Question: I’ve been trying to calculate my heart rate for different training zones. I’m confused. Some authorities say to base the percentages on max heart rate while others say lactate threshold should be used. One book says to figure max heart rate using the “220 minus your age” formula, while another says I should get a lab test. Can you simplify this mess? — Keith L.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: True confession — all these heart rate ranges confuse me, too! Seems like the deeper you get into training zones, the murkier things become. If there were “ideal” heart rate ranges for everything from hard training to recovery, shouldn’t the experts agree?
In fact, no such precise heart rates exist. For each of us, heart rate for a given power output varies from day to day depending on things like our state of hydration, mental condition, whether we’re fresh or tired, and environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity.
The “220 minus age” formula for determining max heart rate is based on a study that had a standard deviation of 11. So for many people, the max produced by this formula is incorrect.
The only way to know your max is to perform a test in which exertion drives your heart to its limit. This doesn’t need to take place in a lab, but it should never be done without your doctor’s approval and someone on hand to help, just in case.
There’s nothing wrong with using a heart monitor for training if you understand its limitations. Ideally, you will combine heart rate with your rating of perceived exertion and a power meter that objectively tells you the power you’re producing — how hard you’re really going.
I think the real key to training is perceived exertion. For instance, recovery rides should be so easy that you don’t feel much pressure on the pedals. They should be “guilt-producingly slow,” in the words of cycling coach Skip Hamilton. The idea is to take a walk on the bike. You shouldn’t need a heart monitor or power meter to know if you’re going easy enough.