Joe Friel Talks About Maximum Heart Rate

If you don’t follow Joe Friel’s Blog, you should—there’s some really great information in it on a consistent basis. Sure, some is focused more on competitive cyclists, but much of the information is applicable to everyone, and will expand your own understanding of cycling training principles that you can apply to your classes. Recently he’s been writing an in-depth series on aging athletes that I’ll be discussing soon here on ICA.

But this morning was this gem in my in-box. Short and sweet, Joe tells us once again why using maximum heart rate as an anchor for training zones is not valid. Especially for your more fit students (does that include you?), it is probably very inaccurate.

From his blog:

Did you know that the max heart rates of trained athletes are lower than in age- and gender-matched, sedentary people? We just can’t get our heart rates as high (Whyte GP, George K, Shaver R, et al. 2008. Training induced changes in maximum heart rate. Int J Sports Med 29(2):129-33). Seems contrary to logic, huh? Science hasn’t been able to unequivocally determine the reason why, but it probably has to do with how much more efficient an athlete’s heart is when compared to the hearts of sedentary folks. We get more blood pumped per beat so need fewer beats to get the job done. In fact, the best way to get your max heart rate higher, a goal I sometimes hear athletes suggest, is to lose fitness. That will do the trick. In other words, a high max HR is not a good predictor of how highly fit you are. It’s just the opposite. You want a low HR. This is especially true during aerobic exercise. The lower your HR is relative to your power or pace, the more aerobically fit you are.

For a more in-depth discussion of HR max, you can also read my thoughts about the Myth of Max Heart Rate.


  1. Jennifer, as you know, with Spinning old habits die hard. Although I am a Star 3 and Power certified instructor through MDA, some of their attitudes and practices need the dust brushed off. Your web site clears up a lot of nonsense and uses sound logic and science to indoor cycling.

  2. Jennifer,

    I agree with you. I often say there is nothing more meaningless in exercise than MHR.

  3. Author

    Ralph, that is a good point, and something I’ve noticed for a very long time that most people on the north side of 40 are missing out by a lot if they trust the MHR charts.

    However…it still misses the point the using MHR in and of itself is a meaningless anchor, EVEN if you do know that actual maximum rate that your own heart can beat (which, according to experts like Dr. Jennifer Klau, in reality may not be that knowable).

    The reason why is because MHR tells you nothing about your current level of fitness, and LT/AT/VT can vary so much from person to person, so why base fitness training zones on it? Better to anchor training zones on something that actually means something to you as an individual.

    At ICA, we teach to drop MHR from your lexicon, and instead estimate VT through a talk test or LT/AT through a field test and never again think about or even mention MHR! 😉

  4. I have done a lot of research on the aging heart and while doing so, came across some interesting articles. One study done by researchers at Oakland University in Rochester, MI, identified that the 220-age calculation of MHR often overstimates MHR for those under the age of 40 and understimates MHR those over 40. Therefore the results that Jennifer stated above are not that surprising to me to see that after a 10 year period, her heart rate was closer to the 220-aqge formula. The article also mentioned that the decline in heart rate isn’t 1 beat per year.

  5. Author

    Robert (#2) has a good point to remember about the Keiser bikes. When in a gear, say gear 10 for example, there is a “low, medium and high” for that gear. Push the gear lever very little and it will show an increase in power while still registering gear 10. This allows for a much wider variation of power outputs than just the 21 gears they have.

    However, even with that understanding, they still can register different power outputs from one bike to the next. Even if you were at gear 10 in the first of the 3 readings for that gear, at a cadence of X, and got on different bikes, you’ll have different outputs. Often it’s minor.

    At the club where I taught with the Keisers (it’s seasonal, I only teach there in the winter), they had two batches of Keisers. Originally they had 7 (it’s a small high-end private facility) then they bought 3 more. Students quickly realized the second batch of 3 gave them much higher power outputs as a general rule (according to the meter) and it made them feel better about their abilities, so a bit of arguing over the bikes ensued!

  6. Author

    Thank you Gary. I was looking for the “LIKE” button on your comment, then forgot it wasn’t Facebook! 😉
    Anyone else have any questions?

  7. Gary,

    One of the issues with having everyone go to the same “gear” on a Keiser bike is that there is still a variance in each gear. There is a high end and a low end with multiple possibilities between. That best explains why your students come up with different numbers though riding at the same rpm.


  8. Jennifer,

    Your question is: Does that help ?

    Of course it does, and I certainly hope it will help others as well.

    What a beautiful day it has been with regards to learning, sharing and learning again.

    You make us get better and better with each post.

    Thank you.


  9. Author

    Robert said: “For example: same RPE but power is lower = muscle fatigue; same power but higher HR = it’s taking more out of you than before; same power, lower RPE = you’re getting stronger.”

    That is an awesome summary. I’ll add one more: same power but lower HR = you’re more aerobically fit. Ultimately, that is what Joe Friel is saying in his blog post.

    And you would most likely be experiencing Robert’s third example: lower HR usually means lower RPE too.

  10. What Jennifer said!

    Going by Keiser’s version of power, which is an approximation in any case, is the same as going by MHR. Sometimes gear 8 is fiendishly hard, other times gear 18 is a warm-up. So even in this case, RPE (with matched HR, as Jennifer says) is the best bet. That said, the number is valid for that bike on that day, so intervals can be repeated (just make sure it’s the same gear/cadence combination, as it’s easier to increase power through cadence than gears on a Keiser)

    They’re all different aspects of performance, none is absolute – to get a true picture, you need RPE, HR and Wattage (as well as recovery times if doing intervals).

