Maximal heart rate: Guidelines to the “Danger Zone”

By Phil Faught, ATC

Today’s society loves technology. It seems everything today comes with a heart rate monitor. With heart rates being read in real time 24/7 many athletes want to know what this heart rate number really means.

Athletes, especially older athletes, have concerns about how high should their heart rate be during exercise or competition.  Questions about maximal heart rate usually include:

  • How high is too high?
  • What should my heart rate be when I train?
  • Can I hurt my heart by pushing too hard?

First off we need to define what maximal heart rate is.  If you haven’t memorized it you may have heard of the equation 220 – (Age) = Maximal Heart Rate.  This one size fits all formula, developed in the 1970’s, has been studied and negated by many, however it still holds some weight as a very general guideline.

A refined foHockey Academy director, Phil Faught, at Sanford POWER in Fargo, NDrmula was proposed in a study by Tanaka, Monahan, and Seals* that 220 – (0.7 x Age) = Maximal Heart Rate. Results from this study show that the best predictor of what maximal heart rate should be is age, however an exact formula may be impossible to create as heart rate is an individual attribute. So Maximal Heart Rate is thus the maximum heart rate an individual can achieve through exercise.

Is it bad to achieve heart rates above the prediction formulas?  The answer is no if your heart is healthy.  Yearly physicals for athletes are important to check cardiovascular function.  Adults that push the Heart Rate envelope may be best served by a voluntary echocardiogram to check function and ensure there are no underlying problems.

Your heart is your engine, so just like your car get regular tune-ups and more frequently as you age.  With a healthy engine you should be ready to safely push yourself to the “Danger Zone.”

* Source: Journal of the American College of Cardiology Jan 2001, 37 (1) 153-156; DOI: 10.1016/S0735-1097(00)01054-8