As a UESCA-certified running Coach and Triathlon Coach, I work with a lot of runners and triathletes who want to do heart rate training.
Heart rate training can be very beneficial for endurance athletes. Many athletes I have worked with have set huge PRs and improved their performance across numerous distances by switching to heart rate training.
However, while heart rate training for runners and other endurance athletes can be very beneficial if you don’t set up your heart rate zones correctly, the effectiveness of HR training will be significantly compromised.
Knowing your maximum heart rate is essential for HR zone training.
So, how do you calculate maximum heart rate? Are maximum heart rate estimations and heart rate calculators adequate?
This article will discuss how to calculate maximum heart rate, factors that affect maximum heart rate, and why knowing your maximum heart rate is important for athletes and their training.
Let’s get started!
What Is Maximum Heart Rate?
As the term describes, your maximum heart rate (MHR or max HR) refers to the maximum number of times your heart can beat in a minute, measured in beats per minute.
A higher maximum heart rate means that your heart is capable of beating faster.
How to Calculate Maximum Heart Rate
There are numerous formulas you can use to calculate your maximum heart rate rather than doing intense exercise testing, which often includes vigorous-intensity activity to raise your heart rate to its max:
Formulas to calculate maximum heart rate:
#1: Fox Formula
The most common formula for calculating max heart rate is 220 minus age in years.
Since this is the simplest way to estimate maximum heart rate, the 220-age max heart rate formula is widely used.
For example, fitness watches and exercise machines that calculate your heart rate zones based on your age typically use this max HR equation.
However, although this is a popular way to calculate max HR, research indicates that the standard error of 220-age for an estimated maximum heart rate is +/- 12 heart beats per minute.
For example, using the Fox Max HR formula, if you’re 38 years old, 220-38 = 182 bpm.
However, your true maximum heart rate might be as low as 170 bpm or as high as 194 bpm with standard error of the estimate of predicted max HR.
#2: Max HR Formula for Women: Gulati Formula
Although the Fox Formula to calculate maximum heart rate can technically be used for men and women alike, the Gulati formula for max heart rate was developed specifically for women after researchers consistently noted that the Fox Formula generally overestimates MHR for women.
Therefore, this formula was developed specifically to calculate maximum heart rate max HR for women only.
The formula is: 206 – (0.88 × age).
For example, if you are 38 years old, 206 – (0.88 × 38) = 173 bpm. Note that this is much lower than the 220-age formula would have predicted for maximum HR.
#3: Max Heart Rate Formula for Seniors: Tanaka Formula
The Tanaka formula to calculate maximum heart rate is primarily designed for men and women over age 40 because the traditional 220-age formula tends to have higher errors for older adults.
This MHR formula is 208 – (0.7 × age).
For example, if you are 38 years old, 206 – (0.88 × 38) = 181 bpm. Note that this is slightly lower than the 220-age formula would have predicted for maximum HR.
#4: Max Heart Rate Formula for Athletes: HUNT Formula
The HUNT Fitness Study measured the maximum heart rate in 3,320 healthy adults aged between 19 and 89. A regression analysis was then applied to the data to find the line of best fit.
The formula that describes the trend line for maximum heart rate based on age is 211 – (0.64 x age).
Although the researchers found the HUNT Max HR formula to be more accurate than 220 – age or other common formulas to calculate maximum heart rate, the margin of error is still about 10.8 beats per minute.
That said, the HUNT formula for max HR is said to be better for active men and women than for sedentary individuals.
#5: Other Max HR Formulas:
According to researchers, a more accurate estimation than the Fox Formula for max heart rate can be found through the following formulas:1Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/
- Maximum Heart Rate for Males = 208.609-0.716 x age
- Maximum Heart Rate for Females = 209.273-0.804 x age
For example, if you’re a 38-year-old male: 208.609-0.716 x 38 = 181 bpm. If you’re a 38-year-old female: 209.273-0.804 x 38 = 178 bpm.
