Athletes are often led astray by tools, methods, and ideas that they assume must work because they are science-y—they wear the trappings of science but lack the empirical evidence obtained through the rigorous scientific method. Presented with two different ways of measuring their fitness—one involving the use of fancy wearable technology and the other involving a method that could easily have been practiced five centuries ago—most runners will put more faith in the former. But in some cases, the more primitive way is in fact the better way.
Simple and Specific
The Talk Test is a great example. As you’re probably aware, this test, which entails speaking out loud while exercising, is used as a qualitative measure of intensity. To most runners, it doesn’t seem as scientific as, say, a VO2max estimate generated by a heart-rate monitor. In fact, though, the validity of the Talk Test as an instrument for intensity measurement is solidly backed by science. What’s more, the specific intensity that the Talk Test pinpoints—the ventilatory threshold (VT)—is of more practical use to runners than other variables such as lactate threshold and VO2max.
The ventilatory threshold is the lower of two exercise intensities at which an abrupt increase in breathing rate occurs. In most runners it falls between 77% and 81% of maximum heart rate, and it is considered to mark the boundary between low intensity and moderate. Research has shown that exercising just above this threshold is significantly more taxing to the nervous system than is exercising just below it and therefore takes longer to recover from.
Other research has shown that, whereas elite runners do about 80% of their running below the VT, the average nonelite runner does less than half of their running below the VT. And still other research has demonstrated that nonelite runners get much fitter and race faster when they emulate the pros by increasing the proportion of training they do at low intensity from 50% to 80%. It is my belief that making this shift is the single most beneficial change that most runners can make to their training. Doing so requires that you know the pace, heart rate, and/or power that corresponds to your ventilatory threshold. This allows you to ensure that you stay below the VT whenever you intend to by monitoring your preferred intensity metric during your runs.
The Talk Test—a particular Talk Test protocol, anyway—is a proven way to accurately determine your VT pace, heart rate, and power. Designed by an international team of scientists led by Giancarlo Condello of the University of Rome, this protocol was validated in a 2014 study involving 31 trained athletes. Among their key findings was that estimates of VT heart rate and pace arrived at through this particular version of the Talk Test closely matched the subjects’ actual VT as determined via direct measurement of their breathing rate.
Taking the Talk Test
The Condello Talk Test, as we might call it, can be done either outdoors or on a treadmill. I recommend that you do it where you train most often. Be aware that most treadmills are poorly calibrated for pace, so if you use a treadmill for the purpose of determining pace zones, the result might not be valid outdoors. If you do the test outdoors, choose a smooth, flat route if possible. I’ll walk you through it now:
Step 1. Start jogging at a very slow pace—substantially slower than your normal jogging pace.
Step 2. After one minute, note your heart rate, pace, and/or power and recite a statement that is approximately 50 syllables in length while continuing to jog at the same pace. The American Pledge of Allegiance (31 words, 49 syllables) is often used in the U.S., but any statement will do, and even counting out loud will suffice. For example, count from 121–128: “One hundred twenty-one, one hundred twenty-two, one hundred twenty-three, one hundred twenty-four, one hundred twenty-five, one hundred twenty-six, one hundred twenty-seven, one hundred twenty-eight.” After you finish speaking, judge whether you were able to do so comfortably, without gasping. There are three options: yes, no, and not sure.
Step 3. If you chose the “yes” option—i.e., if were able to speak comfortably—pick up your pace just slightly (aim for something in the range of 10 seconds per kilometer or 15 seconds per mile faster). When another minute has passed, again note your heart rate, pace, and/or power and recite the same 50-syllable statement as before while maintaining pace.
Step 4. If you were again able to speak comfortably, repeat Step 3, and continue until you are no longer able to speak comfortably, or you’re not sure. At this point the test is complete, and you may either stop or finish out your run.
Step 5. The key number that you want to take away from this test is the highest heart rate, pace, and/or power at which you were still able to speak comfortably. In other words, if you did the test nine times, and you were no longer able to speak comfortably at the final pace, then the result of your test is the heart rate, pace, or power you noted at the end of the eighth test, or next-to-last pace.
Note that the smaller you make your speed increases in this test, the more accurate the result will be. Accuracy will also improve with repetition, as you can use the result of each test to guide the next.
Once you have a result you’re confident in, apply it to your training simply by making sure your heart rate, pace, or power is under the ventilatory threshold whenever you intend to run at low intensity. All of your warm-ups, cooldowns, active recoveries, and easy runs, most of your long runs, and about 80% of your total weekly running should be done in this zone. Repeat the Condello protocol every four weeks or so to keep your VT measurement current.
You may conduct an informal Talk Test at any time during a regular training run as an additional check. For example, if you are climbing a hill eight miles into a 10 mile run and you fear you might be creeping above the VT, speak 50 syllables out loud, and slow down if you’re not able to do so comfortably. If you’re running with someone, make sure you can carry on a conversation in full, complex sentences, not just “How are you doing”/“Fine” between panting breaths.
Most runners are unpleasantly surprised to discover just how slow they have to go to stay below the ventilatory threshold. If this happens to you, be patient. The more disciplined you are in adhering to the 80/20 rule of intensity balance, the fitter you will get, and the fitter you get, the faster you will be able to run at low intensity.