Why to use Threshold for Heart Rate Field Tests

By: Sally Edwards

Many of you have asked for my recommendation on the Pacer test and using heart rate testing on students. After having spent 30 years field testing kids and adults to set zones, I strongly support the Threshold methodology in school PE over Max Heart Rate. In the Heart Zones Smart PE curriculum, Deb and I have 4 different “field tests” for threshold training system. One of those assessments to set zones and the one that I urge you to use as I hope you transform from max heart rate training to ZONING is the Cardio Pacer Test.

I recommend the Cardio Pacer test as a way to assess low Threshold 1 (T1) and high Threshold 2 (T2) and wanted to encourage you to consider adapting this test for this purpose. Some of you may stop the Cardio Pacer test when the students hit the number 200 bpm for a lot of reasons that have been mentioned elsewhere. However, it simply isn’t equitable to your students if you know the story called “Hummingbirds and Elephants” which I will share briefly.

The max heart rate for a hummingbird is 500 bpm max, while it is 30 bpm for an elephant. Some children’s heart mass is that of an elephant and others is that of a hummingbird. Neither is better – some of us wear a size 8 foot and others a size 12 foot. Rather each child is different and some kids have a max heart rate of 160 bpm, an elephant and some of 230 bpm, a hummingbird. In my three decades of working with school PE, I have seen that big a range. The Threshold Field Test is about allowing kids to find out their true maximum without a “one size fits” all subjective treatment and within the same test to measure their T1 and T2.

Here’s one protocol for determining threshold zones and max heart rate in one assessment: 

Test Name: Field Test Threshold and Maximum Heart Rate


  • At the end of each stage of the Cardio Pacer test, have the participant say the Pledge of Allegiance
  • After completing the Pledge of Allegiance ask them the question: “Can you speak comfortably?” 
  • There are only three answers: (1) Yes (2) Yes, but…. (3) No
  • The test should stop when the student says “No” the first time.


  • T1 or low threshold is the first time the student says “Yes, but….” This is the heart rate number at the top of Blue Zone.
  • T2 or high threshold or the top of Yellow zone is the first time the student says “No” for ZONING methodology.
  • T2 or high and second threshold or the top of the Orange Zone 4 is the first time the student says “No” for the Threshold methodology.
  • Maximum heart rate is scored by adding 20 bpm to T2 or high threshold


  • Using the age adjusted maximum heart rate formula of 220-age = maximum heart rate is too inaccurate and useless for kids and adults.
  • Self-management of exercise intensity, such as identifying changes in ventilatory response to exercise intensity detecting T1 snd T2 is one of the national standards for PE.
  • If assessing, it is important to mitigate your risk which are substantially higher above T2.
  • Cardiac incidents most often (according to Carl Foster, Ph.D) occur in children and adults when they are exercising above T2.

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