Max Heart Rate Math: You’re Doing It Wrong

…The question of how to find maximum heart rates is not just of academic interest, medical experts say. The formula for calculating the maximum rate has become a standard in cardiology and in fitness programs, and an entire industry has grown up around it, with monitors sold to individuals and built into exercise equipment.

…Heart rate is an indicator of heart disease, said Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist and the director of clinical research in cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. But, he added, it is not the maximum that matters: it is how quickly the heart rate falls when exercise is stopped.

Source: ‘Maximum’ Heart Rate Theory Is Challenged

The suggested formulas for theoretical maximum heart rate:

  • For people 30+: 208 – (age * 0.7)
  • For women, 35+: 206 – (age * 0.88)
  • For older, healthy adults & women: 211 – (age * 0.64)

Even if you pick the best formula for you (as it can be unclear), the number you get will have a pretty big margin of error (10-20 beats off).   Disclaimer: if you have a health condition where all-out exercise might be dangerous (or if you’re not sure), get a doctor’s OK before trying.  But when in doubt – exercise really hard, and see how high the meter goes.

Your max heart rate for running may be different from your max heart rate for other sports, like cycling and, most notoriously, swimming. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood around when you’re upright versus horizontal. If you determine your max heart rate with a running test and use that to guide pool workouts – you’ll be chasing numbers you probably can’t actually achieve in the pool/etc.

FYI: If you know your max is very different from the formula, that would be important information to give your doctor if you ever need to take a stress test, since they base the test’s stopping criteria on a percentage of what they believe is your max heart rate.