT, the Heart Zones Training system.
Ms. Edwards recommends that everyone follow the guidelines that have been prescribed for exercise testing by the American College of Sports Medicine. The ACSM recommend that healthy men over 40, and healthy women over 50, should have a medical exam and exercise test before starting a vigorous exercise program, as should symptomatic men and women of any age. Comprehensive guidelines are available in the ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, Fourth ed., 1991.
It’s important to accurately gauge your maximum heart rate, because it is the basis for all of Heart Zone Training. Your maximum heart rate (Max HR) is the maximum number of contractions per minute that your heart can make. It serves as a marker for exercise intensity. Your Max HR is used to set training zones because it’s a fixed number and doesn’t change. There are many ways to determine your Max HR. You can have someone else do the testing, or, if you meet the ACSM guidelines for safety, you can do it yourself.
If you’d like someone else to do the testing for your Max HR, you have a few options. You can go to your physician. If you do, you should also request an anaerobic threshold test at the same time –your anaerobic threshold heart rate is useful for heart zone training. Also, an Exercise Test Technologist, certified by the ACSM, at a qualified facility can determine your Max HR. You can also take a graded stress test (GSX) at a sports laboratory. But be careful! Some fitness testing facilities offer testing based on your chronological, not biological age (that old formula calculated as 220-age). It wouldn’t give you your “true” Max HR.
If you are in good shape and meet the ACSM safety guidelines, you can determine your Max HR yourself with some self-administered tests.
2-4 Minute Test: This is best on a track and you’ll need a partner who can run/bike with you and set the pace. The runner being tested wears the chest transmitter belt and the partner wears the wrist monitor. Warm-up for 5 minutes or 2 laps. Your goal during the warm-up is to get your heart beating to 100-120 bpm. Immediately 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 gradually push you faster. Within a 2- to 4-minute period, your heart rate will cease to climb even with increased effort and pace. You’ll know you are at your Max HR when you can no longer accelerate and you hear your partner repeating the same number. At this point you have finished the test and know your accurate Max HR.
5K Race Test: Enter a 5K race (skiing, running, biking, or snowshoeing), 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 during this period (you’ll be fatigued). The result should be your Max HR.
Biggest Number Test: If 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.
If you aren’t in good shape right now, do not take a Max HR test designed to bring you to your actual maximum heart rate. There are other methods use sub-maximum testing to predict your Max HR – these are accurate enough for you to use getting started. You can find out more details about Heart Zone Training at http://www.heartzones.com.