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More Training Info > Target Heart Rate

Target Heart Rate

Q: I seem to be able to work out at a higher target heart rate than most formulas suggest. Should I lower my workout intensities or keep on doing what I have been doing?

This is probably the most confusing topic for people who want to be sure they’re working out at a high enough intensity without running the risk of overtraining, or working out so hard that the body requires extra rest between exercise bouts. With more and more people using heart rate monitors, and practically all new cardiovascular machines coming out with devices built right into them to give you your heart rate, it’s easy to get caught up in the MHR, THR and training zone hoopla. Knowing what your exercise heart rate is can be helpful in determining relative intensities of workouts, and can also give you indications of when you’re working too hard and when to back off from a harder workout.

220-age Underestimates Many MHR’s

However, please remember that 220-age is a theoretical or estimated Maximum Heart Rate for your age group. Many people can work out at a far higher number than the 60%, 70% or 80% numbers suggest. In fact, according to Dr. Lauer, a cardiologist interviewed in a New York Times article (April 2001; link and summary can be seen at www.bodyresults.com/E2maxheartrate.asp) more than 40 percent of his patients can get their heart rates to more than 100 percent of their predicted maximum. This reinforces the point that those MHR’s were not, in fact, their true maximum heart rates. He adds that it is not the maximum that matters: it is how quickly the heart rate falls when exercise is stopped.

Other Methods

So, your take home message from the Times article and this web page is: use other measures of exercise intensity if you are not certain.

TALK TEST -- a simple way to tell whether you are in your aerobic training zone. If you find yourself gasping for air as you hike, swim or bike, you will not be able to sustain that pace for very long. You may be working at too high an intensity, unless you are specifically trying to be there. On the other hand, if you can utter several sentences without needing a breath, you may be too low in your aerobic zone to provide much cardiovascular benefit. Shoot for being able to comfortably link several words together in a phrase or talk to your training partner to assure that you are in your aerobic training zone.

RATE OF PERCEIVED EXERTION -- The RPE can be measured on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the easiest level (as you would experience sitting or reclining) and 10 being the hardest workout you have ever experienced (very intense). You can also use the Borg’s scale of exertion, on a scale from 6 to 20. The Borg numbers correspond to the estimated heart rate you would be experiencing in that zone with a “0” added to the end. For example, a “12” would correspond to a heart rate of 120 beats per minute, which is in the lower end of most women’s aerobic training zone; a “16” would correspond to a heart rate of 160 beats per minute, in the higher end of the aerobic training zone for most fitness enthusiasts.

HEART RATE MONITORS – these are perhaps the most valuable tool for measuring intensity of workouts, and are appropriate for runners, cyclists, climbers, hikers—virtually anyone who would like to receive scientific, measurable feedback on their training intensities. They range from simple models that provide a visual reading of your heart rate, to more complicated models that can be synched up to your computer for scientific analysis. Depending on the sort of features you want, most models are fairly inexpensive, easy to use, and accurate. Manufacturers with easy-to-use models include Polar, Timex, Suunto, Sigma Sport, and others. For more information about monitors and additional links on our website see www.bodyresults.com/p1heartratemonitors.asp.

Heart rate monitors also provide the following benefits:

  • You can systematically approach your workouts and see improvement over time. You will notice a gradual decrease in your working heart rate on workouts of comparable efforts as your fitness increases. You may also discover that you can work for longer periods of time at a higher heart rate, as your cardiovascular system gets stronger.
  • You will know the intensity of your workout and take the guesswork out of cardiovascular programming. When your training plan suggests you work out at 75%-80% of MHR and you have calculated that number as approximately 150 beats per minute (BPM), you will have a way to tell whether you are meeting your goal.
  • Monitors can help you maximize the benefits of workout out by detecting whether you are overtraining or undertraining.
  • Using a monitor during interval training can help you get a feeling for what it is like to be working at or near your anaerobic threshold. As you participate in other activities, you will know your limits and understand how much harder you can work (even without your heart rate monitor).
  • During circuit training, a monitor can help you know when to begin the next station by letting you know when your heart rate has dropped to a certain level.
  • Monitors can be valuable to pregnant exercisers who are trying to stay at or below a certain heart rate.
  • Using a monitor can help you to push your limits safely -- making workouts more interesting, fun, and challenging.

Relative Comparisons

You can roughly determine your heart rate zones by doing self-tests at varying intensities and times. Your 60-70% range is the heart rate number that you can sustain indefinitely (for hours at a time), as in the average number you see when you are out on a day-long hike. 70-80% would be the number you can sustain for roughly 45 minutes; 80-85% would be the number you see when you go hard for about 30 minutes. Interval training would put you into the 85-95% range and equates to short, intense segments, 20 seconds to 3 minutes in duration of hard, all out effort, before your body requires rest or recovery before repeating such effort again. Anything above 95% would be close to your “max heart rate” and anything below 60% would be for active recovery or rest days. When other methods fail, you can use your own numbers to create a ballpark scale for yourself. Happy training!


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