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Figuring out how hard to push is one of the great challenges in exercise. Personally, I’m a big fan of relying on perceptual methods (“how hard does this feel?”) rather than seemingly objective approaches like heart rate or lactate level. Certainly for competitive athletes, learning to interpret your body’s cues is a crucial step to being able to pace yourself properly in a race. But perceived exertion can be pretty tricky for beginners — which is why simple tricks like the “Talk Test” can be very helpful.
In its most basic form, the Talk Test is pretty simple: if you can talk in complete sentences, you’re below threshold. If you can’t talk, you’re above threshold. If you’re in the middle — you can say a few words at a time — you’re pretty close to threshold. So what is this “threshold” we’re talking about? Ah, that’s where it gets complicated. As exercise gets more intense, your body may or may not pass through several thresholds related to breathing rate, lactate accumulation in the blood, and other physiological parameters. The precise definition of these thresholds — and their very existence, in some cases — is hotly debated. As a crude simplification, threshold pace corresponds to the fastest pace you can sustain aerobically, which usually turns out to be the pace you’d hold in a race lasting about an hour.
All of this is by way of introduction to a new study from researchers at the University of New Hampshire, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, that compared the exercise intensity at various points in the Talk Test to the exercise intensity at the ventilatory and lactate thresholds. Here’s the data, expressed in terms of heart rate and VO2:
“Negative Talk Test” is when the subjects couldn’t talk comfortably; “positive Talk Test” was when they could talk comfortably; “equivocal Talk Test” was in the middle. It’s clear that this middle zone corresponds pretty closely to lactate threshold. This is a bit surprising, since you’d expect ventilatory threshold — when breathing gets significantly harder — to be more closely tied to talking ability. But it’s convenient, because people care a lot more about lactate threshold than ventilatory threshold.
So how do we use this information? Here’s a basic “training zone pyramid” that I included in a Jockology column on pacing last year, based on research by Carl Foster and others about the typical training patterns of endurance athletes:
So most of your training should be below threshold — a common mistake beginners make, since they’re so unfit, is to be pushing above threshold on every bout of exercise. And some of your training should be at threshold — and I’d bet many competitive runners would badly fail the Talk Test during what they claim are “tempo runs” at threshold! On the other hand, casually spinning the wheels of an exercise bike while reading a magazine is unlikely to do much for you, as the press release from the UNH researchers points out:
“If you are beginning an exercise program and can still talk while you’re exercising, you’re doing OK,” Quinn says. “But if you really want to improve, you’ve got to push a little bit harder.”