How high should the maximum heart rate be?

8. November 2017

The faster our athletic activities, the higher the heart rate increases until it can’t go any higher. But which maximum heart rate is normal, which is good - and which is dangerous?

Right at the outset it’s important to remember: the human heart beat is as individual as the person carrying the heart. If two equally heavy and equally fit people of the same sex run beside each other equally fast, this does not mean that their heart rates will also be the same. 

Thus, the maximum heart rate - i.e. the heart rate that can be achieved through the maximum level of exertion - is also individual and not a measurement that can reveal something about the level of fitness. The maximum heart rate – depending on your form on the day – is not always the same and can vary significantly from day to day. Some people – mostly younger people – can easily push their heart rate to over 200 beats per minute, while others already reach their limit with a heart rate of 170. However, this does not reveal anything about whether the person with a maximum heart rate of 220 is fitter than the one with a maximum heart rate of 180. 

This is in complete contrast to the resting heart rate, which is reduced through sports training and draws conclusions about whether a person does any sport or not. The resting heart rate of top athletes can sink to 35 beats, for people in general it normally lies between 50 and 70 beats and is lower for athletes than non-athletes and smokers. A low resting heart rate means that a powerful heart with fewer beats can carry just as much oxygen as an untrained heart with significantly more beats.

A working heart rate refers to the difference between the maximum heart rate and resting heart rate. An athlete with a maximum heart rate of 200 and a resting heart rate of 40 thus has a working heart rate of 160 beats.

Test it yourself

You can do a simple test to find out your personal maximum heart rate. Here’s how: after a 10-minute warm up and a 10-minute medium-paced continuous run, run up a steady gradient for approximately 3 to 4 minutes as fast as you can. Conclude the test by sprinting as fast as you can for approximately 30 seconds and then measure your heart rate immediately afterwards – this is easiest done using a heart rate monitor. Important: people who are new to exerting themselves physically and are over the age of 40 should consult their doctor before doing a maximum test. The maximum test can also be done on your bike or racing bike.

The maximum heart rate can be used as a starting base with which to define an individual’s single levels of intensity during physical exertion. A 60-70% maximum heart rate corresponds to light and relaxed training, 75-85% is already quite strenuous training, and above an 85-95% maximum heart rate you enter the red zone, which is associated with a lack of oxygen and can only be sustained for a limited period of time. Your sports training should ideally combine the different intensity levels so your everyday training is holistic and diverse.