Why Max HR is Irrelevant, from RBR


Older Riders: Why Max Heart Rate Is Irrelevant

By Coach John Hughes

In last week’s newsletter Dr. Mirkin wrote an informative column Tips for Keeping Your Maximum Heart Rate Up As You Age.  He’s correct that the formula of (220 – your age) is a wildly inaccurate way to determine your maximum heart rate. However, your max heart rate – even if determined with a heart rate monitor by riding all out – is irrelevant.  Here’s why.

Mirkin writes, “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.

“Keeping your maximum heart rate up means that your heart is stronger, which allows you to exercise faster and longer.”

Your performance is a little more complicated.

Max Heart Rate Doesn’t Indicate Fitness

Max heart rate is largely a function of age and genetics not how fit you are.  Depending on how you picked your parents you may have a higher or lower heart rate. Your maximum heart rate changes very little with changes in fitness.

Cardiac output: Your cardiac output is a function of your heart rate and your stroke volume, how much blood your heart pumps per beat. Your cardiac output decreases by about 30% between the ages of 20 and 80. While your maximum HR inevitably declines, through exercise you can maintain your ability to sustain a reasonably high heart rate. You can also slow the decrease in the elasticity of your heart, which is what reduces stroke volume. In fact, with moderate-intensity exercise, you can improve your maximal oxygen uptake by 20-30% over a sedentary lifestyle, which is comparable to the increases observed in younger subjects.

VO2 max: Your cardiac output and hemoglobin concentration in your blood determine how much oxygen goes to your working muscles. What matters is how much of the O2 is used by your working muscles.  This is called your VO2 max, which is also called “aerobic capacity,” A rider is tested wearing a breathing apparatus that determines how much oxygen is inhaled and how much is exhaled. The difference is what was used by the muscles to produce energy. The more oxygen one can use, the more aerobically fit that person is.

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Coaches Don’t Use Max Heart Rate

Mirkin writes, “Exercise physiologists use your maximum heart rate to determine your level of fitness and guide the intensity of training.”

I have each new client do a 20-minute time trial to establish baseline fitness. After the TT the client reports to me:

  • Distance covered

  • Average speed

  • Level of perceived exertion if using rate of perceived exertion (RPE).

  • Average heart rate if using a heart rate monitor.

  • Normative power if using a power meter.

Note that I do not test for maximum heart rate.

From these I can extrapolate the rider’s anaerobic (lactate) threshold (AT) or functional threshold power (FTP) and RPE at AT. A rider’s RPE, AT or FTP all indicate current fitness and may change as the rider gets fitter. Because RPE, AT and FTP are a function of current fitness I base a rider’s training zones and workouts on these. To the best my knowledge no experienced coach uses max heart rate.

What You Can Do to Improve Performance

Increase VO2 max:  You can increase your VO2 max, although the workouts are very painful.  Warm up for 10-15 minutes. For the main set, start with 1 to 3 hard efforts of about 1 to 2 minutes. The recovery time between each hard effort is 100% to 200% of the duration of the hard effort. Increase the number and / or duration of the hard efforts week by week until you are doing 2 to 4 hard efforts of about 2 to 3 minutes, totaling about 4 to 12 minutes and with the recovery time between each hard effort still 100% – 200% of the duration of the hard efforts. The hard efforts should be at RPE 8+ on a 10 point scale, >105% of AT, 106-120% FTP.

Improve cycling efficiency: VO2 max isn’t the sole determinant of performance. How you use the O2 is also important. Imagine two riders with the same VO2 max who are climbing a sustained climb. The first rider is out of the saddle rocking the bike back and forth. The second rider is sitting rock solid as he pedals.  The second will get to the top faster.  Practice riding with your upper body motionless. This is a good drill on the trainer in front of a mirror this winter.

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Coordinate firing of muscles:  This is called neuromuscular facilitation. A muscle is composed of a number of motor units. A motor unit is a bundle of muscle fibers controlled by a specific nerve. When your brain tells a muscle to contract the motor units don’t naturally contract at the same time — you’re wasting oxygen. You can improve the firing pattern by practicing sprinting.  When you are sprinting you’re making maximum demand on your muscles and they respond by adapting so that the muscle fibers fire at the same time. Start with two or three 30-second sprints with full recovery (at least 10 minutes) between each sprint.

My column on 6 Kinds of Intensity Training explains the different kinds of intensity training.  Each of the six kinds brings about different adaptations.  This column explains how to pick the right kind to meet your goal(s).

After you’ve decided what kind of intensity training is best for you, my column Intensity Training for Maximum Benefit explains how to do intensity training.

You can download from my website a spreadsheet to determine your training zones.

Benefits of Exercise

Mirkin makes two important points:

Greater fitness slows decline: “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 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.”

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More generally the fitter your are and the more consistently you exercise the more slowly you lose overall fitness, not just max heart rate.

Exercising prolongs life. “Exercising as you age can also prolong your life and help prevent heart attacks, cancers, strokes, diabetes, being overweight and more.”

Scientists and physicians don’t know of anything that prevents these causes of death; however, exercise along with diet, stress management and a healthier lifestyle reduce the risk of death from one of these.

More Information

My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond.

The book explains why intensity training is important for older riders.  It includes how to do intensity exercise and different intensity workouts. It describes the pros and cons of gauging intensity using rate of perceived exertion, heart rate and power.

It explains how to get the most benefit from your endurance rides. It has sample training plans to increase your annual riding miles and to build up to 25-, 50-, 100- and 200-mile rides.  It explains why both endurance and intensity training are important and it integrates endurance and intensity training into an annual plan for optimal results.

Anti-Aging describes the importance of strength training and includes 28 exercises for lower body, upper body and core strength illustrated with photos. It includes an annual plan to integrate strength training with endurance and intensity training. It also has 14 stretches illustrated with photos. 

Anti-Aging includes an annual plan to put together all six of the aspects of aging well: cardiorespiratory exercise, intensity training, strength workouts, weight-bearing exercise, stretching and balance. The book concludes with a chapter on motivation.

Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook is $15.95 ($13.57 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).

Next Article: Hitting the Hills




Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.




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