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Target Heart Rate Test

11 min read


We’re not sure who it was, but some brilliant weatherman discovered that all snowflakes are different. Each had its own unique pattern of crystals. To which a wise old coach added, “The same seems to be true with our bodies.” So, we would like to ask, “If your body is not like everybody else’s body, why would you want to train like everyone else?”  

In other words, your measurable response to exercise is unlikely to be the same as the person next to you. Rarely, but occasionally, two people match up at exactly the same levels of current fitness, general ability and similar goals. If so, they can train together at the same paces, in the same effort zones at the same percentages of maximum heart rate (MHR), and then realize the exact same conditioning benefits. But even then, their MHR and therefore target heart rates will probably not be exactly the same numbers.   

One reason to buy a Wahoo TICKR armband or chest strap heart rate monitor is that you want to enjoy a highly personalized approach to your fitness. Our system will enable you to do just that. It will assign you training zones based on target heart rates that will be developed as percentages of your TRUE maximum heart rate.


Before you strap on your heart rate monitor, we must make this admission:  the venerable formula of 220 bpm minus your age is not reliable for everyone for predicting your Max HR.  Your own MHR might be a significant number of beats, as much as 20-30 bpm, higher or lower. Mother Nature creates differences when she designs the sizes and capacities of individual hearts, and like many other human traits, MHR’s are distributed amongst the population along the standard Bell Shaped Distribution curve.  If so, when multiplying by the desired percentages, your target heart rate (THR) zones may be completely wrong.  This would result in confusing and frustrating levels of effort and pace when you work out.  

Therefore, to ensure the validity of your THRs, we have developed a simple SUB-MAXIMAL “stress test” that will help you estimate much more closely your own MHR, especially if you are one of the “outliers” for whom the age-predicted MHR may be way off.  You might want to consider your MHR much like your salary and be reluctant to share it with others.

Our test system is based on a simple 1 to 3 scale that ranks your effort from easy (1) to moderate (2) to hard (3).  The 1 to 3 scale is matched with easy to understand verbal cues of how you will feel (your perceived effort) at the different levels of work and separate paces.  The test is more like an “open book” test than a time trial.  You just take as much time as you need to cover 1.5 miles while staying within our descriptions of the Effort Zones.  The RunFit app will take you through the test, capture distances and heart rate, and do all of the math for you.


By following the test guidelines and using Coach Roy Benson’s Effort Perception Scale, you will be able to get a very good estimation of your maximum heart rate.  Perceived effort is simply your subjective way of measuring how easy or hard you are working.  Heart rates in beats per minute are simply your objective way of measuring how easy or hard you are working.  The RunFit app will automatically tell you how hard you should be working in each part of the test.


Cover .75 mile or 1200 meters at a slow & comfortable pace, or at an easy effort of “1” on our scale of 1-3. During this phase you should be able to talk easily and barely notice your breathing.  At this effort, you would not feel tired unless you went for many miles or a long time. The RunFit app will record your average HR over last 4 minutes of the test.  After .75 miles DO NOT STOP.  Keep going to Test Zone #2.


Now, accelerate to a somewhat uncomfortable pace over the next .50 mile to raise the effort from slow and comfortable to moderate.  At a “2” on our scale of 3, the pace should change from jogging to striding/real running.  The effort should make talking difficult enough to shorten your sentences enough that Hemingway would be proud.  It’s a pace at which you feel strong enough to sustain for 10-15 minutes if you really had to.   The RunFit app will record your average HR over last 3 minutes of the test.  After the .50 mile DO NOT SLOW DOWN.  Keep moving to Test Zone #3.


Now, pick up the effort to strong and hard as you accelerate the pace over the next .25 mile. This should feel quite fast, but not maximal!  The effort should be sustainable for 3-4 minutes without straining or feeling that you are “kicking” or sprinting to the finish line.  By the finish, you should have gone over your anaerobic threshold and be huffing and puffing pretty hard.   The RunFit app will record your final heart rate at the end of this 400m.

REMEMBER, this final lap or .25 mile is NOT MAXIMAL but a steady high intensity rate. You must avoid slipping into the Pain, Torture and Agony level of heroic athletic effort.  Our humanitarian values and good sense prevent us from letting you push yourself that hard.  Besides, we promised that this was a SUB-maximal test.   

We hope that these verbal examples help you get the idea that we’re serious, but also trying to avoid the purity of exercise laboratory language.  Before you try our test, be sure that you have used your heart rate monitor a few times to be comfortable with it and are confident that the data you see reported on your smartphone are steady, consistent and reliable.  There has to be a COMMON SENSE agreement between how you feel and your apparent working heart rate.


  1. Josh Jackson

    February 7, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    What about for us cyclists? Is there a test we can do on the bike?


  2. Bill Norton

    February 21, 2018 at 9:33 am

    How would you adapt the test to an elliptical machine?


    • Wahoo Fitness

      February 27, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      Your HR zones should be the same regardless of the activity, running or the elliptical.


  3. Andrew

    February 23, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    Great article, I was unaware of the Run Fit app and the test built into it! I downloaded the app yesterday and ran through a test, using the results to reprogram my Garmin HR Zones (the new zones seem more spot on to me). I was so excited about it that I tried to help my friend through a test this morning but it wasn’t in her app… Is the HR Test only on iOS right now?


    • Wahoo Fitness

      February 27, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      Unfortunately the test is only in the iOS app right now.


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