How To Calculate Optimal Exercise Heart Rates

How To Calculate Optimal Exercise Heart Rates

Apparently more of us are running than ever before. I notice it, particularly on weekends. Once I got myself through a Couch to 5k program early this year I started to get a little more interested in the science of running. And one of the things I wanted to know was what my heart rate should be while exercising.

For as long as I can remember, the way to calculate your maximum heart rate was a simple calculation of 220 less your age. In my case, that makes my maximum heart rate 175.

In general, if you’re training for weight loss, you’d aim to keep your heart rate at about 65% of the maximum. To increase aerobic capacity you’d shoot for around 75 per cent and if you’re looking to improve your anaerobic performance then your target heart rate is around the 85 per cent mark.

The trouble with this system is that the starting assumption is that your maximum heart rate is directly correlated to your age. While that’s a good indicator, we’re all different.

A recent article in Runner’s World magazine suggested a more scientific way of calculating your training zones. It uses your Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) rather than an age-based calculation.

To calculate your HRR you need to determine your maximum heart rate. The suggestion is to engage in some activity in an all-out effort. If you’re going to do this, we strongly suggest you do it after being checked out by your doctor and ensuring that you’re not taking any risks.

Next, you’ll need to measure your resting heart rate. This one’s easy – measure your pulse for a full minute before getting out of bed.

Your HRR is your maximum heart rate less your resting heart rate.

The training zones work similarly to the old approach but they’re calculated differently when using the HRR method. To train for fat burning, you work at around 65 per cent of your HRR plus your resting heart rate.

So, let’s say my maximum heart rate is 160 and resting heart rate is 60. That gives me a HRR of 100. To train for fat burning, I’d need to maintain my heart rate at about (160-60) * 0.65 + 60 = 125 beats per minute.

Under the age-based method, I’d need to train at about 114 beats per minute, or about 10 per cent less.

Are you a runner? Do you use a heart rate monitor to guide your activity?

Heart Rate Training: Is It Right for You? [Runner’s World]


  • I’m a runner and while I used to use heart rate to train with I ended up finding after a couple of years just using percived effort and GPS worked easier for me. It can be good to use heart rate in longer races to make sure you keep your exertion under control but in general training I think GPS and your gut feeling is best.

  • Always use a heart rate monitor when training on the bike or running.

    Never use one when I actually race.

  • Using that calculation my max heart rate should be 186. The highest I’ve seen from my (an admittedly cheap & dodgy) HRM is 196.

    I’ve just updated to a new better quality Garmin unit now, the highest I hit last night was 186 but I never felt I was at my maximum. If anything I didn’t even feel like I was in the 180’s at all, but that could also be something to do with my body continuing to improve now I’m no longer smoking.

    Edit: Note – this is all for cycling. I personally loathe jogging, though might give it another go once my fitness improves more.

    • Last night I was at 189 for a good minute. Not on purpose, I was pushing it up a hill but not watching my HRM. Only on reviewing later did I find this out. I hate going above 185 though as it gives me headaches. For that reason I try not to get to my maximum exertion.

  • Another way is to maintain your effort to that which enables you to just barely hold a conversation. If you are too out of breath to talk, then you’re going too fast. If talking comes easily, you’re not going fast enough.

  • I haven’t found a method to work this out correctly for myself. I’m 27 and reach 197bpm when giving it 100%, but I run quite a bit and usually find myself around the 175-180 mark when jogging casually.

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