So how do you determine what this “go no higher” HR is to maximize aerobic development and all the cellular and vascular changes that occur. Most of us do not sense what a true physiologic easy effort is.  The high tech but precise way is in an exercise physiology lab.  A simple, safe, and more practical way which does not require a maximal effort is to apply the Maffetone Method.  Phil Maffetone has been the coach and advisor to many world class marathoners and triathletes, as well as thousands of recreational athletes.  See the link Want Speed Slow Down for a more detailed article but here is his formula:

The 180 Formula

To find your maximum aerobic heart rate:

  1. Subtract your age from 180 (180 – age).
  2. Modify this number by selecting one of the following categories:

a.  If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation, any hospital stay) or on any regular medication, subtract 10.

b. If you have not exercised before, you have exercised but have been injured or are regressing in your running, subtract 5.

c.  If you have been exercising for up to two years with no real problems and have not had colds or flu more than once or twice a year, subtract 0.

d.  If you have been exercising for more than two years without any problems, making progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For example, if you are 30 years old and reasonably fit you would fall into  category 2c:  180 – 30 = 150.This is your maximum aerobic heart rate for base training. For efficient base building, you should train at or below this level throughout your base period.

A more advanced method for a runner who can run a hard 30 minute run is from Joe Friel’s “Total Heart Rate Training”.  This book goes into more detail about determining optimum heart rate zones for training and is definitely worth the read. Joe Friel’s web site has some great free resources  The 30 minute test linked under “free resources” and calculating Zone 2 gives the most precise method outside of the exercise physiology lab. Use this document to find your Zone 2,

To summarize what all this means for you as you start or develop your program.

  • For optimum performance it is critical to develop the aerobic system.  Most have not fully developed this.  This is not “no pain, no gain”, but rather “no pain…thank you”
  • A few of us have good cues to what true aerobic pace is and can run in this happy and efficient zone without the feedback of a monitor.
  • Others of us are more hard chargers (Type A) and need a feedback tool not to help us speed up, but to slow down.
  • It takes years  to fully build the aerobic system.  Only when your event is nearing is it wise to add anaerobic work.  Doing anaerobic work too early can lead to burn out and injury and inhibit aerobic development.  There are no short cuts or six week plans.

Building the Electric Engine.  Achieving You Maximal Aerobic Fitness through Proper Heart Rate Training. My example at age 45.

There are many ways to determine your aerobic training zone from a wide variety of methods. I’m going to explain some of the more popular ways of determining your optimal aerobic training zones and give an example for each.

The aerobic training zone is the optimal zone for aerobic development and building the millions of mitochondria, capillaries, and fat burning enzymes to allow for optimal utilization of fat as fuel.  This occurs mostly at the muscular level, not in the heart or lungs. Remember each molecule of fat burned produces 400+ ATP (energy units) vs. only 36 ATP per molecule of glucose.  For most runners this is around 70% – 80% effort….but what does that really mean in numbers. This would be high-Zone 2 according to the zones that Joe Friel uses in Total Heart Rate Training.

In training one might even train at a little lower heart rate just to give some room for cardiac drift (when the heart rates rises at the end of a workout due to fatigue). In order to compare these formulas fairly, I will use my own numbers at 45 yo, running about 50-60 miles a week, no real speed work, and able to run a 2:37 marathon (6 minutes a mile). In this example below realize I am an outlier, having accumulated 100,000 miles of running over 30 years duration and can achieve higher heart rates at Lactate Threshold and Maximum than would be predicted by my age.

Vital Stats:
Age – 45
Max Heart Rate – 190
Resting Heart Rate – 40
Lactate Threshold: 178 (determined by 30 min hard temp run described by Friel)

Key Terms:
HR = Heart Rate
MHR = Maximum Heart Rate
RHR = Resting Heart Rate
HRR = Heart Rate Reserve or number of beats between your RHR (resting heart rate) and your MHR (maximum heart rate)
BPM = (Beats Per Minute)

Age-Adjusted Method

The most commonly known way to determine your training zones. We have all seen this one:  This is wrong half the time, but can be a safe start point for a new runner.
220-age = MHR (maximum heart rate).   Exercise Physiologists recommend 70-80% of MHR as a safe aerobic zone.

So my MHR by this formula would be:
220-45= 175

Low end of zone:  175 x .70 (70% of max) = 122
High end of zone:  175 x .80 (80% of max) = 140

In this example my aerobic training zones would be from 122-140 BPM.


