By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
Your maximum heart rate is the fastest your heart can beat and still pump blood effectively through your body. As you age, your maximum heart rate drops. This means that your heart is weaker and more susceptible to damage, and you can’t exercise as fast over distance as you could when you were younger.
How fast you can run, cycle, ski or swim over distance is limited by the time that it takes to move oxygen into your muscles. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, so the faster your heart can beat, the more blood it can pump to your muscles and the faster you can move.
Exercise physiologists use your maximum heart rate to determine your level of fitness and guide the intensity of training. A recent study from Ball State University in Indiana shows that exercising as you age slows down the loss of maximum heart rate (Med Sci Sports Exerc, Jan, 2016;48(1):73-81). Keeping your maximum heart rate up means that your heart is stronger, which allows you to exercise faster and longer. Exercising as you age can also prolong your life and help prevent heart attacks, cancers, strokes, diabetes, being overweight and more.
Nearly 650 healthy men and women, ages 18-80, not taking any heart-rate-altering medications, completed two treadmill all-out efforts at least one year apart. The older participants had lower average maximum heart rates, but those who were most fit and had the highest values had the least drop in their maximum heart rates over the year, regardless of age.
Strong Legs Enable a Higher Maximum Heart Rate
The standard Maximum Heart Rate Formula (220 – Age) is based on averages and is not accurate. You can beat these averages if you exercise effectively. Your actual maximum heart rate depends more on the strength of your legs than it does on the strength of your heart.
When you contract your leg muscles, they squeeze against the blood vessels near them to pump blood from your leg veins toward your heart. When your leg muscles relax, your leg veins fill with blood. When you exercise, your leg muscles pump increased amounts of blood toward your heart. This increased volume of blood fills the heart, which causes your heart to beat faster and stronger. This is called the Bainbridge reflex. The stronger your legs are, the more blood they can pump back to your heart, which causes your heart to beat faster.
Wisely Using Maximum Heart Rate Formulae
Maximum heart rate formulae can be used to help you plan and monitor your exercise program, but they should not be interpreted as absolute limits or goals. If you want to train to become faster by increasing your maximum heart rate, you should follow a program based on “stress and recover.” To increase your maximum heart rate, you need to become short of breath at some time during your exercise. However, when you exercise at high intensity, you damage muscles and have to allow time for them to recover. If you don’t allow muscles to recover, you can become injured and can develop an overuse syndrome in which you are exhausted and won’t be able to exercise at all.
I believe that all healthy people should use some variation of a stress-and-recover exercise program, in which they damage their muscles by going a little harder and faster on one day, then feel soreness in their muscles and go much slower on the next day. When their muscles feel fresh again, they can take another intense workout.
For example, a runner may warm up by going slowly and then run a little faster for 50 strides, then slow down until he recovers his breath and his muscles feel fresh, and then alternate the faster and slower runs until his legs start to feel heavy or hurt. On the next day, his muscles should feel sore and he either takes the day off or runs very slowly. He should try to set up a program in which he goes faster on one day and much slower on the next.
- A hard day means getting short of breath and feeling some burning in your muscles.
- An easy day means that you do not become short of breath and should not feel muscle soreness as you continue to exercise. If your legs feel heavy after you warm up, take a day off from exercising.
- You don’t need to know your maximum heart rate.
- You don’t need to use a maximum heart rate formula to govern your training.
- You don’t need a heart rate monitor.
- All training should be governed by how you feel.
- Never train intensely when your muscles feel worse as you continue to exercise.
Caution: People who have narrowed arteries leading to the heart can suffer heart attacks when they exercise intensely. All vigorous exercisers must learn when to back off of training because not allowing enough time to recover from hard exercise can damage your heart muscle as well as your skeletal muscles. Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program or making a sudden change in the intensity of your existing program.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.
A better formula for max heart rate: 211 minus 64% of your age.
Kerry Irons says
All of these formulas have LARGE standard deviations and so are essentially useless for any given individual.
Interesting formula – is this formula based on research?
Since you can get a HR monitor for next to nothing now I’d disagree on the point that you don’t need to use a HR monitor. It helps provide useful feedback and a measure of progress. That does not mean you ignore other metrics such as feel but use them in conjunction.
What is Dr Gabe Mirkin’s p.o.v. of this recently published Mayo Clinic study looking at long term effects of intense exercise? Should racers now reconsider competing, and only perform mod-intensity exercise – interspersed w only a few short bouts of high-intensity activities?
…white men who exercise at high levels, around seven and a half hours a week, are about 90 percent more likely to have a buildup of plaque in their heart arteries by middle age than those who exercise at low levels, less than two and a half hours a week according to a study from the University of Illinois….
Any recommendations for those taking blood pressure medications? Mine seems to restrict my Max HR. I now take my meds post-ride, but I’m not sure if that helps.
Road Bike Rider says
You should talk to your doctor and let him or her know that you’re an endurance athlete and ask about blood pressure medications that are suited for exercise that would work for you. Beta blockers are sometimes used as blood pressure medicine, and they definitely limit your heart rate, for example. If the doctor didn’t know you are an athlete, they might not have considered this as they chose a specific medication.
Steve C says
I’ve seen maximum heart rate formulas that use tour resting heart rate as one of the variables.
Is there a relationship between maximum heart rate and resting heart rate and is the range between the two significant?
Steve C says
Ninth word should be “your”.
I agree with Martin. Having a HR monitor gives you a view of what’s going on with your resting and working heartbeat. I am 57 and definitely not a professional athlete, but have a resting of 29-36 and top out at 177.
With those numbers, I now have a personal benchmark.
The 211 minus 64% of your age is a better guide for maximum heart rate.
I’m 74, resting 50 bpm max is 172
David L says
Maybe I missed Dr Gabe Mirkin’s p.o.v. on the published Mayo Clinic study looking at long term effects of intense exercise? Should racers now reconsider competing, and only perform mod-intensity exercise from Giuseppe, Oct 20, 2017 response above.
I’m 68 and have been doing intense mtn. and road bike rides for last 35 years. My MHR used to be 182 but now 178. My avg. time on the bike now is 5 1/2 hrs. wk. My resting HR is 52 when I’m rested. However after intense rides my resting HR is usually around 58-60. I have no known heart or blood pressure problems and take no heart or blood pressure meds. After doing my own internet research (for what ever that’s worth) I would say it’s more to do with genetics and how well a person have and are taken care of their health. That being said I would like to know the Dr’s opinion on the subject of long term effects of intense exercise.