The 180 Formula: Heart-rate monitoring for real aerobic training.

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  • May 6, 2015
maf 180 formula

A heart-rate monitor is the most important tool for developing optimal endurance and better fat-burning. This simple device is a valuable tool that not only guides your training but is part of an important assessment process, and can even be used in some competitive situations. Unfortunately, most people use their heart-rate monitors only to see how high their heart rate gets during a workout, or evaluate resting heart rate in the morning.

In the 1970s, I first measured heart rates as a student in a biofeedback research project. Through this research, it became evident that using the heart rate to objectively measure body function was simple, accurate and useful, especially for athletes. I began using heart rate to evaluate all exercising patients, and by the early 1980s developed a formula that anyone could use with their heart monitor to help build an aerobic base.

This “180 Formula” enables athletes to find the ideal maximum aerobic heart rate in which to base all aerobic training. When exceeded, this number indicates a rapid transition towards anaerobic work.

A good aerobic base isn’t important only for endurance athletes. The system that controls the body’s stress response is functionally linked to the anaerobic system. In other words, if you depend too much on your anaerobic system, you’ll be more stressed, and therefore more likely to overtrain or become injured. I discuss these topics more in depth in The MAF Test and in The New Aerobic Revolution.

The 180 Formula

To find your maximum aerobic training heart rate, there are two important steps.

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:

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

b)  If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.

c)  If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same

d)  If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into category (b), you get the following: 180–30=150. Then 150–5=145 beats per minute (bpm).

In this example, 145 must be the highest heart rate for all training. This allows you to most efficiently build an aerobic base. Training above this heart rate rapidly incorporates anaerobic function, exemplified by a shift to burning more sugar and less fat for fuel.

Initially, training at this relatively low rate may be difficult for some athletes. “I just can’t train that slowly!” is a common comment. But after a short time, you will feel better and your pace will quicken at that same heart rate. You will not be stuck training at that relatively slow pace for too long. Still, for many athletes it is difficult to change bad habits.

If it is difficult to decide which of two groups best fits you, choose the group or outcome that results in the lower heart rate. In athletes who are taking medication that may affect their heart rate, wear a pacemaker, or have special circumstances not discussed here, further consultation with a healthcare practitioner or specialist may be necessary, particularly one familiar with the 180 Formula.

Exemptions:

  • The 180 Formula may need to be further individualized for people over the age of 65. For some of these athletes, up to 10 beats may have to be added for those in category (d) in the 180 Formula, and depending on individual levels of fitness and health. This does not mean 10 should automatically be added, but that an honest self-assessment is important.
  • For athletes 16 years of age and under, the formula is not applicable; rather, a heart rate of 165 may be best.

Once a maximum aerobic heart rate is found, a training range from this heart rate to 10 beats below could be used. For example, if an athlete’s maximum aerobic heart rate is determined to be 155, that person’s aerobic training zone would be 145 to 155 bpm. However, the more training closer to the maximum 155, the quicker an optimal aerobic base will be developed.

The story behind the 180 Formula

The heart rate is a direct reflection of the body’s oxygen need. The relationship between one heartbeat and the next is associated with heart rate variability, which reflects parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) function. This is an important factor that professionals can use to assess heart health, and for athletes to evaluate recovery from training and racing.

The heart has a built-in mechanism of nerves that controls its own rhythm (to maintain a heart rate of around 70 to 80 beats per minute), but the brain, through the action of the autonomic nervous system and various hormones, can compel the heart to produce a wide range of heart rates based on the body’s needs. This rate can be as low as 30 to 40 in those with great aerobic function to as high as 220 or higher in young athletes during all-out efforts.

In the late 70s and early 80s I had in my office several bulky heart monitors, which I used for heart-rate evaluation. Whether the athlete was on a treadmill, on a stationary bike in the clinic, on the track, or at another location, I would record a number of pre- and post-workout features.

Training at various intensities affects both posture and gait: the greater the anaerobic work, the more distorted the body’s mechanics become. These changes are due, in part, to previously existing muscle imbalance and muscle problems that develop during the workout. By correlating this mechanical efficiency with heart rate at various points before, during and after workouts, I found an ideal training heart rate—one which promoted optimal aerobic function without triggering significant anaerobic activity, excess stress, muscle imbalance or other problems.

The heart rate I found to be ideal in my assessment was often significantly lower from the results of the commonly-used 220 Formula. However, it was becoming evident that athletes who used the 220 Formula to calculate their daily training heart rate showed poor gait, increased muscle imbalance, and other problems following a workout. Often, these athletes were overtrained.

It soon became evident that athletes needed more consistent training quality. Each athlete needed to have his or her own heart monitor and train with it every day. With Polar’s entry into the marketplace in 1982 came the advent of modern heart monitors, which sensed the heart rate directly from the chest wall and transmitted the information to a wristwatch. Athletes who wore heart-rate monitors during each workout felt better and improved in performance at a faster rate than others who trained without a monitor.

My new goal was to find a way that any athlete could determine an optimal training heart rate, using some simple formula—ideally one that resulted in a very similar or identical heart rate as my manual assessments.

