Maximum heart rate is a useful value for coaches to assess of their athletes. This value represents the highest number of beats that the heart can achieve during a maximal exercise bout. Maximum heart rate values can be used in predicting maximal oxygen consumption via the heart rate ratio method where one multiplies 15.3 by the ratio of maximum to resting heart rate (VO2max = HRmax/HRrest*15.3). This can be useful for assessing fitness levels in your athletes and potentially tracking changes in aerobic power without performing laboratory testing. Maximum heart rate values are also used as an important criterion for establishing maximal oxygen consumption during VO2max testing. In other words, we can be more confident that an athlete truly reached a maximal value on the test if their heart rate was at or very near maximum (within 10 beats). Most applicable to the coach however Is the usefulness of maximum heart rate for exercise prescription and workload monitoring.
Rather than actually test HRmax, many practitioners in the field opt for prediction equations. The most commonly used formula in the field is 220 – age. From this value, a coach can prescribe exercise at a target heart rate corresponding to a given percentage of HRmax (%HRmax) by multiplying age predicted HRmax by the desired exercise intensity. For example, to determine the target heart rate for a 20 year old athlete who will work at 70% intensity, the formula (i.e., Target heart rate = 220-20*.7) provides a target heart rate of ~140 beats per minute. Another popular method for exercise prescription is based on working at a percentage of one’s heart rate reserve (%HRR). This formula requires HRmax and HRrest and is calculated as follows: [Target heart rate = (HRmax – HRrest*% intensity) + HRrest]. Both the %HRR method and %HRmax method both depend on accurate HRmax values and are based on the fact that there is a linear increase in heart rate with progressive increase in exercise intensity.
For coaches tracking heart rate during practices or competition, calculations of the average %HRmax throughout the course of the session can be calculated. This can give some insight as to the overall intensity of the session or competition. It’s important to note however, that age-predicted HRmax formula’s are not perfect and come with quite a bit of individual error. Imagine using a predicted HRmax that is 8-10 beats higher than the athlete’s true maximum. Target heart rate zones will be way off for this athlete and he/she will be working at a much higher intensity than planned. Therefore, establishing true HRmax values for exercise prescription and monitoring is very important. One of the simplest methods to assess HRmax is to perform an incremental exercise test on a treadmill while having the athlete wear a heart rate monitor. The highest heart rate recorded at maximum effort (momentary exhaustion) will be your HRmax value. Knowing each athletes HRmax will add more precision to your conditioning programs and monitoring protocols.