Factors That Affect MHR
As you might have noticed, all of the common formulas to estimate maximum heart rate only consider your age and sometimes your sex.
While your age and sex are the two factors that most significantly impact your maximum heart rate, there are other additional factors as well.
Here are the primary factors that affect your maximum heart rate:
- Age: Maximum heart rate decreases with age.
- Sex: According to the American College of Cardiology, women tend to have a lower maximum heart rate than men.2Casteel, B. (2014, March 27). The Heart Responds Differently to Exercise in Men vs. Women. American College of Cardiology. https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2014/03/27/12/29/allison-peak-hr-pr#:~:text=The%20study%20also%20showed%20that
- Body size: People with a smaller body size tend to have a higher maximum heart rate.
- Altitude: Being at a high altitude can depress your maximum heart rate.
- Fitness level: Your fitness and physical activity level may have a minor impact on max HR.
Why Is Knowing Your Maximum Heart Rate Important for Athletes?
Brett Lato, the Manager of Training and Education at Polar, one of the leading companies at the forefront of heart rate monitoring technology for athletes, says that the greatest value in knowing your true maximum heart rate is that it allows you to set up your personalized heart rate zones.
The heart rate training zones are then determined based on percentages of your maximum heart rate value.
“To put it simply, to calculate your heart rate zones and exercise at the appropriate exercise intensity levels, you must first know your maximum heart rate. It’s a key metric in individualized training and performance,” suggests Lato.
“Essentially, each heart rate zone represents a different level of intensity. Precise knowledge of your training intensities can ensure you receive the desired effect from your sessions.”
The more precise you are when you calculate maximum heart rate, the more accurate your heart rate training will be.
To that end, because all of the formulas to calculate max heart rate have a fair amount of error, Lato says that if you’re serious about your training, it might be worth doing a true max HR test.
“For athletes with more experience, a field test will provide more accurate data. The general idea of the field test is to warm up and take part in an exercise that pushes you to your maximum effort,” explains Lato.
“Keep in mind that conducting this field test unprepared or as a beginner will likely put your body under a lot of stress, so in that case, check with a physician ahead of time.”
Lato says that calculating your maximum heart rate and then using a heart rate monitor with your training can help guide your workouts and give you insights into your fitness.
“A heart rate monitor is the most effective way to measure your intensity during training and track your progress over time,” suggests Lato.
“For runners who want to take their training to the next level, the new Polar Vantage V3 offers advanced and precise optical heart rate tracking.”
“This includes the new breakthrough Polar Elixir™ biosensing technology, which provides a comprehensive suite of training and recovery tools, including blood oxygen saturation, wrist ECG, skin temperature, and more.”
Can You Improve Your Max HR?
“It’s crucial to understand that maximum heart rate is not an indicator of fitness prowess and is largely hereditary,” cautions Lato. “Rather, it’s essential to work toward sustaining intensities relative to your maximum heart rate and goals.”
Lato says that the ability to increase your max heart rate through training beyond your hereditary MHR is somewhat limited. However, Lato says that engaging in structured training may help build up max heart rate somewhat.
“To work on boosting your maximum heart rate, focus on consistency and progress,” suggests Lato.
“Take steps to build your body’s overall efficiency and weave a variety of exercises and workouts into your routine based on your fitness goals, but remember to take it steady and allow your body the space to recover and recuperate.”
- 1Shargal, E., Kislev-Cohen, R., Zigel, L., Epstein, S., Pilz-Burstein, R., & Tenenbaum, G. (2015). Age-related maximal heart rate: examination and refinement of prediction equations. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 55(10), 1207–1218. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25389634/
- 2Casteel, B. (2014, March 27). The Heart Responds Differently to Exercise in Men vs. Women. American College of Cardiology. https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2014/03/27/12/29/allison-peak-hr-pr#:~:text=The%20study%20also%20showed%20that