Why Age Predicted Max Heart Rate Doesn’t Work

On most training applications and programs, the default setting for heart rate training is based on an individual’s age predicted maximum heart rate. Typically this is determined through the equation: 220 – age or 208 – (0.7 x age). Based on these figures, heart rate zones prescribed are determined as a percentage of the max heart rate. 

The issue with this method is that not everyone fits into this equation. Through testing, we often see older individuals with higher max heart rates and younger individuals with much lower heart rates. The trickle down effect into training prescription can be the difference between achieving great adaptations and poor adaptations. 

Why Age Predicted Max Heart Rate Doesn’t Work

How Is Heart Rate Training Used in Training Programs

In training programs, heart rate zones are set for individuals to stay within which helps to regulate intensity and ensure the correct adaptation is achieved within the session.

For example, If we are trying to achieve an easy aerobic run, we may want the athlete to maintain their heart rate inside the low zone for 100% of the session.

If we are performing a top end aerobic capacity session, we may want the athlete to spend 30% of the session inside the high zone. If we base these zones on age predicted methods, we may end up training too high or too low.

Why Age Predicted Max Heart Rate Doesn’t Work

Let’s use Athlete John as an example:

  • 40 year old runner
  • Age predicted 220 – age = 180bpm
  • Measured during testing = 195bpm

Session prescription: 

  • 10 min warm up (Low)
  • 3 sets: 3 mins on (High) 3 mins off (passive rest)
  • 5min cool down
  • Total time in High Zone = 27% of session

Using his age predicted zones, John runs at 95% max which is 171 bpm

Why Age Predicted Max Heart Rate Doesn’t Work

If we look at the percentage of time spent in his real high zone based off testing, we can see 0% was spent inside that zone. As a result, a session prescribed to increase aerobic top end capacity has resulted in a tempo/fartlek session.

How do we avoid this?

Max Testing

The goal of testing is to help individualise training as much as possible regardless of whether the sessions are written specifically for that person or whether the program is scaled for online training and is prescribed off a percentage of heart rate max.

Training does not need to be as complicated as VO2 max testing performed in a lab. Other methods that obtain a heart rate max include:

  • 2km time trials
  • 5min MAS
  • Ramp testing

The benefit of lab based testing however is that it provides you with not just the outcome (max heart rate), but how the body got to that point physiologically. It helps with deeper analysis to point out weaknesses that can be targeted more specifically.


  • Heart rate training involves spending as much of the prescribed time inside the training zone ensuring optimal adaptations
  • Age predicted can often under or over estimate an athlete’s max heart rate
  • Testing will ensure the correct heart rate zones are set for training
  • Testing DOES NOT need to be complicated but DOES need to be performed

If this topic interests you and you’d like to know more about the work we do with endurance sports, please contact our Exercise Physiologist Justin Trang.

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