I recently did a test to find my maximum heart rate. (As if it were lost or hiding…) Although some small inaccuracy may remain, I am reasonably certain that I have a good, sound number on which to base the evaluation of my training.
I started a while back with the 220 minus your age rule for Max HR, which gave me 180. This seemed way too high, and I did a Max HR test that put me at about 176. Still, I worried. I thought I could feel my lactate threshold, knew when I got warmed up, knew what my heart rate was on “fun runs,” and knew when I was giving it my all during an interval workout. I felt like I was pushing too hard, but I couldn’t back that up with the HR numbers I was seeing, which were lower than expected based on a 176 HR Max. So I worried that I wasn’t pushing hard enough.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading Daniels’ Running Formula, and it is awesome. It has given me some relief. An appendix has his test to find VO2 Max and max HR. In short, it is an interval workout of 3-4 5:00 runs at progressive paces until you feel like you’ve hit the fastest pace you can for this distance/time. This is also your chance to warm up. (For most runners, the first interval is just something to gut out. The middle ones are challenging, and the final one is torture. That’s kind of the point.) For me, I already had a good basis for this pace, since I run a lot on the treadmill. After the “sub-max” intervals, you take a good rest (3 or 4 minutes), and run a final test to max out your heart rate. The final run is open ended. You go until you cannot go anymore. And trust me. You’ll know when you get there. When I read this test, I knew I hadn’t done the previous one correctly, because I had just taken a point max – not an average max for a minute.
P.S. After I did this test, I have been reading some more in Daniels’. I actually should have done the first “sub-max” intervals at slower paces, increasing the speed by about .5 mph until I elicited a 90% HR or perceived nearly-max effort on the third or fourth intervals. Then you should be able to graph your heart rate against speed. This should be linear. You can then take these points and use them to find your velocity at VO2Max (which is not the same as the maximum speed of the test) by finding the speed that corresponds to your maximum heart rate. In order to determine my speed at HR Max, I’m going to graph my HR on a progressive tempo run next week. This will give me my aerobic profile. And if you train and then test again, you should be able to see improvement in your ability to sustain a certain speed at a lower heart rate. If you don’t, you need to evaluate (not elevate) your training.
You start the final run at 0% elevation for 2:00 at the last pace you were able to maintain for 5:00. Then you increase the elevation by 1% every minute, keeping the same pace, until you can’t go any more. (According to Noakes in Lore of Running, each 1% in elevation means your effort has to increase by the equivalent of .40 mph.) What you want to do is figure out your average heart rate for the final minute of the test. I did this by taking splits on my Garmin every 30 seconds. I’ve read other tests, but this one made a lot of sense to me. I felt like I could do it and get an accurate result. I also realized that I’d not done the previous test correctly, since I took a point max for my max HR instead of a one minute average greatest HR.
Still, it was scary for me. I wondered if I would have the guts to really push myself. I knew that if I got a 176 on this test, I would have a lot of hard training in front of me. And I worried that if I “scored lower,” I would think I could do better. It’s funny. But I recently read (maybe somewhere in Daniels’) that about 30 seconds after you complete the test you’ll be thinking, “I wonder if I could have held on for another 30 seconds?” And I was thinking that, until I looked at my heart rate data and remembered how I felt during that final minute. I felt like I couldn’t run any faster (steeper) than this for very long at all, even if my life depended on it.
The test worked splendidly. I had a little coffee and sugar, which is my rocket fuel for hard runs. I got amped up on rock-n-roll. As I progressed through the warm up and the first intervals, I was ready to give it everything for the final test. When I checked out the numbers, my heart rate, after rising through the first 4:30 of the test, actually flattened during the final minute at 170 bpm. I actually had a point max of 176 bpm (like my previous test), but the average for the minute is what counts.
This is an experiment that has brought a certain amount of welcome self-knowledge. The 170 bpm max means that 88-92% (which is where my threshold or tempo runs should be) is 150 – 157 (88-92% HR). That is a sweet spot for me. Actually, if I push up to 159 for very long, I will redline. It has happened many times before. And it means that 90-95-98% is 153-162-167 bpm, which is where my heart rate goes when I am doing intervals. I’ve always been down on myself because I’ve thought 162 was 90% (based on 180 bpm max), and I know I’m already spent by the time I hit 162. 164 is frequently as much as I can manage. But with a 170 max, those are perfectly good heart rates for interval workouts.
I’ve read that once you start training, your max heart rate will stay pretty steady and the 220 minus your age rule will no longer apply. So, I’ve been wondering how often I might take this test. It’s a great workout, but too hard to repeat that frequently. Now that I have a number with which I feel comfortable, it’s time for me to explore some other questions.
All of this has made me wonder… Am I really better off worrying about this stuff? Or should I just run by feel? But I think the answer comes down to “I gotta be me.” (It’s too hard to be anybody else.) I have to find this stuff out. I couldn’t rest on the approximations, estimations and equations. I had to have first hand experience, because no one can tell me what my max heart rate is except me.