Your maximum heart rate is the fastest your heart can beat and still pump blood effectively through your body. As you age, your maximum heart rate drops. The maximum heart rate formulae used by heart rate monitors (such as MAXIMUM HEART RATE = 220 – age) are all based on averages. They can be used to help you plan your exercise program, but they should not be interpreted as absolute limits or goals. Your maximum heart rate may differ from these averages. Whether you are a competitive athlete or an ordinary exerciser, you really can monitor your exercise effort by how you feel and do not need to use a heart rate monitor.
Extensive research shows that compared to casual exercise, intense exercise:
• makes you a better athlete by helping you to be stronger, faster and have greater endurance and
• helps you to live longer by reducing your chances of developing diabetes, heart attacks, many types of cancers, and other diseases (JAMA Intern Med, 2021;181(2):203-211).
How fast you can run, cycle, ski or swim over distance is limited by the time that it takes to move oxygen into your muscles. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, so the faster your heart can beat, the more blood it can pump to your muscles and the faster you can move. Exercise physiologists use your maximum heart rate to determine your level of fitness and guide the intensity of training. However, if you exercise too intensely, too long, or too often, you increase your chances of injuring yourself. If you have irregular heartbeats or blocked arteries leading to your heart, you can suffer a heart attack from exercising too intensely. Training for both competitive athletes and fitness buffs should be guided by stress and recover, where you exercise more intensely on one day, feel muscle soreness on the next day and go easy for as many days as it takes for your muscles to feel fresh again. Then you take your next intense workout day. So how can you tell how intensely you should exercise?
• The Breathing Guide
After warming up, you can do a series of surges in which you exercise up to the point where you start to breathe very hard. Then slow down and when you have recovered your breath and your muscles feel fresh, pick up the pace again. Alternate faster and slower periods until your muscles start to feel heavy, and then stop the workout.
• The Burning Muscle Guide
Two or three times a week, you can start out slowly and then pick up the pace until your muscles start to burn or feel heavy, slow down immediately, wait for complete recovery of your muscles, and then pick up the pace again. Repeat until your muscles feel heavy and then stop the workout.
• Your Heart Rate as a Guide
Many exercisers like to use a heart rate monitor to guide intensity of exercise because it gives them actual numbers that they can follow. Many exercise programs and tests to measure heart function are based on the formula MAXIMUM HEART RATE = 220 – age. This is supposed to predict the fastest your heart can beat and still pump blood through your body. Although this formula is still the standard used today, it is not dependable for everyone and it does not apply to very fit people.
Why the Standard Maximum Heart Rate Formula is Wrong
As you age, your maximum heart rate slows down. The standard maximum heart rate formula is supposed to help you predict what your heart rate should be based on your age, but it should not be used by athletes and is not even accurate for people who are not fit.
The formula was first proposed by Dr. Sam Fox, one of the most respected heart specialists in the world. In the 1960s, he was very helpful to me when I was competing in, planning and setting up running programs. In 1970 he was the director of the United States Public Health Service Program to Prevent Heart Disease. He and a young researcher named William Haskell were flying to a meeting. They put together several studies comparing maximum heart rate and age. Fox took out a pencil and plotted a graph of age versus maximum heart rate and noticed that maximum heart rate appeared to be equal to 220 minus a person’s age. They reported this observation, and ever since then, the formula has been taught in physical education courses and is used to test heart function and athletic fitness and to plan workouts.
The formula is wrong because your legs drive your heart rate; your heart does not drive your legs. Maximum heart rate depends on the strength of your legs, and to a lesser extent, on the strength of your heart. When you contract your leg muscles, they squeeze against the blood vessels near them to pump blood from your leg veins toward your heart. When your leg muscles relax, your leg veins fill with blood, so your leg muscles pump increased amounts of blood toward your heart. This increased blood fills the heart and causes your heart to beat faster and with more force. This is called the Bainbridge reflex. The stronger your legs, the more blood they can pump. An athlete’s heart is stronger than that of a non-athlete, and a stronger heart can pump more blood with each beat, so the maximum heart rate is likely to be lower in an athlete than in a non-athlete.
The Search for a Better Formula
A study of 43 different formulae for maximum heart rate concluded that “No acceptable formula currently existed” (Journal of Exercise Physiology, 2002;5 (2): 1-10). The formula that was found to fit age best was HRmax = 205.8 – (0.685 x age), and it had a standard deviation that is 6.4 beats per minute, which is very large.
Another study from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan showed that the standard maximum heart rate formula overestimated the maximum heart rate for younger exercisers and underestimated the maximum rate for older ones (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 2007).
Maximum Heart Rate is Lower in Athletes
A study from Liverpool, England showed that the maximum heart rate for athletes is usually lower than for aged-matched sedentary people. The maximum heart rate of male athletes was calculated to be 202 – (0.55 x age), and for female athletes, 216 – (1.09 x age). At first glance, this makes no sense because you would think that the faster your heart can beat, the more blood your heart could pump and the better an athlete you would be. However, a stronger heart pumps more blood with each beat, so stronger hearts don’t have to beat as often. Both weight lifters and runners had similar maximum heart rates, which were significantly lower than those of the age-matched sedentary people. The athletes have hearts that can pump more blood with each beat than the hearts of sedentary people, so they do not have to beat as often (International Journal of Sports Medicine, January 2008).
This means that as you become more fit, your maximum heart rate may go lower, not higher. Virtually everyone agrees that heart rate depends primarily on the amount of blood pumped toward it by exercising muscles (the Bainbridge reflex). We know this is true because we are able to transplant hearts. If nerves to the heart primarily regulated heart rate, the heart would not be able to control its rate of beating since the nerves are cut during the transplant.
Use Your Recovery Heart Rate to Measure Fitness
If you want to use numbers to chart your progress in your exercise program, use your recovery heart rate instead of your maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is never used to measure fitness. A person with a failing fluttering heart can have a heart rate of 300 beats a minute. Researchers measure fitness by how fast your heart rate recovers one minute after maximum exercise. A healthy person’s heart rate drops about 20 beats in one minute after all-out exercise, while fit athletes’ heart rates can drop more than 50 beats in one minute. People whose one-minute recovery heart rate dropped less than 12 beats were four times as likely to die in the next six years, compared with those whose heart rates dropped by 13 or more beats (Circulation, 1996; 93: 1520-1526).
If you are an athlete who trains for competition, you don’t need a heart rate monitor unless you enjoy using numbers. All you have to do is a program of interval workouts: two or three times a week, do a series of hard intervals in which you get short of breath, rest to recover, and repeat these intervals until your muscles start to feel heavy. For the rest of your week, do your workouts at an easier pace.
If you are a non-competitive exerciser, you don’t need a heart rate monitor either. First check with your doctor to make sure that you have a healthy heart. Then try to do intervals two or three times week. Start out slowly and then pick up the pace until you feel burning in your muscles or you are breathing harder than usual. Then slow down until you have recovered completely. Alternate faster bursts and recoveries until your muscles start to feel heavy and then stop for the day. On the other days, go at a casual and easy pace. See The Rime of the Ancient Marathoner
Caution: Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or increasing the intensity of your existing program.