Max HR and using different HR zones for different sports

On @mcneese.chad’s POL thread yesterday we touched on keeping in zones based on % of max heart rate; this got me thinking…

The highest HR I’ve ever recorded is 184bpm - this was recorded while running (1 mile intervals). I’ve never come close to this HR while cycling. In fact the highest HR I’ve ever recorded while cycling is 174bpm, while doing a 10 mile TT (was fully spent!). My understanding of this is that running uses more muscles, so requires a higher HR.

Based on this all my HR zones are set based on my max HR being 184bpm (max running HR).
My calculated aerobic threshold (that I try not to exceed on easy days) is 142 bpm (77% of max HR).

If my HR zones were calculated based on the max HR I’d ever recorded on a bike, the zones would look pretty different. I’d need to ride quite a bit easier than I currently do to keep in the lower zones.

This got me thinking about cyclists setting zones based on max HR. If a cyclist has only tested their max HR based on cycling, is that actually even close to their true max HR?

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You should be using your maximum applicable to that particular sport. But a 10 bpm difference between running and cycling sounds a little high.

You are unlikely to reach your maxHR during a 10 mile TT - the amount of time you can sustain maxHR is not really compatible with the pacing required for that event. You are more likely to hit your maxHR on a maximum effort 2-5 minute hill climb.

Before adjusting your target HR zones, I’d suggest testing your cycling maxHR more precisely.


Agreed, a 10min TT isn’t the kind of effor that’s going to produce a max HR anyway. I didn’t even get close to mine with my ramp test.

I see max HR with big efforts at the end of a lot of sustained work; ie: that final sprint to the top of the climb when you’ve been digging deep up it. Stop sign sprint at the end of a fast group ride. I’m sure someone smarter than me can chime in, but I assume it has to do with stressing aerobic and anaerobic systems to their maximum.

I’ve seen a few people state this before, but it’s never made sense to me. Heart rate measurement is assessing the cardiovascular stress, irrelevant of the activity. Your heart doesn’t know if you’re cycling/running/swimming, it simply responds to whatever training you happen to be doing. Surely if I’m cycling at 142bpm, the cardiovascular stress is the same as running at 142bpm, so why would you have different training zones for different activities?

From what I’ve read it seems pretty common that max HR from running is higher than when cycling, but yes, 10bpm may be pretty high. With cycling I possibly fail at a muscular level before being able to fully aerobically stress myself. It’d be interesting to hear what any other triathletes have found.

I live in a hilly part of the world (Yorkshire), so have done plenty of hill climbs! :sweat:, but still haven’t exceeded 174bpm on the bike.

My method for max HR is: do the Trainer Road ramp test, then (especially if your pain cave is nice and cool) add 2 or 3 for good luck.


Agreed. I’ve also found that a 1, 2, or 3 minute all out effort will also get close if you pace it correctly. The 1 minute is the easiest for me to reach max, assuming I’ve warmed up. But I’m only hitting that at the very end for only about 5 seconds.

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I think that is close for me too. 183 bpm peak in recent Ramp. Likely have a 185-186 bpm peak based on outside rides and a super hard effort 2 years ago.

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I’m still confused about this. Can anyone in the know on here explain this? Why should I use different HR zones for different activities? I’m possibly being dumb here (quite a high chance), but I’ve still never read a decent explanation for why different HR zones should be used for different activities.

Say I was tested in a lab and my AeT was at 140bpm. Surely that would be the case whether I was running, cycling, swimming, skiing… whatever. If my “aerobic” zone for running was 120-140 why would I use a different “aerobic” zone for cycling?

From what I’ve read, the test results for doing lab testing on cycling ergometer are different from doing the same test on a treadmill.

Thanks, do you have a link @bbarrera?
My understanding is that AeT is the point where the anaerobic energy pathways start contributing towards energy production. Why is that different for different activities?

Maybe the amount of muscle recruited varies between activity and therefore the amount of O2 consumed (and presumably, by extension, blood flow/heart rate required to transport O2 and CO2) also vary.

