Estimating Maximum Heart Rate And Lactate Threshold

RB28: Heart Rate Training – Calculating Maximum Heart Rate And Lactate Threshold

How to estimate maximum heart rate and lactate threshold for heart rate training


Show Notes:

In today’s episode, we continue our four part series on heart rate training.

In episode 26, I introduced the topic of heart rate training and how it can benefit your running. In episode 27, I shared the background information we need to fully understand how and why heart rate training works. Today, we’re going to look at estimating the key metrics that will help you properly set up your training zones. These include your resting heart rate, your maximum heart rate, and your lactate threshold.

A Quick Clarification about Resting Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability

Before we dive in, I want to spend a few minutes clarifying something I said in the last episode.

After I recorded and published the podcast, I caught something I said that may have come across as a little disjointed and which I felt I should clarify. It was the part about resting heart rate and how the rise in resting heart rate can be a potential symptom of over training.

Some research has shown that an increase in resting heart rate can be an early indication of over training.

While using resting heart rate is not always the most accurate way of detecting over training, there is something that does provide an early warning sign of the issue: heart rate variability.

Now, heart rate variability is a complex topic that really needs its own episode, but it’s worth touching on even briefly, as it can be a great source of bio feedback that you can apply to your training.

It’s an excellent way to determine whether or not your body is ready for a hard training effort. It can also tell you if you should take it easy with some extra recovery time.

While resting heart rate fluctuates quite a bit, more micro measurements, like the time it takes “between” heart beats, can be a great indicator of whether or not you need to cut back or ramp up your workouts for the day. These measurements can be detected through heart rate variability.

heart rate variability chart

Image attributed to Polar (

The basic idea is that not every heart beat is equally distant from one other. The distance, instead, varies.

Now, you may think it’d be a good thing if every heart beat was equally distant from each other. In actuality though, you want variance in the space between your heart beats. The more variance, the higher the heart rate variability.

Why would you want a higher heart rate variability?

Well, a higher heart rate variability indicates a relaxed, low-stress physiological state. A lower heart rate variability indicates a need for recovery, rest, and sleep.

For a great graphic and description of heart rate variability, check out the topic on Polar’s website.

So I just wanted to clear up any confusion produced from the last episode. While a low resting heart rate is a good thing, it’s also genetically influenced and can be somewhat lowered the healthier you get. When testing my own resting heart rate, I just did not see enough increase to signify anything significant, despite trying to do whatever I could to test that theory out by running extra hard, without rest days, and so on.

This doesn’t mean the science behind resting heart rate is bad – I’ve just found that resting heart rate can change based on a whole lot of conditions, and not just running. Alternatively, heart rate variability is a more detailed measurement. What I don’t know – or haven’t studied enough – is just how much heart rate variability can be influenced by other external factors. My guess is that, like resting heart rate, it can also be impacted.

I’ll try to dig into this a little more and maybe, in a future episode, I’ll share what I learned.

Estimating Your Heart Rate

All the techniques in today’s episode will be based on an estimation approach. In other words, the results won’t be entirely perfect.

If, in addition to running, you bike or swim, these estimations will not apply to your maximum heart rate when you are doing these activities. There are separate tests for cycling and swimming because of the different nature of these exercises.

In my honest opinion, the most accurate way to get your maximum heart rate, lactate threshold, and resting heart rate is to get tested in a performance sports lab.

Yet many sports labs are now also using estimation to determine maximum heart rate. Or they might be using an alternative approach, like lactate threshold, because the traditional method of being tested for maximum heart rate increases the level of suck needed by the runner in order to accurately measure it.

While not perfect, estimation will be close enough for all but the pickiest of athletes.

With estimation, you can come close enough to perfect results so that you can effectively train based on these estimated metrics.

In the next section, I’m going to walk you through a few ways you can calculate the metrics you need to determine your training zones. In the next episode, we will actually create your training zones.

The Maximum Heart Rate Estimation Test

In this approach, you either get lab tested on a treadmill or you estimate the numbers through a series of running drills where you run as fast as you can in a progressive manner.

The advantage of lab testing is that they can often do VO2 max testing and lactate threshold testing at the same time, which gives you much more valuable training information.

If you’re interested in getting lab tested, I recommend reaching out to a University that has an exercise science or physiology program. Or, if you’re near a large city, you might be able to find some form of performance science center or fitness facility that does advanced testing.

While maximum heart rate can be estimated based on running all out over a series of runs, it is highly discouraged.

You should not attempt this without professional guidance.

Running at a 100% all-out effort can increase your risk of having a cardiac event. Do not do this! In fact, I am so against calculating your maximum heart rate in this matter, I won’t even tell you how to do so.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of these types of estimation methods. Maximum heart rate testing carries a risk that I do not feel is worth taking and, for most people, lab testing simply isn’t feasible due to cost or lack of lab facilities available.

There are much more effective (and safer!) ways to calculate your heart rate zones, and we’ll cover them shortly.

The 220 – Age Formula

Before we delve into more favorable ways to determine your maximum heart rate, let’s go over one more flawed method. This approach, in all honestly, is utter crap, but I cover it anyways because you’ll see it published all over.

The method is based on the following formula:

220 – age

It’s extremely simple but, unfortunately, has been proven over and over again to be inaccurate unless you are a part of the small population where this formula can predict an accurate result base on your age, genetics, and so on.

A quick story …

Long before I studied running, I received my first GPS running watch – it came with a heart rate monitor. It was a Garmin 305 and it was a rocking watch, despite making me feel like I was carrying a big brick on my wrist. I mainly purchased it for the GPS and pace capabilities but, since it came with a heart rate chest strap, I figured – what the hell – I’ll train using heart rate.

