4 Most Effective Ways to Determine Maximum Heart Rate
I’ve spent a few pages talking about how important long, aerobic riding is and how to dial in your effort on those rides. The most accessible metric (and my favorite!) for long rides is heart rate. Even if you have a power meter, always wear your heart rate monitor! I usually aim for a range around 75% of my maximum heart rate for those rides when riding by HR.
OK, Kurt, but how the heck do you know your maximum heart rate?
There are a few ways to determine your maximum heart rate, but let’s start with what NOT to do:
220 – your age (NO!)
You’ve probably heard of this formula, and I’m sure there’s terrific science behind it (or not), but the fact is it’s just not very accurate for athletes, particularly older athletes. My maximum heart rate on the bike as measured this year is 184bpm, but I’m 44 years old. That’s an 8 bpm difference, which might not seem like a lot, but when you’re setting training zones for your riding, that can be the entire spread of a training zone! That’s massive. And it only gets worse as you get older.
Your maximum heart rate will decline with age, but regular aerobic training will slow that decline quite a bit.
I’m a runner, and my Max HR when running is _____ (NO! with a qualifier)
Your cycling maximum heart rate and running maximum heart rate will not be the same. In fact, studies and anecdotal evidence show that many people will have a maximum heart rate that is 5 to 10 bpm higher than for cycling . As above, we want to be as accurate as reasonably possible when setting training targets, so we can do better.
Qualifier: It is reasonable to take a recently tested maximum heart rate from running and subtract 7 to 10 bpm to get a good estimate of your cycling maximum heart rate. You want to ensure you’ve done a maximum HR test running protocol within the last year to trust this number.
Great Kurt, you’re so negative… so what should I do?
Three Field Test Protocols:
The most important thing to get right in any of the field tests below is to ensure you are well rested, well hydrated, and healthy prior to conducting any of these tests. Fatigue, inadequate cooling, dehydration, illness, and other factors can compromise the accuracy of any heart rate-based test. If in doubt, talk to your doctor about whether you should pursue these types of extremely challenging, maximum efforts.
Warmup (prior to any test): Warm up at least 10-15 minutes of riding prior to any field test.
1. Indoor Trainer Ramp Test
Popular indoor training platforms such as TrainerRoad and Zwift offer ramp tests as functional threshold power (FTP) test protocols. While I only recommend those tests for a very narrow range of athletes for testing FTP, they can be good for determining your maximum heart rate. In fact, the highest heart rate I’ve seen on a bike in the last five years was on a TrainerRoad ramp test in 2019.
You can execute a test like this on your own with a smart trainer, or a “dumb” trainer with power as well. Start by pedaling at 100W for one minute. Every minute add 20W to your effort. Continue adding 20W every minute until failure. No breaks! To get this right, you really must bury yourself… we’re looking for a maximum heart rate, after all. Your heart rate when you finally stop pedaling will be a good estimate of your cycling maximum HR. (You can also execute a TrainerRoad or Zwift ramp test and get the same estimate).
2. Indoor/Outdoor Max Time Trial-Sprint Test
After your warmup, ride a 10-minute, maximum time trial effort on your trainer or outdoors (no stops/pauses). During the last minute, go all out, as hard as you can holding nothing back, and SPRINT the final 30 seconds. Record your maximum heart rate during this effort. Continue pedaling and cool down.
Be very careful any time you sprint on a trainer - you can seriously damage your bike or injure yourself trying maximum effort sprints on a trainer. For that reason, in order to be most accurate, this test is best done outdoors where you can go as hard as possible in a safe area.
3. Outdoor Hill Climb Test
Following a warmup, find a hill that takes around 3 minutes to climb with a steep grade near the top (some ideas: Tidepools in Point Loma, “The Wall” on the Great Western Loop, or Surrey Drive in Bonita). Ride the hill as hard and fast as you can. Recover fully, and then repeat the climb at least two more times at maximum effort, going as hard as you can on the steep section near the top! Recover for 10-15 minutes and record your maximum heart rate of all of the efforts as your max HR.
Note: If you’ve never tested your max HR before, I recommend conducting your chosen test a couple of times with at least one week in between tests, ensuring you are rested each time. You can try multiple protocols, but any of these can give you a good maximum heart rate.
4. One more viable method:
If you are a racer, and you’ve raced recently, you may be able to get your maximum heart rate from one of your race files. Look for an effort where you competed the field sprint at the end of a fast, hard race, or if you bridged to a breakaway, you may see your maximum heart rate there.
The bottom line is, there are a lot of ways to get a maximum HR value, but you must go HARD… really HARD… to get there. Try one (or all!) of those protocols – be safe. Hit me up with any questions! Next time we’ll cover how to set HR training zones.
1) Millet GP, Vleck VE, Bentley DJ. Physiological differences between cycling and running: lessons from triathletes. Sports Med. 2009;39(3):179-206.