Karvonen Formula

Another widely accepted method to determine your training zones. It is based on Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) :

The formula is:

(HRR x  70% intensity) + RHR = Low end of Training Zone

(HRR x  80% intensity) + RHR = High end of Training Zone

185 (my max) – 40 (my RHR) = 145 (Heart Rate Reserve)
145 x .70 (70% of max) + 40 (RHR) = 142 (Low end of Training Zone)
145 x .80 (80% of max) + 40 (RHR) = 156 (High end of Training Zone)

In this example my Zone 2 aerobic training zones would be from 142-156 BPM

MAF Method (180 Formula)

This is the method developed by Phil Maffetone. This formula determines your maximum aerobic zone. Athletes such as Mark Allen and Mike Pigg have successfully used this method for base building. This is what I call high end Zone 2.

Take 180 – Age

We need to adjust this number based on your current level of fitness. Make the following correction as it applies to you:

  • If you do no working out subtract another 10 beats
  • If you workout 1-2 times a week subtract 5 beats
  • If you workout 3-4 times a week leave the number as it is.
  • If you workout 5 or more times as week and have done so for a year or more, then add an additional 5 beats to that number.

If you are about 60 years old or older OR if you are about 20 years old or younger, add an additional 5 beats to the corrected number you now have.

From these adjustments I calculate the following:

180-45= 135

Adjustments: I work out 5 or more times per week so I will add 5 beats to that number.

Using this method, I end up with a maximum aerobic zone of 140 (High end of Training Zone).

Freil Method (based on Lactate Threshold)

Using the protocol in the Triathlete’s Training Bible and from my own personal LTHR tests, I calculated my run Lactate Threshold to be 178. From here I can calculate my Zone 2 ranges. Friel uses the range of 85-89% of LTHR vs. any MHR formula.

178 x .85 (85 % of LT) = 151 (Low end of Training Zone)
178 x .90 (90 % of LT) = 160 (High end of Training Zone)

Real Exercise Physiology Lab

By real testing at Ken Mierke’s lab my optimum training zone based on where I am most efficient is less than HR of 156.

Now where should YOU start?

As you can see, there is some disparity in these methods. Some methods are closer than others and depending on your age, some of these flat out won’t work for you. The age – adjusted is wrong half the time, especially in older more fit runners. I’d use either the Friel Method if you are a competitive  runner or the Karvoren Method (but finding your maximum heart rate is not a lot of fun and not necessary). The Maffetone method is a great safe start point for a beginner and even for advanced athletes who are plagued by overtraining.  My advice is to use the same method all the time, as consistency is your best measuring tool.

The Maffetone Method is the safest if you are new to running, a beginner, recovering from an injury, or do not feel fit enough to give a hard 30 minute effort.  It is best to be on the conservative side versus push over your true aerobic zone.

Now if you are a competitive runner, not having any injury issues, and fit enough for a hard 30 minute effort then the Friel Method is excellent and gives results very close to what you will find in the lab. This correlated almost exactly to a recent VO2 test I had.

If you have access to an Exercise Physiology Lab and true VO2 Max and metabolic testing then this will give you the most accurate results.

Why do my results suggest a higher aerobic threshold with the Friel and Karvonen methods than my age would predict?  I have been running daily for over 30 years and have developed a good running economy and the accompanying large amounts of capillaries, mitochondria, and fat burning enzymes.  I can maintain an aerobic pace at a heart rate very close to what most would have as a maximum heart rate at age 45.

Measuring Progress

  • To measure your progress do a simple and pain free 3  mile MAF (Maximal Aerobic Function Test).
  • Pick an accurate 3 mile route, preferably flat.
  • See what your time is while staying in your Aerobic Zone
  • Do the majority, if not all, of your running in this zone for several weeks
  • Repeat the test weekly, most often as part of a run, under as similar conditions as possible
  • Work on form, relaxation, breathing, and rhythm to stay in the Zone while maintaining pace
  • Remember heat and wind will cause HR to drift up, so do not expect great results under these conditions
  • When you are no longer improving after several months of primary aerobic based training you have built this engine fully!  You are faster than ever before at this comfortable effort.  You are ready now to top off the speed.

Additional Resources

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Phil Maffetone

Essential Books

Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing and The Big Book of Health and Fitness by Dr. Phil Maffetone.

2 must reads to understand basic aerobic vs. anaerobic activity and ADS (aerobic deficiency syndrome).  Maffetone trained Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, and Stu Mittleman….all legends.  Principles are great for entry level and high level runners. Large focus on diet. Be healthy, not just fit.

Healthy Intelligent Training by Keith Livingstone

Time tested Lydiard Method outlined in easy insightful reading. The lessons and methods of “The Coach of Champions” who helped bring “Jogging” to America