How to Accurately Determine Your Maximum Heart Rate & Have An Out of Body Experience At the Same Time

Posted by Filed Under: Training

the running mechaniccontinued from parts one and two
According to a Google search on the subject, Maximum Heart Rate can be defined in the following ways:

  1. The fastest and hardest your heart can pump without going into fibrillation. Rate differs according to age.

    Funny but true! If you’ve ever done a real test of your MHR, you’ll probably think it very difficult to tell if you went into fibrillation.

  2. The greatest number of times per minute the heart is capable of beating.

    Boring But True

  3. Maximum allowable heart rate.

    Allowable? Who does the allowing?

  4. The fastest that your heart can beat when doing activity. Rather than actually measuring the peak rate that your heart can beat, it is easier to predict what that rate is. We can do this by using a simple formula: 220 – age = maximum heart rate.

That last definition (or a variation of it) is probably the most common one known to people wanting to improve their fitness level. Unfortunately, it’s a flawed definition that is actually less accurate than the one that has the potential to send your heart into fibrillation. Let’s find out why.

A Story Written on a Napkin
The story/myth behind the 220 – minus your age = your maximum heart rate is that some M.D./Ph.D. was travelling to a conference to speak about something related to heart rates. Apparently during the flight, the good doctor had nothing better to do and decided to kill time by scratching out a maximum heart rate formula on a napkin, thereby making history and screwing up runners forever. Well, almost forever.

Actually, many people immediately knew the formula was unreliable. After all, it was a theory and, as we often find, theories don’t always translate well in practice.

Take Me for Example
Four years ago, I wanted to learn what my MHR was and found the formula which told me this:

220 minus 35 (my age back then) = 185 MHR

Afterward I read the formula wasn’t very reliable so I set out to figure out a way that would be. The way I eventually came up with to arrive at my actual MHR was similar to the “fibrillation” example in the definitions listed above. I’ll provide details for how I got my MHR shortly but for now, the most important information you need to know is that my MHR turned out to be 200—fifteen beats per minute more than the formula said it should be.

In the world of running—especially for runners who train to race, fifteen beats per minute is a huge discrepancy that can lead to severe under- or over-training.

Lesson: Don’t trust the damn formula.

How to Accurately Determine Your Maximum Heart Rate
As far as it pains me to say this (and pained me to do it!), the fastest and hardest your heart can pump without going into fibrillation MHR definition is almost what you’re after if you really want to know your maximum heart rate.

Before, I tell you my method, here’s the obligatory warning: Do not try this without being darn sure you’re not going to drop dead doing it. Before you do this, be sure to check things out with your doctor—and preferably not the one who wrote the MHR formula on his/her napkin.

Ok, now that the warning is out of the way, here’s one method you can use to determine your MHR:

  1. Strap on a heart rate monitor.
  2. Warm up by running for 10 or so minutes at medium running speed.
  3. Build speed for another few minutes.
  4. Approach a long, 500 meter/yard medium-grade hill while still building speed.
  5. Run up 500 meter hill as fast as you can.
  6. Fall down when appropriate (i.e when your body tells you it’s time to fall down).
  7. Enjoy heart fibrillations and “rad” out-of-body experience.

Some people get to MHR by running progressively faster laps on a track—a method I’m sure works just fine but I think using a long hill is the best way to do it since it will challenge you in the two dimensions of speed and strength. It’s a potent challenge that will get anyone the measurement they’re after.

How You’ll Know When You’ve Hit MHR
If you’re human, and you’re running at top speed, you’ll likely know around the 400 meter/yard mark of the hill. The first couple hundred meters, your heart rate will rise quickly and then level off. The next 100 meters your heart rate will climb very slowly. Finally, in the last 100 meters your heart rate will increase only another one or two beats per minute no matter how hard you push—that’s when you’ll fall down and commence with the fibrillations.

Your Very Own Panic Button
If you’re afraid of pushing to your absolute Max – don’t do it. Just push yourself as far as you feel you can and then estimate the top end. So, if you push to what you think is 95%, stop there and add 5% more beats per minute to your total. It’s very likely you’ll still be closer to your actual MHR than if you just used the “napkin formula.”