In order to learn how to train using heart rate, I went online and read the first article I could find. The article suggested that I use the formula 220 minus my age and, voila, I had what I thought was maximum heart rate. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was something near 180 bpm.

After quickly calculating my heart rate zones, I fired the thing up and headed out on my run. A few minutes into hitting the pavement, the watch started chirping at me because my heart rate zones were way off. So, I stopped, tweaked the zone settings, and then resumed my run. This time I made it about 10 minutes before my watch chirped at me again, telling me I was still training at too high of an intensity. However, I was not even close to running too hard.

After a few more attempts of tweaking my watch and still not getting things right, I began to wonder if my watch was broken. I was cruising along, no where near tired, yet, apparently, had hit what was supposed to be my maximum heart rate.

But, as I soon learned, my watch was not defective – my maximum heart rate was actually much higher than the formula indicated.

Later on, I would pick up heart rate training again and learn how to use it correctly, but that wasn’t for another few years.

So, Where does that Leave Us?

If the first two options are not recommended, what options are there?

Well, I have good news – there are here are two popular (and less invasive) ways to estimate your training zones.

I’m still on the fence as to what one is better, but both are sound advice and well received by the running population. The best advice I can give is to try each of them out, and use which one seems to work better for you.

The Joel Friel Lactate Threshold Estimation Test

As the name suggests, this approach was developed by Joe Friel. Joe has been coaching amateur and professional endurance athletes since 1980 and is the author of the popular book on heart rate training called: Total Heart Rate Training: Customize and Maximize Your Workout Using a Heart Rate Monitor(#amazonlink).

What we’re basically striving for with heart rate training is to mostly run in an aerobic state. We only want to train in an anaerobic state on a small percentage of our runs.

So far so good?

But, to determine where the cross over point between these two states is, you need to estimate your lactate threshold. You can accomplish this by using the Joe Friel test.

If you need a refresher on lactate threshold and aerobic and anaerobic states, go back to episode 27.

To do this test, I’m going to quote directly from Joe’s own words. He makes it as clear possible and I honestly can’t word it any better.

All that’s required is running as hard as you can possibly go for 30 minutes ALL BY YOURSELF. It must be solo. Doing this as a part of a race or with training partners will change the outcome. Your number will be too high. If you want to do it with others or as a part of a race then you need to make it 60 minutes duration instead of 30.

Once you’ve captured the data in your device download it to your software and find your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes. That’s an approximation of your lactate threshold heart rate. If you don’t have software all you have to do is push the lap button 10 minutes into the test. That will then capture the last 20 minutes as a standalone “interval.” Your average heart rate for that portion is close to your lactate threshold heart rate. Note that this DOES NOT mean that you go easy for 10 minutes and then turn it on with 20 minutes remaining. It’s 30 minutes all out.

Do not watch your heart rate during the test. You’re not trying to produce a given number. Do not be concerned with anything other than are you going as hard as you can go right now. If the answer is “yes” then you are doing the test right.

Once you have your lactate threshold heart rate, you now have the upper limit of your aerobic zone. Anything above this is anaerobic training and anything below this is aerobic training.

This still isn’t an easy test, but it’s one that’s safer than a maximum heart rate test.

In my opinion, it’s a great approach and one that I would use with athletes who do not mind pushing themselves hard.

The Phil Maffetone Maximum Aerobic Function Test

Now if you want a kinder, gentler approach than the Joe Friel estimation test, or to “ease” into heart rate training, you can try the Phil Maffetone test, sometimes referred to as MAF.

The Phil Maffetone approach is a formula based approach, but, instead of calculating maximum heart rate it, helps you calculate your maximum upper aerobic limit.

Phil came up with this formula by studying actual research results over many, many years and through observation of those he coached or studied. You can learn more about the MAF test, by going to his website.

The reason I like this approach better than the 220-age formula, is that it accounts for a lot of the variability that can occur with your heart rate. It also takes into account factors such as your age, tendency to get injured, training habits, and fitness level.

Here is how it works:

To find your maximum aerobic training heart rate, there are two important steps. First, subtract your age from 180. Next, find the best category for your present state of fitness and health, and make the appropriate adjustments:

1. Subtract your age from 180.

2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:

a. If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.

b. If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.

c. If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.

d. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.


The 180 Formula may need to be further individualized for people over the age of sixty-five. An honest self-assessment is important and you may need to adjust.

For athletes sixteen years of age and under, the formula is not applicable; rather, a heart rate of 165 may be best.

Once you have your maximum aerobic training heart rate, subtract 10 beats per minute to get your max aerobic training zone.

So, if your maximum aerobic training heart rate was 150, then 140-150 would be your max aerobic training zone. Anything above 150 would be an anaerobic training zone and anything less than 140 would be an aerobic training zone – even lower might be a recovery zone.

Training zones will be covered in more detail in the next episode.

What’s Next for Heart Rate Training

With that, I think we’re at a great stopping point!

Join me in episode 29, where we wrap up the series on heart rate training and finalize our training zones. I’ll also share some heart rate training tips that you can use to better apply this training technique to your own individual situation.

With that, happy running and see you next time!

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How to estimate maximum heart rate and lactate threshold

About the Author Steve Carmichael

Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach who has helped thousands of runners since 2010. He coaches online as well as locally in the Columbus, Ohio area. He is host of RunBuzz Running a top rated running podcast with 150+ episodes available for free on all major podcast apps. Steve resides in Lewis Center, Ohio with his wife, kids, and dog.

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