It’s mainly to do with the size and number of muscles being recruited

The general order of maxHR is swimming < cycling < running < cross country skiing (lowest to highest)

  • With swimming, it is mainly upper body (smaller muscles) and the legs aren’t working very hard.
  • With cycling, you are mainly working the legs and glutes, with a little bit of core stabilization.
  • With running, you are working the legs, and a fair bit of core and upper body to keep you stabilized.
  • With cross-country skiing, the legs are working, and the arms are doing a lot of ACTIVE work as well (as against just stabilizing work)

The heart won’t beat faster than the arteries delivering blood to the muscles involved can actually handle. There’s only so much blood you can force down a pipe at any one time. The quads and glutes are the largest and most powerful muscles in the body, and the femoral artery that supplies them is pretty large, so you can get pretty close to max HR with just those, but there are limits. But add in some upper body work, and there are some additional arteries involved, and they can take delivery of more blood supply than just the legs alone, so the heart is called on to supply a bit more.

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Thanks @mcalista. I understand max HR being higher for different activities (I wrote about higher muscle recruitment for running in the OP); I was more querying why different zones should be used for different activities.

I think my confusion stems from my reading on the MAF formula; in theory the 180-age should give you a decent estimation of your aerobic threshold (although I understand the formula isn’t going to work for HR outliers). In the articles I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to on the subject it never suggests using a different maximum aerobic HR for different sports.

In fact, from a MAF article:

A frequently asked question is whether different heart rates should be used for different sports. For example, should the maximum aerobic heart rate, as determined by the 180 Formula, while swimming be different when the same athlete is cycling or running? How about walking, or tennis? The short answer is no. The 180-Formula holds true for all aerobic training activities.

At the same heart rate, all sports require essentially the same levels of metabolic activities.


I’ve never done any lab testing, so haven’t got any practical experience of this at all. If @bbarrera is correct that AeT is different between cycling ergometer and running on a treadmill then it makes perfect sense why you would need different zones for different sports.

I ended up sending the question of “Why should I use different HR zones for different sports” to Mikael at Scientific Triathlon. He’s covered the answer in his latest podcast episode:

He questions the claim from Phil Maffetone that:

At the same heart rate, all sports require essentially the same levels of metabolic activities.

He cites an interesting study: “Transferability of Running & Cycling Training Zones in Triathletes”. See here:

@bbarrera - is this the study you were referring to?

The study found HR at anaerobic threshold when on a cycle ergometer versus a treadmill differed quite substantially in some individuals:


He also gives a good example of an athlete he coaches who was recently lab tested for bike and run. His aerobic threshold HR was 136 bpm for cycling and 147 bpm for running.

So yes, using different HR zones for different sports now makes perfect sense :slightly_smiling_face:


That is one of the most dubious trend lines I’ve ever seen plotted on a graph…

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It’s not a trend line. It’s a line where the points would fall if an athlete had the same HR at anaerobic threshold for cycling and running.

My Mistake, either way it serves to demonstrate the point that there’s little to no correlation rather well!

On a properly paced 10TT that I’m rested and tapered for, I’m getting very close to my max HR at the end. Same in a ramp test. I’m utterly spent afterwards. If you’re not at max, have you really gone deep enough?

In the OP I made the assumption that everyone would reach a higher max HR when running as opposed to cycling (due to running requiring more muscle recruitment). I’ve since found out that is wrong; well trained cyclists who do very little running would hit a higher max HR when cycling as opposed to running.

I’ve got more of a running background, so even when I’ve gone full out in a 10 mile TT or hammered some cycling hill sprints, my max HR will be 10 bpm lower than my max HR from running. I think I need to do more work on the bike to bring it up to the same level as my running :slight_smile:

I agree that you usually have a higher max HR running than riding, mine being around 10-15bpm higher.

I should have been more specific in what I meant with the 10TT. I was referring to max cycling HR.

Sorry for any confusion.

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