I Guess I Should Tell You This
There is another way to figure out your maximum heart rate and that’s to go into a facility and be put through what is called a Cardiac Stress Test—essentially a medically supervised version of what I’ve described above. And, if the test doesn’t send your heart into fibrillation, the cost for the test might just finish the job so you’ll get your out-of-body experience under the supervision of a team of doctors.
Why MHR Is Important
As I mentioned in my last article about Resting Heart Rate, MHR is one of the two foundations used for calculating the Karnoven heart rate training targets. The key connection to the Karnoven Method is that without accurately determining MHR, your HR training targets will be off, your training program will be flawed, and your odds of under- or over-training are that much greater.

Where Do We Go From Here?
So, now you know about MHR, RHR and the Karnoven Method. So what? Is there a good reason for knowing all this? Stay tuned next week.

About Mark Iocchelli

Also known as the "Running Blogfather", I'm a 40-something marathoner who has beaten stress fractures and terrible shin splints. Now I'm running double the mileage with no pain - and I'm getting faster. I love to talk about running form and Arthur Lydiard. I also enjoy taking photographs, have a beautiful (and very patient!) wife, and am the proud father of two crazy kids. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about the site.

  1. Herb Stubbmann on November 13th at 10:17 pm

    I am 68 years old and have a resting pulse of 45 and normal BP while resting. If I use the formula to get my target rate (220-age x .8) it is about 120. My systolic at this rate is 200 which I believe is dangerous. Isn’t the formula inaccurate for us low pulse types? What should it be? I’d appreciate help as my doctor thinks I should be at what I think is too high a rate for at least a half hour every other day. Thanks, Herb

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  4. Nizar Dudhwalla. on February 18th at 3:50 am

    i need to know that i went through a stress test on the tread mill and at 6 minutes the doctor found my heart beat was almost 200 from 85 and so he stopped the test, however i was normal and i had no pains in my chest but i could feel some pain in my back of the chest on the left side and after that doctors wants me to go for cardiac angio please advise wht to do should i go and wht does cardiac angio means.

    Nizar Dudhwalla.s last blog post..Cold Weather Running

  5. Jon (was) in Michigan on February 18th at 10:43 am

    Nizar, my advice is to do what your doctor advises.

    I don’t know what “cardiac angio” means either, but your doctor does. You need to ask him what it is, what it entails, what are the drawbacks, what are the alternatives, etc.

    Also, if you feel unsure about his advise, get a second opinion.

    One thing I would NOT do, is do nothing. Heart disease is a leading killer in the US (not sure elsewhere). For about 50% of the people with heart disease, their first symptom is death.

    Talk to your doctor, do not wait.

    Usual disclaimer:
    The above is strictly my opinion only. I am not a physician. This is not medical advice in any way, shape, or form. This is not a substitute for medical advice. Consult a licensed medical professional for medical advice and before beginning any exercise program.

    Jon (was) in Michigans last blog post..Mistaken identity

  6. Spydox on July 6th at 12:24 pm

    I use the Garmin forerunner and I swear either the thing is busted or my stress tolerance is off the charts. I’m 54 about 185 and cycle about 20 miles a day x 4 days a week.

    In truth I think it works fine because at the start, it reads about 70BPM which sounds about right for my walk-around rate.

    According to the Garmin Fitness Center graph, I’m at about 180BPM in the 3rd quarter of most rides- what I figured was my zone 5. And I’m barely even breathing hard- certainly NOT as hard on the PT runs when I was in the Army. I always feel like a slacker because I hardly feel as if I’m not pushing hard at all.

    So I keep bumping up my MHR in the program- the original calculation was like 168 now I set it at like 190. And it still seems way too low.

    Then I read this and other articles and I think WHOA- something isn’t right here!

    I don’t have like a zillion $ for some fancy tests, but I (a) dont want any cardiac episodes, and (b) want to fitness train near 80-90% of my capabilities at least.

    What’s a cyclist to do!?! This is all very confusing..