Question: I have read with great interest the discussion regarding stress tests for heart health. I’m 59 and just bought my first road bike in over 30 years. I’m addicted! I use a heart rate monitor and my maximum heart rate should be 161 beats per minute, but when climbing or riding hard I easily reach 155-160. Is it harmful to be so close to my maximum? — Hal H.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: It sounds like you’re basing your max heart rate on the “220 minus age” formula. If so, you need to know that this yields a statistical average and the original study had a standard deviation of 11 beats.
So, for someone 59, your max heart rate could be 161 bpm, but it could just as likely be 150 or 172. And some people exhibit a max heart rate outside the range. In short, the formula is next to worthless.
So, it’s likely that your max is higher than 161, which is why riding at 155-160 is doable for you. You’re probably riding at about 85-90% of your actual max, which is what riders generally see on climbs.
The best way to determine your real max heart rate is a graded exercise stress test done by a medical professional using a 12-lead EKG.
If you have your doctor’s blessing, you can approximate max HR by riding up a long hill at steadily increasing effort. Then when you’re going as hard as you can possibly go, sprint. The highest number you see on your heart monitor will be very close to your lab max (assuming you can see anything but black spots at that point).
Warning! This self-test is not recommended for older or out-of-shape riders because it’s not medically supervised. It’s much safer to do it in a monitored setting.