Max HR determination…Do you need it?

  • Creator
  • #3932

    Steve and I just got this question posed to us and would like to answer it here on the Forum so all can see it.

    Hi Scott & Steve –

    First off, have to say fantastic work on Training for the New Alpinism and this site. Both are top-notch resources, and the fact that you’re willing to dedicate time answering questions on this forum in addition to your regular work speaks volumes about the kind of folks you both are. It’s much appreciated!

    I’ve tried twice now to determine my max heart rate using a treadmill and heart rate monitor, and I feel like I’m missing something and not getting to a max cardiac response. Quick background in case it’s helpful — I’m a 28-year-old male who’s been active my whole life and spent the last 4 years focusing on running ultramarathons, up to 100 milers. So I would imagine I’m fairly aerobically fit, but by no means elite.

    The max heart rate I got on the two tests was 180 and 176, respectively. On the first test I was perhaps not fully rested and chalked the lower-than-expected result up to that. The second test I was fully rested but I think I tried to ramp up the effort too quickly after warming up and fatigued my muscles faster than the heart/lungs could catch up. I don’t know — how much can botching the test in these ways affect the result? Could I be 5 beats per minute off? 10?

    Based on rule-of-thumb general formulas I would predict my max heart rate should be somewhere around 185 – 192. I’ve also found my aerobic threshold at 160 beats per minute, which would be unrealistically high (89%!) if my max heart rate was only 180. After experimenting with this a couple times on the treadmill I do feel confident that 160 beats per minute is my true aerobic threshold, yet this seems too high; it would be 84% of a 190 max, for instance.

    So, either my 160 beats per minute aerobic threshold is a much higher percentage of my max heart rate than I would expect based on my previous training, or it’s an incorrect result, or I truly haven’t been able to elicit a max cardiac response — or all of the above. Thanks everyone for any and all help.

    Nate; Thanks for taking the time to write us with regards to determining you max HR. From your comment about a standardized formula for HR max I gather that you want to know this so you can apply a formula for fixing the training zones you might use. First, let me try to disabuse you of the idea that ANY percentage formulaic approach to finding your own personal max or training zones is a good method for you to use. We included the % of maxHR type of zone calculation in our book because so many people are familiar with it and for the completely uninitiated it should get them in the ball park. In the next printing we will extensively edit that portion of the book. We tried to mitigate the influence of this somewhat arbitrary method by including the ventilatory marker for Aerobic Threshold. The UA website contains more information for determining both the AeT and the second ventilatory threshold that corresponds closely to the Lactate or Anaerobic Threshold.

    Back to you and your question. The chances of your max HR being 220 minus your age or any other % of some number is slim. especially for a well trained person like yourself these formulas wil not be effective. The fitter the athlete the more individualized must be his training to deal with his specific weaknesses. These % formulas are averages taken across large populations. How average are you??? So forget formulas and look for some real metabolic markers to help set your intensity zones. With your ultra distance running background it is very likely that your AeT is quite high relative to your max but more importantly high relative to your AnT or LT. Developing a high aerobic capacity should be the primary goal of every endurance athlete. It sounds like you have this quality. If you are correct with respect to your AeT HR, and there is only one sure way to find out (see below), then your aerobic base is well established and you will benefit from adding a judicious amount of higher intensity training to your plan.

    If you are really looking to improve performance and dial in your training zones you need to get a test to help you determine your metabolic response to exercise. This can be a simple blood lactate test all the way up to a full blown gas exchange test that gives the % of fat vs carbs at many different intensities along with VO2 and lactates. We recommend this test for most of our high level coached athletes. It is the only way to definitively know what is going on inside your muscles when you run.

    I hope this helps.

  • Participant
    ConMan on #3949

    Scott, I think that is great that you guys will more or less move on from the max HR and % zones in a future edition (at least that is how I read it). I know it is hard to completely ditch them, but there are much more sophisticated methods which I wouldn’t consider to be that expensive relative to the amount of time sunk into training, the cost of trips, equipment etc.

    Assuming the above is hinting at lactate testing, I would also hope there would be some additional material in relation how to use lactate testing. I’ve found the spectrum to be wide from “freds” wanting to just know their “anaerobic threshold” and train above that, to people using 4 mmol/l as the aerobic cut off, to some using 2 mmol/l as the aerobic threshold to some labs suggesting HR below the 2 mmol/l HR number to Olbrecht mainly using it as a marker(s) for the efficacy of the training period (meaning, one test means nothing, you need multiple tests, and you need time to figure out what is working).

    In other words, it would be nice to have your take on how to APPLY the testing results. I personally looked at a CU physiology lab report and found it leave a lot of questions (mainly posed from the person who shared his information with me). I think after reading Olbrecht’s book and the “secrets of lactate” material from, they have much better information on how to apply the testing and its results.

    Nate Bender on #3954

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the detailed feedback. Yes, I’ve been interested in determining my max heart rate in order to determine my different training zones, and also to double-check the results from the separate AeT and AnT tests I’ve done. Having never done any of this sort of testing or really paid attention to my heart rate at all before, I wanted to make sure the results I was getting were valid, or at least in the range of possibility.

