Here’s how to test your maximum heart rate for running and cycling, helping you set your training zones and train more efficiently.

Even in the age of training with power meter, heart rate is a key metric that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s the key to setting reliable HR training zones – a must if you want to work at the right intensities to train to your potential.

Before you can calculate your heart rate zones, you’ll need to know your maximum heart rate. This is because all heart rate training zones use percentages of your max HR as a guide.

Max heart rate on monitor
Your max heart rate is definitely a training number worth knowing. (Photo: Zilupe – Flickr)

While there are lots of different formulas to guestimate your max, these have been shown to be inaccurate. Therefore, using them as the basis for your training zones could mean you’re training the wrong systems for your triathlon goals, meaning you might not reach your potential.

So, if you want heart rate accuracy during workouts, you’ll have to test your maximum heart rate yourself.

Different Sports, Different HR Tests

Heart rate is generally a little lower during cycling compared to running, usually around five to 10 beats. This is because we’re not supporting our full bodyweight or using as many muscle groups to power the bike forwards. Due to these differences, you’ll need to test for max values in both disciplines.

How To Test Your Maximum Heart Rate

Before you consider testing, you should be generally healthy with no underlying conditions. If in doubt, ask your doctor for advice before undertaking such a tough test.

Whether you’re testing for running or cycling, some basic principles apply.

  • Leave at least a whole week between tests.
  • Make sure you’re well-rested and fuelled up before the test.
  • Testing indoors ensures repeatability and safety.
  • Use a fan to keep yourself cool and have drinks on hand.
  • Perform a good warm-up before the test begins.
  • You’ll need something to record the test, like Zwift, a cycling computer or running watch.
  • Check your heart rate monitor is working correctly.
  • Have someone else to help you if possible.
  • Be prepared to dig deep – it’s going to hurt.

Testing Max HR For Running

A ramp test is ideal for finding your max heart rate as it can help you do so in an efficient way, meaning less total stress on the body overall.

It’s a good idea to have someone else there to operate the treadmill and to tether yourself to the treadmill’s emergency stop cord.

After your warm-up, start the treadmill your 5km pace and at 0% incline. Then, every two minutes, increase the incline by 2%. Keep following this pattern and your effort levels and heart rate will steadily rise.

Keep going until you absolutely cannot sustain the pace any longer. You’re looking for the point that you’re totally spent and incapable of taking another step.

Testing Max HR For Cycling

Max heart rate testing should always be carried out on a stationary trainer and not on the road.

After a good warm-up – again checking your heart rate monitor is reading correctly, start riding at 100W.

Bike Max Heart Rate Test
Expect your max-HR tests to be seriously tough efforts! (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

Then, increase by 20W every minute until exhaustion to get an accurate figure. Apps like Zwift have such tests built in, allowing you to use a smart trainer’s ERG mode for easier ramping.

If you don’t have a smart trainer or a power meter, you can use the resistance remote on your trainer or just your bike’s gears to gradually up the effort. Just make sure that the resistance in your hardest gear is enough that you won’t spin out before reaching your max.

Getting your HR Max

After you’ve completed your test, it’s a simple case of checking the data to see the maximum heart rate you achieved. Then you’re ready to set your heart rate training zones.

By performing the tests outlined above, you can be confident in your max heart rate and therefore your training intensities – helping ensure the best quality, most specific training for every session.

While your max heart rate won’t increase forever no matter how fit you get, if you’re new to triathlon – or endurance sport in general – and your fitness is rising quickly, it’s a good idea to re-test around every eight weeks or so until your max heart rate stabilises.

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