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Heart rate zones, target heart rate, heart rate reserve, etc can be useful for a fitness program, however all depend on knowing your maximum heart rate.

I'd like to know what my maximum heart rate is, not some theoretical average like 220 - age. What is the best way to find my true max heart rate?

Also... For the same level of effort, my heart rate on a bike is significantly lower than when running. Does max heart rate vary by activity, or any other factors besides age?

Thanks.

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Actually, you only need to find your AB and AT (see my answer). –  Berin Loritsch May 16 '11 at 18:41
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3 Answers

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Having had a zone test before, it's important to understand that your maximum workout heart rate will likely be lower than your maximum physical heart rate. It is also important to limit testing your actual physical heart rate to proper cardiologists. That said, you don't need to get the max physical heart rate to get a set of useful zones and a customized workout for you.

The testing process uses a heart rate monitor, and a VO2 analyzer. Many fitness gyms have all the necessary equipment/software. They are measuring your Aerobic Base (AB) and Anaerobic Threshold (AT) levels. (link represents where I got the test done, but also describes in more detail).

The process of the test is relatively simple:

  • Walk on a treadmill
  • The tester will increase the speed/incline to increase your heart rate
  • The Cooldown starts after you hit your AT (determined by CO2 exchange)

You do not hit your maximum heart rate. Once the test is done, the software will supply some cardio work to help you improve your overall health--but you will notice that the max heart rate is well under your physical max. You will not gain anything by going over that heart rate.

The idea and purpose of the zone training is to help you understand your current cardiovascular health and how to improve your performance. Personally, my aerobic base is pretty high, which is good news. However, my anaerobic threshold is pretty low. As a result the cardio plan I'm on is going to help increase the distance between them. It's been about 3 weeks, and I've already noticed my zones starting to shift.

I've since had a proper cardio test with a cardiologist. The test process was different, but they were checking how much stress my heart could take (not for fitness, but because it was prescribed by my general practitioner). The test was done when I started to feel light headed, and my heart rate went much higher than the prescribed maximum heart rate from the zone tests. I still didn't reach my maximum heart rate, which would require going until I passed out.

Take note that only a few hard core athletes ever get tested to find their true maximum heart rate. That bit of info is from the trainer who did the zone test. He told me, and the advice is sound, that if I ever wanted to do that I should see a cardiologist. Considering the stress test I had with the cardiologist, I don't want to really find the MAX heart rate. It's going to change every year anyway.

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Thanks. The clarification between max workout HR for zonal training and max physical HR cleared up some confusion. –  Regan Sarwas May 18 '11 at 0:18
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Does max heart rate vary by activity?

No. Your MAXIMUM heart rate is how fast your heart can beat, or, contract, in one minute.

For the same level of effort, my heart rate on a bike is significantly lower than when running.

You will experience a difference in heart rate between these exercises because you don't spend the same amount of energy while cycling as you do running.

Cycling and running heart rates were found to differ for many reasons, including the level of impact and the amount of oxygen used - http://www.livestrong.com/article/198328-the-average-heart-rate-while-cycling/#ixzz1MXVdaal8

To find your maximum heart rate you can use an online calculator like this one that will run a number of calculations against your age (there are many formulas for calculating MHR).


Performing the Test

If you really want to find your "personal" heart rate, and I agree with Xenovoyance that you will want to do this supervised, you could use a treadmill and slowly increase your speed and incline in order to push your body to its limits.

Basic prerequisites

  • Get plenty of sleep the night before.

  • Stay hydrated.

  • Avoid eating for at least one-hour before.

  • Warm-up for 15 minutes.

To self-test your MHR, start by making an estimate. Subtract your age from 226 if you are female or 220 if you are male. After you warm up, run hard enough to raise your heart rate to 40 beats per minute below your estimated MHR. For most people this takes about a minute. For the next three minutes, increase your pace so your heart rate goes up 10 beats per minute. At this point you'll be at 10 beats per minute less than your estimated MHR. For the final, or fifth, minute, run all out. Your heart rate at the end of the fifth minute is your maximum heart rate.

This example test was taken from LiveStrong, however, there are many other examples that could be used. This one increases both speed and incline.

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+1 for the information on running v. cycling. –  Regan Sarwas May 18 '11 at 0:17
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Your maximum heart-rate is set in our genes and can not be changed. And before going for a max heart-rate test you should be aware that it is a challenge which is very hard on your body and your heart. Due to this, never do max heart-rate tests when you are alone. Always have a partner when doing it.

If you are a runner; you can try to reach your maximum heart rate by going for a warm up run for about ten minutes and then go for a small hill which need to be long enough for you to be able to run continuously upwards for more then two minutes. During the length of the hill you increase the speed in short intervalls so when you have been running for about one minute you should run as fast as your body can and you need to keep this speed up for about a full minute if possible. When you reach the top of the hill, your should bave been very close to your maximum heart-rate.

Another way of testing this is to do the same resistance with warm-up and then a full performance run on an exercise bike.

If all you are looking for is a quick estimation of your maximum heart-rate you can always use the old formula:

Maximum heart-rate = 220 - your age

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