This is a reprint of an article, which has become the basis for the heart rate training philosophy of the Indoor Cycling Association. That Max HR chart you are using? You might want to toss it for good. How many times have you heard from your students that the heart rate you asked for is just too easy? How many times have you been faced with comments from students that they "rode at 95% for the entire class", but you know that that would be impossible?
Indoor cycling instructors are faced with a conundrum. The fitness industry is "stuck" on the concept of using age to determine max heart rate (MHR), yet we know it is an incorrect assumption. Even worse, the bogus formula of 220- age = max heart rate is ubiquitous; every cardio machine and heart rate monitor that asks you for your age is using that formula to prescribe training zones based on MHR.
You are no better off than if you closed your eyes and threw a dart at the maximum heart rate chart. Studies have shown that maximum heart rate does not correlate well with age. We know that it doesn't decline by one beat on your birthday every year. This formula of 220 - age (or 226 - age for females) was never intended by the original authors to be a universal formula; rather it was intended to prescribe a safe exercise level for patients in cardiac rehab. It was the line of best fit in a regression analysis of limited data.
But somehow, it has stuck. The formula can be off by as much as 20-30 beats in either direction, which is a huge margin of error, and it may apply to perhaps only 30% of the population. In any other industry, those statistics would be considered far too invalid on which to base a theory, but in fitness, it is the cornerstone of most programs.
In my years of personal training, teaching spinning, coaching, and performing metabolic tests, I have found that more often than not, the age-predicted maximum heart rate (APMHR) formula underestimates MHR. I myself am an anomaly, with an actual maximum that for most of my life has been lower than the APMHR (i.e. my MHR is overestimated), so I will use myself as an example to show that if in fact the formula does match your MHR, it may only be by coincidence.
When I was 36. I was racing mountain bikes and often reached my actual maximum heart rate in a race, because the nature of the sport is extremely difficult and intense. The highest heart rate I ever attained -- one that produced a fleeting blurred vision and a sensation of nausea if I were to attempt to continue -- was 176. I never liked being at this intensity, which might also tell you that I wasn't a very successful mountain bike racer, but that is another story.
Using the gender adapted APMHR of 226 - 36 predicted a max HR for me of 190. You can see that my actual maximum was 14 beats lower; that's significant. Does my lower maximum heart rate mean I am less fit? No, it has absolutely nothing to do with fitness. MHR is genetically determined. If I didn't know better, I might have been disappointed in myself that I could not get closer to my supposed "maximum", even though it was extremely painful at a heart rate of 176.
Ten years later, I was no longer racing mountain bikes (thank God) but on occasion I still reached a painful HR of, you guessed it, 176 (usually when out on my mountain bike). My MHR did not decline by 10 beats in that decade. And yes, it hurt every bit as much as before.
At age 46, the formula predicted a MHR of 180. You can see that by total coincidence, I was now fairly close to the APMHR charts. In a couple of years, I would be exactly as "predicted".
For those with higher MHR than the charts predict, their prescribed training zones based on that APMHR (age-predicted MHR) are far too easy. It's no wonder why so many people say they feel like they are doing nothing when they follow the "anaerobic" training zones on the charts.
In my eBook Keep it Real, I discuss the myth of MHR and suggest several methodologies of heart rate training, including utilizing MHR. As per my training with Mad Dogg Athletics and Spinning, as a master instructor for spinning I continued to teach the use of MHR zones. However, the past few years I have researched more deeply into heart rate training methodologies, and since I resigned from the spinning program I no longer have to adhere to their MHR methodology. Consequently, I have asked myself why I am still talking about it. The question remains, is maximum heart rate even valid? Does it really even matter?
The honest answer is, no! I have completely dumped using MHR charts for good, and it has been a revelatory experience
Why is the fitness industry so stuck on using MHR as the determinant for training zones, when there is enough information out there to prove that what is far more important is one's lactate threshold (or anaerobic threshold) as a predictor of performance and as an anchor for training zones? Why push yourself that hard in a max test when there is an alternative sub-max method that's even better?
It's a bit of a dilemma for the fitness industry because one cannot expect the average fitness enthusiast to pay for a lactate threshold test, but there is an easier way for the indoor cycling instructor by doing a field test with your own students. Teaching instructors and students that zones should be based on one's LTHR and not MHR is a daunting task. It may take years for the fitness industry to make the transition and educate fitness providers from personal trainers to indoor cycling instructors, and even longer for them to educate their clients and students, on how to use it.
But someone has to take the lead, and in my eBook Keep it Real and here at ICA I have decided that we are going to provide the education for indoor cycling instructors on how to train your students properly using threshold based heart rate zones. I will give you the means to explain it to your students as simply as possible.
In doing so, you and your students will have far more success than ever before in reaching weight loss as well as performance goals. And that alone will be worth your membership at ICA!