Over time, I began piecing together a mathematical formula, using as a guide the optimal heart rates in athletes who had previously been assessed. Instead of the 220 Formula—220 minus the chronological age multiplied by some percentage—I used 180 minus a person’s chronological age, which is then adjusted to reflect their physiological age as indicated by fitness and health factors.

By comparing the new 180 Formula with my relatively lengthy process of one-on-one evaluations, it became clear that this new formula worked very well. In other words, my tedious assessment of an individual athlete and the 180 Formula resulted in a number that was the same or very close in most cases.

In the early 1980s, I settled on the final, most effective formula, which is the one in use today: 180 minus a person’s chronological age, which is then adjusted to reflect their physiological age as indicated by fitness and health factors. The use of the number 180 is not significant other than as a means to finding the end heart rate. Plus, 180 minus age itself is not a meaningful number; for example, it is not associated with VO2max, lactate threshold, or other traditional measurements. The end number is an athlete’s maximum aerobic heart rate. Thanks to the 180 Formula, all athletes can now obtain their ideal individual aerobic training rates.

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Brian G. Fay says:

    After reading Chris McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes and reviewing your site (which looked very different before today, nice update), I took myself out for a run with the HRM and the 180 rule. I have been running at what I call my all-day pace as I’m playing my way toward my first 50K. The running I have been doing has been great and I’ve felt like going longer and longer. I did the math 180 – 46 (my age) and set the HRM for a 124-134 zone thinking it would be great. Not so much. To get to 124 required a ton of effort. My body told me it was too hard but the formula and HRM told me the opposite.

    I remembered then my previous attempts with a HRM. I have a resting heart rate in the low forties even when I’m not in good shape and my HR drops ten within just a few moments of switching from running to walking. This is good, but it also means that I have consistently had to subtract about ten beats per minute from any calculation. I’ll go out today with the zone set for 114-124 and see how it _feels_. My guess is that the goal of your plan is for me to stay in a zone that feels lighter and allows me to go longer rather than pushing into a specific number that leaves me feeling wiped out and sore.

    If I get a chance, I’ll let you know how it goes. Thank you for the good stuff you’ve got going here on the site. Be well.

    • Ivan Rivera says:

      Brian:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m one of the moderators here on the site. I’m glad you’re using Dr. Maffetone’s 180-formula to figure out your heart rate. It’s interesting to me that the MAF heart rate was difficult to get to. Did you warm up for 10-15 minutes before trying to reach the heart rate?

  • Mona Minnie says:

    I think this may be the missing link for me. I have worked the last two years to address my muscle imbalances after years of being morbidly obese. Physical therapy and changing my way-of-eating has been life changing. I was just cleared for weight-lifting! I am going to invest in a heart-rate monitor now…any recommendations? Thank you for including my weight-loss transformation on your Success Page.

    • Ivan Rivera says:

      Mona:

      Hi, I’m moderating on the site. It’s great to read about your weightloss and fitness successes. Getting cleared for weightlifting is a great landmark!

      The 180-formula is a product of over a decade of research and clinical experience. If you figure out your MAF heart rate by following the formula and train accordingly you should continue to see huge health and performance benefits! Dr. Maffetone is a big fan of Polar heart rate monitors (www.polar.com). Chest-strap monitors tend to be the most accurate.

      You don’t have to run: hourly or half-hour stints on the exercise bike work wonders. Just remember to warm up and cool down appropriately for every workout. We’re coming out with an iOS app soon designed to help set and track health and fitness goals, based on the MAF method and the 180 formula. Stay tuned!

      • Mona Minnie says:

        Thank you. Oh good…I did get the Polar H7. For the 180-formula do you add 10 for each medicine taken? I take one medication regularly and another as needed. I have an Android phone so hopefully you’ll come out with an app for that. I could use the iOS app on my iPod Touch though. Also, how do we add an avatar? Thanks, Mona

  • Lee Michaels says:

    I am a fan of the Maffetone Method. I couldn’t believe how much fat I lost and how quickly my pace improved by training to a fixed heart rate and modifying my diet to paleo. Having 10-15 serves of fruit and veg has meant that i have stayed healthy while training for Ironman too. I’m in my mid 40s and on my 3-year journey from struggling to run 5 k’s to finishing in the top 5% in 2 Ironman events, a key to my results has been the Maffetone Method. However, I don’t use the methodology exclusively; if my improvement plateaus, i throw in speed work. Plus despite my increased aerobic fitness, when I cycle in the hills the effort becomes anaerobic. It is impossible for me to keep the heart rate below 140 BPM (I don’t even come close). Yet I see training in the hills as a key tenet of my success.