    For example: same RPE but power is lower = muscle fatigue; same power but higher HR = it’s taking more out of you than before; same power, lower RPE = you’re getting stronger

  11. Author

    Gary, your second comment can also be its own article! 😉
    You are right, Keiser bikes and Schwinn M Power bikes do have a tendency to decalibrate (although they swear they don’t) and from one bike to the next you can get very different power numbers at the same cadence and gear. The answer, though not always very practical, is to have riders ride the same bike every time. I do this for my 12-week cycling clinics, but in regular classes, who’s to say who gets what bike? Arguments might ensue! 😉

    Nevertheless, you can still use the power meters to empower riders to stay committed to an effort and to try to do greater efforts in successive intervals. For example, if they averaged 150 watts on the last 5-min climb at 70 rpm, perhaps they can try for a 10% increase on the next climb (165 watts). This kind of cueing is better than saying increase HR by 10%. If they find they can’t hold 165 watts for very long, then it’s an indication (at least on that bike) that they were over their FTP.

    Does that help?

  12. Author

    you are on the right track! But instead of doing a “max” test, I’d do a talk test do estimate VT. You can also do a 20-min field test to estimate LT, but they are pretty hard and not for everyone. Sounds like what you’re doing (the ramp test) is pretty close. When they get to a level where they feel “equivocal” (explained in the ICA talk test, based on Dr Carl Foster’s research) you can use that HR number as their guide. Over time through your coaching, you help them fine tune that HR number. It will change for several reasons. The first reason is because they begin to understand their bodies better and how they respond at this “borderline” level of intensity (especially newbies. Long time exercisers already know what this feels like and how long they can stay there). Once that average HR number is established, then one must recognize that it can change up or down depending on fatigue, stress, what they ate, level of hydration, medications, etc, and on the other end, by improved fitness. The latter would manifest itself as a higher HR before they feel the “I don’t want to talk” sensation coming on.

    Using this approach, you can delete any talk of maximum HR from your lexicon! Because all that matters is whether they are below, at or above the HR number.

    Using perceived exertion as Robert suggested is basically doing the same thing because you’re getting riders to go on feel, which is what the talk test is doing, except that it is attaching a HR to that sensation of being on the borderline of being able to sustain it, or being able to talk much.

    Your question is an excellent one that will make its way into an article. Thank you!

  13. Robert, If I may,
    I get that, and I am a true believer of Power Training, but the thing is with Keiser is that for example, one day, after doing the FTP Class Format i’ve ask the students (17) to Cadence at 100 and put the resistance at 8, and we got different results, a difference ranging from 10 to 25 Watts. So, the owner of the Club did some maintenance on all bikes, after a few weeks I did another test, again same results. It must be the same with other brands. That’s the reason why i went back to MHR, at the same time I ask them to look at their watts to see if it goes accordingly with their FTP, sometime it’s spot on sometime it’s not. I’m asking because I want the clients to get the best bang for their bucks and of course give them the opportunity to get the best training they can get. Thank you for responding and a great THANK YOU to ICA for all the great enlightenment they provide us with.


    1. Thanks Gary –
      Helpful insight. I appreciate it.
      🙂 marjorie

    2. I train by power. However, Robert, pushing out 250w is not so simple. If I am fully rested and do it then it is very different from you pushing out 250w for an hour after just having run a marathon. You also say HR will be skewed by changing room temp by 1 celcius, I agree, lots of other things could skew HR as well. However if you change the room temp by 1 celcius it will also skew the EFFECT of the 250w power on your body ie you may well find it harder in a hotter room. So, I ALSO train by HR (and sometimes but rarely by RPE)

  14. Until power meters are seen on every indoor bike and until everyone knows their FTP, I will continue to use RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) as the ultimate indicator: even if you know your lactate heart rate threshold, it can be skewed way off just by raising the studio temp by 1c.

    Heart rate is how hard your body is working
    RPE is how hard you feel you’re working
    Power is how hard you’re actually working

    Using HR for training is useful as a way of seeing how your own body is handling the effort but you could be really under-training if you work to it, especially if you’re using MHR. It’s much like using speed on the road as a training tool: you may need to work harder or less to achieve that speed, achieving that speed is no sign that you’re getting better (maybe you had a tailwind that day?).

    But, power is an absolute number – you either pushed 250W for an hour or you didn’t.

  15. I understand that and I agree. But, even though the Chart (MHR) is not accurate, isn’t that better at least to guide them with that as they get a picture of where they should be as opposed of not knowing at all. Most of my students are regulars and when I go in other classes and that the instructor do not speak about MHR, what I see is a lot of people either being to high (huffing and puffing) or to low (almost not doing exercise at all). So, that is why i ask my students to have a HRM and do field tests either MHR Flat Out Test and/or MHR Ramp Test, from there I use the Cycling Australia Official Heart Rate Zones to guide them in different kind of programs or profiles: Hill repeats, Endurance Ride, Intervals Training, HIIT and others. It seems to be working with the feedback I get from them when they go riding outdoors with their different Clubs. Am I off track ?


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