WARNING! I’m not a doctor – talk to one especially if you have a history of heart problems/heart disease or if you’re starting a new exercise plan…You won’t win any gold medals by figuring out your Maximum Heart Rate – so keep it safe and speak with a doctor!
For new runners, my hope is that this guide helps you “cheat the system” and teach you to run farther and faster – and make those longer runs MUCH easier. Also, see the bonking side note at the bottom of the post.
For experienced runners, I hope this guide will help take your running to a new level. You might know your pace zones and be dead on with “perceived effort” without a heart rate monitor, but with a monitor you’ll be able to better train to the right zones, prevent overtraining, and get your body MUCH more efficient at burning fat (instead of glycogen) for your long runs. Also, see the bonking side note at the bottom of the post.
Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)
Max HR is exercise specific… it’s not actually your maximum, but the highest your body will get to for a given activity. For example, my maximum tested heart rate is 196 for running, and 187 for cycling.
There are two main ways to get to your “maximum heart rate” – using a calculation (Estimate) or via fitness testing
1. Calculating Maximum Heart Rate:
I’m not a big fan of the calculation methods because it’s way off for me. However, these are pretty close for the majority of people. The most common formula I’ve seen is to take 220 minus your age. In my case, 220 – 34 = a max heart rate of 186. This is a full 10 beats below what I’ve seen in actual fitness testing (196). I’d suggest trying this anyway, at least so you have an idea.
There are actually several formulas to find this. The page I’ve looked at more than once with the formulas is here. Also, half way down on the page is a full calculator that allows you to input your age and get 7 different formula calculations. My range from the calculator is 183 to 188.
2. Fitness Testing for Maximum Heart Rate:
***Be careful and talk to a doctor before doing something like this. At least have a friend at the track with you just in case****
This will help you REALLY understand your zones. If you have been running with an HR monitor, you may already have all the data you need. I have two HR monitors I primarily use the Garmin FR60 (approx $100 and also picks up cadence!) and the Garmin ForeRunner 305 (Approx $140 GPS). Both give me accurate pace and distance and I like them both…I will post reviews at some point. If you have a polar HR or something that doesn’t give distance, you can still do the tests For now, comment below if you have any questions about these.
1a. Get it professionally tested. This is an expensive method, but can often find package deals for athletes that include an exercise stress test. Typical costs are $100 to $150 (maybe even cheaper if you’re a student). The local university is the only place nearby that does this and has a $240 endurance package that also includes metabolic exercise testing, hydrostatic weighing, body composition, nutrition counseling, and helps apply the results to your training…it can be a great benefit. I haven’t had this done but may later this year if they let me film some of it and share on youtube . If you have any doubt and are at all worried about giving yourself a heart attack, this is the only way to go.
2. Four 400s - These aren’t your typical 400s. Go to a track and jog an easy mile to warm up. Run the first 400 at a faster than normal pace. The first 400 is an extension of the warm up meant to start gradually moving your Heart rate up. When you get to the last lap, it should be an ALL OUT SPRINT. Don’t WALK after the 400s! Jog a maximum of 1 minute and glance at your heart rate. When you come across the line, slow to a jog for 1 minute.
- 1 mile warm up
- 1st lap (400) at hard pace, followed by 1 minute slow jog
- The second 400 should be 10 to 20% faster, followed by 1 minute slow jog
- The third lap should be VERY HARD, followed by 1 minute slow jog
- Last lap should be an all out sprint. Record your HR when you come across the line.
- Do a 10 minute cool down via easy jog. This is even more important when you are doing this kind of workout.
If at any point, you feel like you need to stop – STOP!!! I’ve seen people max their HR by lap two… Continuing to push beyond this is not pleasant and I’ve been at plenty of events where people pass out a hundred feet from the finish line. If you feel like you’ve had enough, LISTEN to your body.
2. Experienced Runner ONLY (Currently running 25+ miles per week) The Run Hard Method: My coach has me do 30 minute track “fitness testing” every month to see how I’m progressing. Essentially, I have a 1.5 mile “easy” warmup where I REALLY try to run slow and take my time and then an ALL OUT, RUN HARD for 30 minutes. Then finish it out with a 1 mile cool down.
The idea is to run as far as fast as you can in 30 minutes. If you do it right, you get to where you absolutely must walk right at 30 minutes. If you can still jog, there is gas left in the tank. This is a tough one that never gets easier.
I think a hard 5k can also get you close. If you have one coming up, put on an HR monitor and try to run it hard! Here is my output from my FR60 on a recent 5k:
My HR is right at 196 when I get to the end of the race. You can see when I had to stop to fix my shoe it didn’t help my HR at all!
3. Experienced Runner ONLY (Currently running 25+ miles per week)Intervals. If you’ve run with me before, you’ll know this is my least favorite running activity. To be blunt, %#$@*! These hurt.
This kind of workout will actually help with efficiency and VO2 max. You can replace an interval workout on your schedule with this and you’ll get a great purposeful workout plus find out your Max HR at the same time.
You’ll want to start your pace 1 minute below your usual 5k pace. For the sample below, was around
- Start with a 1.5 mile warm up
- 5 sets of 400s running at a 1 minute faster than your usual 5k pace. Jog (don’t walk) 200 yards between each 400.
- 5 sets of 400s running at a 1:30 minutes faster than your usual 5k pace. Jog (don’t walk) 200 yards between each 400.
- 5 sets of 400s running at a 2:00 minutes faster than your usual 5k pace. Jog (don’t walk) 200 yards between each 400.
- 1 mile cooldown
Data is VERY useful for a lot of reasons. You can see on this chart every time I stopped for a drink of water. Those pace dips at the end of interval 13 and 14 were indeed when I was walked after the lap.
I can’t stress this enough, don’t do anything stupid and give yourself a heart attack. Listen to your body and if you’re going as hard as you can go – that’s your maximum HR!
Heart Rate Monitors I Use:
Garmin FR60 (approx $100 and also picks up cadence!)
Garmin ForeRunner 305 (Approx $140 GPS)
Have you ever bonked or hit the wall? Most people realize that the human body has two primary fuels, carbohydrates and fats. At different heart rate levels, you will burn a different combination of these fuels. Your body can only store a very limited amount of carbohydrates (in the form of blood glucose) in your muscles and liver. If you exercise at an intensity that is using carbohydrates as the main fuel source, you will “bonk” when you run out of fuel. Using heart rate training to teach your body to 1. be efficient at burning fat and 2. increase your VO2 max will help ensure you don’t run out of fuel and learn what intensity you can maintain for a given 5k, Ironman, or anything in between!