You and Your Running

Fri, 2 Dec. 2011 - 11:44 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Understanding Effort

One of the most valuable skills a runner can acquire is the ability to internally gauge training effort. To properly train, absolutes like distance and speed, though useful, are not enough. On any given run, it’s important to learn to read your body for cues that you are running too hard, too easy, or just right. Nearly every level of exertion has its place in a comprehensive training regimen. In the end, it doesn’t matter that you ran X pace on Y day; it matters that you pushed your body correctly to achieve the workout intensity on the schedule for that day—and that the scheduled intensity was in harmony with your body’s energy and ability. Exertion can be thought of as the essential adaptive stimulus. You can’t lower your race times without exerting yourself in your training. But how much is enough, or too much?



The five components of exertion are heart rate, breathing, power, tempo, and intensity. By separately analyzing these components, you can learn not only to identify how hard you are working without a heart rate monitor, but also to recognize how exertion changes from moment to moment during a run. Heart and breathing rate are fairly self-explanatory, but it is useful to define the others in more detail: power is the sense of muscle strength you are applying to a run, tempo is the rate at which your arms and legs are moving, and intensity is your relative sense of comfort or discomfort.


Each component of exertion is scaled into six levels. Most times, the experience of one component is related to the experience of the others at the same level. We can then categorize running into six general levels: mild, light, steady state, threshold, ragged edge, and maximum


Mild intensity occurs at 50 to 59% maximal heart rate (mhr) and is your slowest jog. Your heart rate at that pace will be 10 to 15 beats per minute faster than at a brisk walk, though both paces are the same in minutes per mile. (The increase reflects the additional energy needed to get airborne between steps.) It’s best to take short, quick steps at this pace.


Light exertion allows you to carry on a conversation while running at a very comfortable and slow tempo that feels “held back.” That is, you consciously prevent yourself from moving at a faster pace. This pace is the bedrock of your training; the fairly high metabolic activity (60 to 69% mhr) that you can nevertheless continue for a very long time allows you to put significant mileage on your legs with each outing. These long runs are the base upon which faster running is built.


Steady state feels quick and relaxed with deep, slow, inaudible breathing and a discernable “huff” between phrases of conversation.  It occurs at 70 to 79% mhr.


Threshold running is characterized by audible, heavy breathing at 80 to 89% mhr. The tempo is rapid; you feel that you are pressing yourself, but the intensity is tolerable. Someone next to you will be able to hear each exhalation. You won’t be able to carry on a normal conversation because you feel yourself concentrating to maintain the pace.


Ragged edge running occurs at 90 to 94% of mhr. This is a fast, forced tempo with labored breathing and general discomfort.


Maximum exertion is the type that occurs at the finish of a 5K race. At 95 to 100% mhr, breathing is hyper-fast, and you strain to maintain the pace against extreme discomfort and fatigue.


The key to these six levels is that they are far enough apart that your perception of exertion changes noticeably as you move between them.



Effort, by contrast, should be thought of as a way to identify the difficulty of an overall workout. Exercise exertion may change many times during a long training run, but the overall workout effort will be one fixed value. For example, the longer you run at any given heart rate, the harder the overall workout becomes. With workout effort, it’s the overall effect of exertion that counts. A long-duration workout can be a hard workout even though the pace felt easy (light) the whole way.


How do you know when you’ve had a hard workout? If you aren’t sure at the end of it how difficult it was, you can determine a workout’s difficulty by measuring how long it takes you to recover from it. If your recovery takes 24 to 36 hours (1 to 1 1/2 days), it was a moderate workout. If it takes you between 48 and 60 hours (2 to 2 1/2 days) to recover, it was a hard workout. Over 60 hours, and you’ve had a very hard workout. Most conditioned athletes need at least 3 to 3 1/2 days to recover from a very hard workout. By comparison, an easy workout will take you only 12 hours to recover.


Determining workout difficulty by examining effort and recovery is an essential step in sculpting a training program that increases your body’s adaptive capacity. But there is one final component to consider: your available workout energy.


Workout Energy

Your running energy at any given moment can be thought of as one of five points on a scale: no energy, little energy, some energy, ample energy, and abundant energy. These delineations correspond to steps on yet another scale that asks, essentially, How ready to run am I?  If you have no energy, you will feel sluggish, i.e., without energy from start to finish, and feeling terrible the whole time. If you feel tired, you have little energy and you will feel burdened attempting to exceed a short, slow workout. Lazy means you have some energy—but it runs out early. If you are ready to run you have ample energy, which will develop after a short warm-up; it lasts long enough for a hard workout. And finally, if you are eager to run you have abundant energy and even an aggressive attitude that sustains itself. 


Analyzing your readiness to run is extremely important because in order to get your workout effort right, you must gauge it to accommodate your workout energy. There are five optimal effort/energy combinations, and your training should be structured so that you achieve them with every run:


When you feel sluggish, the optimal workout effort is very easy; when you feel tired, you should run easy; when you feel lazy, your optimal effort will be moderate; if you are ready to run, you should run hard; and when you feel eager to run, your optimal effort will be very hard. You must learn to coordinate your workout efforts with the specific energy patterns that develop from day to day as you train. Otherwise, your training falls short of its ultimate goal, to adapt you to a long-term increase in your capacity for exertion. See “Half-marathon Training Made Easier” for a sample workout schedule that utilizes these principles and promises effective distance race training.


(5K and 10K Training by Brian Clarke, 2006, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 175 pp. $17.95)


(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January/February 2006 • Volume 24, Number 1)

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