  • Heath says:

    Hi there,
    The first time I got onto Phil’s method was through a professional athlete I trained with a guy called Andrew Meikle when I was 14 odd. Andrew used to train all the time with a HRM and naturally I began asking questions. I think I had almost tried all formats of training and never worked at a very young age. Then he gave me one of Phil’s original books called ‘ everyone’s is an athlete’. I read this about a million times and applied the use of a HRM with his help and understanding. I still live and die by it now. Believe me, when you get that drop whilst running and your monitor tells you, hey mate, you now need to go faster at the same heart race pace…. Well,, that my friend is exactly when you realise Phil is a mastermind! What this training tells you is that your body is more efficient now and that means you can go faster because you went slower. Make sure you give it time, it really is amazing. I am a total convert for the last 25 years now and spread the word all the time. The new site is amazing and I think we all hope that Phil is still around shelling out his amazing guidance and wisdom. Would be great to meet him one day out here in Australia! we can only hope!

  • SteveL says:

    A number of years ago I found and adopted the MAF method of training. I went from like a 11:30 mile to a 9:50 over a period of about 9 months. But then i plateaued and then regressed all the way back without changing anything I can think of. The 180 method I believe works for most people but is there anyway to fine tune that aerobic heart rate number? One thing I noticed when I started with MAF is that I got nowhere with 180-age+5. It was only after adding an additional 3 beats that I then started making progress for at least nine months. I’m excited about the app and have signed up to be a beta tester.

  • Monika Bartalos says:

    Yesterday was the first time when I run using the 180 formula. I run for 10.5km at a 8:39 pace which was very slow comparing to my previous paces. First it was very challenging. There was an older woman over there doing some speed walking or nordic walking and she was faster than me :)) Nevermind, I kept continue on my slow pace having my HR on 150-155 ( I am 25 yers old). I felt very good during the whole run and finished full of energy. I can’t wait for the progression and better results! :)

    • Ivan Rivera says:

      Thanks for your comment, Monica! I’m an editor for Dr. Maffetone and I often help answer questions and comments on the blog. Sticking to the MAF heart rate takes a lot of conviction and willpower. Good for you that you’re managing. The benefits that you’ll see over time by following the MAF method will be nothing short of spectacular. Keep at it!

  • richard says:

    I don’t see what’s so revolutionary about this 180 formula. All it is doing is emphasizing base training at the proper zone 2 heart rate for endurance athletes, which puts you right in the fat burning zone. Not saying that your formula is wrong at all, but since we all have quite different max heart rates it seems no more accurate than the 212-age prediction for max HR.

    I’m 51, and have trained regularly for 3 years, so 180-51+5 gives 134.
    My max heart rate (based upon what I’ve hit in a bike race last year) is 186, so lets say my zone 2 endurance HR zone is 70% -75% that gives a range of 130 to 139.

    Did a 28k run and wore my HR monitor for 1st time in ages, just to monitor HR rather than running to a specific one, and was pleasantly surprised that HR stayed down in 130-140 range, even going up some significant hills it stayed down below 150. My usual endurance bike training zone would be in 130-140 range. Did 1st Iron man just over a year ago, kept my HR on bike at 140 +/-4 except for up hills where i kept it below 150. I did the ride in 5hrs 34, got off the bike and felt as like I’d not ridden I was so fresh, then amazed myself at doing a 3hr 44 marathon (1st marathon I’ve ever run).
    So I’m agreeing with you that base training works, train yourself so you can go faster at a lower heart rate.

    • Ivan Rivera says:

      Thanks for your comment, Richard!

      I’m an editor on the site.

      The revolutionary part about the 180-formula is that it takes into account your previous training and medical history to give you a better idea of what your aerobic heart rate zone really is. For example, since you subtract significant BPM if you’ve been overtrained or suffered chronic illnesses, or add BPM if you have been really athletic, it can potentially give you a number that’s quite different than what you would find with the 212-age or 220-age formulas. Since we all have a threshold heart rate after which we quickly climb into anaerobic work, even a few BPM can mark the difference between successful aerobic training and something else entirely.

      Since that threshold is tied to age as well as illness, stress, and overtraining, the 180-formula gives you a much more accurate vision of your particular aerobic zone than other formulas that don’t take health and fitness factors into account ever could.

  • SteveL says:

    When do you expect the app to be available for testing?

  • Lila Burnett says:

    Because this method is low intensity, how important is volume to continuing progress?

    • Ivan Rivera says:

      Lila:

      I’m an editor on the site.

      You need to do about as much as you would with any other training. If you’re just in it for the fitness, 1 hour 3 times a week (including 15 minutes for warm-up and cool-down), or if you’re competitive 1 hour 5 times a week. The more you do, you’ll see more benefits, but of course, if you do too much you’ll begin to see diminishing returns.

      There’s a bit of a misconception as regards athletic training: going at your max aerobic HR instead of a higher heart rate doesn’t mean that your training will be less effective, it just means that you’ll be training your aerobic system instead of your anaerobic system.

      In other words, the aerobic system–which is the most important energy system of the body–can’t be trained as effectively at higher heart rates. That’s why all elite athletes do 80% of their training at an easy speed or intensity: they (and their coaches) know the importance of aerobic development. It’s usually the non-elites that do 60 to 80% of their training more intensely in an effort to “catch up.” But the body’s just not built for that, so they get hurt.

      I hope I’ve answered your question.

      Ivan

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