Finding Your Target Heart Rate

July 6, 2010 // Al Kavadlo

I got an email recently from a runner (let’s call him Jim) who had just started wearing a heart rate monitor during his training. Jim was concerned because at 56 years of age, his maximal heart rate was “supposed to be” 164 beats per minute (bpm), yet during his threshold run he managed to get his heart rate all the way up to 172 bpm.

Was Jim putting himself in danger by exerting himself too hard?

Of course not! Theory is for science; practice is for living.

What do I mean by that? Simple, Jim’s theoretical maximum heart rate is 164, but in reality he got all the way up to 172 (which for the record is definitely not the fastest his heart could beat.) Instead of assuming that something is wrong with Jim, maybe something is wrong with the chart that told him he couldn’t get beyond 164. Don’t be afraid to question things, people!

Don’t Trust the Chart

Bogus Heart Rate Chart

The heart rate charts that appear in many fitness books and manuals that come with heart rate monitors are antiquated and based upon the fallacy that as you get older, your heart gets weaker. This might be true if you spend your entire life sitting at a desk, but if you are an active person, there is no reason why your heart can’t be just as strong at 56 as it was at 26. The other major problem with the chart (and with all charts of its nature) is that it assumes all people are identical! There is no one thing that is best for everybody and heart rate ranges are no exception.

Finding Your True Max Heart Rate

So how do you find your target heart rate? I have a very simple test. If you have a heart rate monitor it will help, but you can do this test as long as you have two fingers and a pulse.

First, warm up with one or two miles of easy running, then step up your pace a little bit for another mile. Once you have a good sweat going and your heart is pumping, sprint as hard as you can for as long as you can! Then check your heart rate. Add 5 to that number, and that’s your max heart rate.

Oh and don’t be foolish. If you have a heart condition or if you’ve never run more than a mile, don’t try this test just yet.