aging · fitness · training

Sam’s max heart rate is slowing down but that’s okay, she isn’t

A beating cartoon heart

So I’m back training again. I’m riding and racing on Zwift. I’m working with a coach. Hi Chris! And that means I’m paying attention to data.

I’m also paying attention to some comparative data. Because I’ve been riding and using a Garmin and Strava for years, some things are interesting to track over time.

My ftp has gone up. (FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power and represents the highest wattage number you can expect to average over an hour.) All good. It’s fun. I like measuring and tracking progress.


Except what’s striking is that my maximum heart rate has gone down, like way down. A lot. Fifteen years ago when I used to race crits, do short distance duathlons and do flying laps at the velodrome, I had a max heart rate of 182.

Here’s younger Sam racing in a crit. Thanks Greg Long for the photo.

Now my max heart rate is 164 or so. I used to do time trials at 168. Now my time trial heart is more like 150. That’s the highest heart rate I can maintain for a good chunk of time without blowing up.

Remember the old formula? 220 minus your age? That’s pretty much right for me now. I suppose I shouldn’t care. My top speeds haven’t gone down and neither has my power output. But what’s it all about?

See Heart rate and age: “The relationship between the heart and exercise has been studied for more than six decades and the research is clear: Max heart rate—the highest heart rate you can safely hit during exercise—decreases with age regardless of lifestyle or level of fitness. Why the drop? The reasons aren’t completely known, but a 2013 University of Colorado Medical School study found that one reason could be slower electrical activity in the heart’s pacemaker cells. Basically, “your heart can’t beat as often,” says Roy Benson, running coach and co-author of Heart Rate Training.
However, a lower max heart rate may not necessarily affect your splits. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that a decrease in heart rate max means a decline in performance,” says Joe Friel, coach and author of Fast After 50 and The Triathlete’s Training Bible. “That’s a very common but unsupported view of athletes who are ill informed about the science behind heart rate. They assume a high heart rate means a high level of performance. Not true.”

I started to go down the rabbit hole of reading journal articles about why max heart rate declines. But really, do I need to know? I am still puzzled about why it doesn’t seem to matter as much as I thought it might.

I’ve written about heart rate training before.

See here:

Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1

Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2

Obviously, I need to open up my Garmin/Strava settings and put in some new numbers.

Do you track heart rate while exercising? Have you noticed it dropping with age?

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Sam’s max heart rate is slowing down but that’s okay, she isn’t

  1. This stuff is fascinating. I went down a similar rabbit hole a year or so ago when I noticed my max rate is around 192 – and I’m 49. 220 minus age didn’t work for me at ALL. In a crit I might hover in the 170s and peak close to max at the end but mid 160’s is a cruise zone.

    Now where it gets REALLY weird is this: At the end of January about 3 weeks after a trip to India and passing through a couple of International airports, I did a race on Zwift. In the final sprint, I looked at my heart rate data and it topped out at 202 and was cruising in the 180’s the whole race even though I felt great. The next day I didn’t feel good, and when I went home from work I ended up with a fever of over 103, extreme exhaustion, crazy night sweats, stomach upset, and a cough (but no nasal congestion). It lasted about four days but the exhaustion stuck around for a couple of weeks. Whether it was COVID-19 or anything else I will never know. But it is fascinating and a little scary to see that whatever it was that knocked me down, it was messing with my heart a day before I showed any symptoms.

  2. To your questions, yes and yes. What I can’t figure out is how my super fit power-lifting girlfriend has a resting heart rate around 60bpm and struggles to get above 100 when doing cardio activities. Makes me wonder if some of your lowered max heart rate is also because your heart is stronger and doesn’t have to work as hard to pump enough blood.

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