    I 100% understand that using any sort of standardized formula to determine max heart rate will not be accurate. I was only using those formulas to give myself an idea of the range my max heart rate should theoretically be in, again just trying to find ways to double-check my test results.

    Reading your response I realize now that I was too focused on determining my training zones as percentages of my max heart rate, and should really just trust the results I get from the AeT and AnT tests. Since posting that initial question, I’ve signed up to test these thresholds with a blood lactate & gas exchange test at the local university (I’ll likely do this later this week), so your recommendation makes me feel confident I’m making the right decision.

    And re: ConMan, I agree — some articles on interpreting the results from such tests is a great suggestion for the site.

    Anonymous on #3956


    In our defense: When we wrote the book we were trying to keep it simple and given our experience with climbers we felt that ANY for of controlled intensity would be better than none and that climbers being a tight bunch would be loathe to spend money on testing when most of them were not convinced of the need to train anyway. The book as had a profound effect on moving climbers toward more structured training as many see the gains they are able to make. This was not the case when we started the book in 2011.

    Agreed that I need to write some articles about testing in general and lactate testing in particular. Those are on my, rather long, list of thins that need articles. Testing is a pet peeve of mine because I encounter, regularly testing labs that have bought some very expensive and nice equipment that came with a canned testing protocol. These labs want to sell you their canned test so they can pay off their machine. Want a maxVO2 test or LT or AnT test? No problem. Ask them for an aerobic threshold determination and as if my experience is typical over half of them will respond with a blank stair and IF they know what it is will want to know why you want to test for that. A surprising number will not even know what it is or why it is important. This is why we tend to send folks to university sports testing labs. Contrary to your experience we have had great success with the CU Sports Medicine facility in Boulder with many athletes. Their tests give very complete information and are simple to interpret.

    I agree that more frequent lactate testing is useful and may lead to better informed training. However there are many things that affect, especially, the Lactate or Anaerobic threshold and so interpretation is not an easy matter. So, just buying a lactate meter and doing spot checks may not help much if the numbers are taken out of context. I commend you for having read Olbrecht’s book. It is almost as hard to buy as it is to understand. There is so much great info in there that my copy is heavily notated and I refer to it often. I once was speaking to the head of the US Swimming Olympic Development program and while he acknowledged the importance of the book he confessed that he couldn’t understand most of it.

    There is so much misinformation and confusion about the Lactate threshold. does a good job of clarifying things. An anaerobic/Lactate threshold article is on the list. If for no other reason than to explain how the 4mMol marker can to be so misinterpreted.

    My in basket is overflowing with articles half done.


    Anonymous on #3958


    Good for you to take the plunge and get tested. The info will tell you most of what you need to know about determining appropriate HRs to control intensity. For anyone seeking to maximize their training this is money well spent. In case you have not read it on this forum and I know it is here somewhere in one of my replies, here it is again.

    Note the difference between AeT and AnT from this test in terms of HR. I have used this method for many years, especially with developing athletes as a way to determine when the aerobic capacity is high enough for that current training cycle to where the athlete needs to add more intensity into their routine. With world class and elite level athletes; they already start the new training cycle with the AnT-AeT< 10% (I have seen as low as 5% difference) so they do intensity early in the base period. They have the aerobic capacity to support it. On the other hand, juniors, beginners and especially those with an extensive background in high intensity interval based exercise protocols (I can’t in good conscience, call Crossfit ‘training’) they have very underdeveloped aerobic capacity (we call this ADS;Aerobic Deficiency Syndrome). With ADS we often see a spread of 40% between AeT and AnT. For the poorly trained, moving this % for adults is highly individual in terms of response time. But we usually see some movement occurring around 8 weeks of aerobic base training but for some folks it will be 12 weeks to get much response.

    I am currently working on an article about the epidemic we are seeing of ADS due, I believe, to the popular fitness fad of all high intensity all the time. This is wrecking peoples aerobic systems. I tested a CF gym owner, a young, fit guy. He stepped on the treadmill and at a brisk walk at a HR of 110 I measured 12mMol/L of lactate. He has virtually NO fat metabolism. He is fully into his highly developed glycolytic system even at a walking pace. I have similarly tested and gone on to coach and repair the aerobic damage of several other CF practitioners. In each case I saw very similar lactate results. So, while CF is fun and and great exercise it is not training and it certainly is not effective endurance training.

    Ok, ok, I’m off track.
    Good luck on your test and even if you don’t know what 12mMol/L means now. It will take on a whole new meaning after your test.


    ConMan on #3959

    Scott, I hope you don’t see my comment as a jab. I would hate to be tasked with boiling down the physiology for everyone to understand. Certainly, your guys’ book has done more for the “sport” than anyone else will do in a lifetime.

    BY the way, olbrechts book is available on Kindle via Amazon. I got my hard copy from But, I have found olbrechts book to be easy understand at times,.especislly the physiology part and how both systems work together, but training one alone will leave the other in tatters. Hence, the reason the lactate. Com testing protocol makes sense to me by doing both an aerobic test and an Anaerobic test. It is certainly interesting and I’m patiently awaiting your take on it.

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