Understand maximum heart rate

The modern age of fitness has spawned a multitude of wearable technologies capable of capturing extraordinary amounts of biological and physiological data. Perhaps the most commonly measured variable we see today is heart rate.

This is certainly nothing new as brands like Polar and Garmin have offered wearable chest straps and watches to their users for decades. We always used two fingers to effortlessly locate our carotid (our neck) or radial (our wrist) impulses.

Today, almost everyone wears an Apple Watch or Fitbit on their wrist to track changes in their heart rate, whether they’re exercising, sitting at their desk, or just sleeping.

Heart rate affects health and performance

Understanding your heart rate can be very useful from both a health and a performance perspective.

  • The resting heart rate can give doctors an insight into the state of health by age and gender.
  • In contrast, increases or decreases in exercise behavior give fitness professionals feedback on general fitness levels.
  • In addition, we can use heart rate to set training zones and prescribe programs for improved aerobic fitness.
  • Perhaps the hardest part of the whole equation is understanding Maximum Heart Rate (MHR).

Even when wearing technology, MHR often has to be entered manually to determine the correct training zones for the future. It will track your heart rate and let you know if you’ve set up a new MHR through exercise.

However, it is extremely exhausting to train on or near MHR and you can never be sure that the numbers given are not an anomaly.

Source: The Redline: Feeling good when you are uncomfortable

Can you find your maximum heart rate?

The most common way to determine MHR is to take 220 and subtract your age.

If you are 40 years old, your estimated MHR is theoretically 180 beats per minute.

Although some technologies implement more advanced methods of determining these variables, many still rely on this simple equation to predict them.

While it is useful in the sense that it provides a quick and free way to predict MHR, it has some problems.

It doesn’t take your own into account::

People often get frustrated with this estimate because it doesn’t match their exercise or expectations of how their body should react when exercising.

In reality, however, they should be using it as a guide compass. It is not the end, everything is everything. In fact, there are other ways to appreciate the MHR.

Measuring tools for MHR

The most accurate method of determining MHR is a VO2 peak treadmill test. Unfortunately, it is quite time consuming and not everyone has access to this technology.

Fortunately, some other methods and equations for MHR estimation seem more accurate than 220 minus age.

A 2012 research study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 compared the relative accuracy of three equations to a VO2 peak treadmill test in overweight or obese adults, including three equations:

  1. 220 – age
  2. 208 – 0.7 x age
  3. 200 – 0.48 x age

The researchers found that the 220 age equation overestimated the MHR by an average of 5 beats per minute, while the 200-0.48 time age equation estimated the MHR to be within 2 beats per minute. and the 208 – 0.7 x age equation was found to be the most accurate.

We need to understand that while the research I discussed used a relatively large sample size (n = 132), it is only a study and does not deal with athletic populations. Hence, it is still difficult to say which equation is the best of all.

There are methods for determining exercise heart rate (THR) such as the Karvonen method and We know a VO2 treadmill test gives the best results of allbut we have to accept again that these are all estimates.

MHR and Exercise Response

My suggestion to anyone struggling to really pin their MHR is to use multiple methods and monitor your training results.

One formula may prove to be more accurate than another in your case, but how you react to exercise will give you the best insight into your aerobic capacity and unique heart rate.

If you’re still genuinely interested in being as specific as possible, do some research in the nearby exercise physiology laboratories and see if you can make an appointment for a treadmill test.

The investment could be worthwhile.


1. Franckowiak, Shawn C., Dobrosielski, Devon A., Reilley, Suzanne M, Walston, Jeremy D, Andersen, Ross E., “Maximum Heart Rate Prediction in Overweight or Obese Adults,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2011, Volume 25, Issue 5, pp. 1407-1412.

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