5 Ways to Gauge Your Running Fitness

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5 Ways to Gauge Your Running Fitness

Few people understand the degree to which running is very hard work. According to the way that physiologists measure exercise, even the slowest jog by the slowest runner represents “vigorous” exercise. So no one can run hard very often; it’s too destructive to muscles, joints, hormones, and the entire system. Indeed, even Olympians run “easy” about 80 percent of the time. Another good alternative: Run every other day and do cross-training type activities on your non-running days: biking, swimming, weight lifting, etc. An easy run is one that allows you to talk comfortably with your running partner (or with yourself; just don’t let anyone see you). Many runners don’t like to use the word “jog,” but your easy runs should feel like a jog. —Amby Burfoot, Editor at Large for Runner’s World, member of the Running Hall of Fame, and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon

From the high-tech to no-tech, there are a variety of ways to gauge your effort and your fitness gains. Here’s a guide.

1. THE TALK TEST This is one of the most widely used methods of determining whether you’re working out at the appropriate level of effort. Informal as it sounds, research has shown that the talk test is an accurate predictor of intensity. For most of your easy runs, you want to be able to talk in complete sentences. For faster runs, you’ll want to be able to talk in short sentences, or to say a few words at a time. You never want to be running so fast that you’re huffing and puffing or unable to speak.

2. RESTING HEART RATE Tracking your fitness doesn’t get cheaper, easier, or more convenient than the method recommended by exercise physiologist and coach Susan Paul of the Track Shack Foundation in Orlando, author of Runner’s World’s “For Beginners Only” column. Take your heart rate for 1 minute first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Put two fingers on your pulse and time the number of beats per minute. Write the number down in your training log. As you get fitter, your resting heart rate will get lower. That’s because your heart is getting stronger, so it doesn’t have to make as many beats to pump the blood that your body needs. “When your heart rate gets lower,” Paul says, “you know that your body is responding to the training and getting more fit.”

3. PACE This term refers to the number of minutes it takes to cover 1 mile. So if it takes you 15 minutes to walk 1 mile, you would be walking a “15-minute” pace, which might be expressed as 15:00/mile. Most training watches—made by companies like Garmin, Polar, Timex, and Nike—calculate pace for you by tracking how far you’ve gone and how long you’ve been working out. You can also track your pace on your own. Track it yourself by simply timing your workout and figuring out how far you’ve gone.

Again, when you’re first starting out, it’s best to focus on the time you spend exercising rather than pace, or it’s the time that you consistently spend working out that is going to determine how much fitness you develop and the overall health benefits you gain. As you get more comfortable running and walking, you can start to track your pace on each workout to gauge your fitness gains.

4. HEART RATE Tracking your heart rate with a monitor (which reads your pulse via a sensor built into a chest strap) tells you precisely how hard—or easy—you’re working. A heart rate monitor will track how many beats per minute your heart is taking so that you can make sure you’re working within a particular percentage of your maximum heart rate during every workout. For instance, you’ll want to make sure that you’re running within 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate on most of your workouts.

That said, even with an accurate max heart rate, there are still going to be limitations when you’re using a heart rate monitor to determine how hard you’re working. If you’re working out in a gym, other machines might interfere with the signals. If you’re dehydrated, if it’s a very hot day, or if you’re in pain, your heart rate might skyrocket, even if you’re running at a slower pace.

5. PERCEIVED EXERTION Monitor your intensity based on how you feel. This method uses a numbered scale from 6 to 20 for rating exercise intensity. You assign a number based on how hard you feel you’re working. You can use the Borg relative perceived exertion scale for reference.

  • 20—Maximum exertion
  • 19—Extremely hard exertion
  • 17—Very hard exertion
  • 15—Hard exertion
  • 13—Somewhat hard exertion
  • 11—Light exertion
  • 9—Very light exertion
  • 7—Extremely light exertion
  • 6—No exertion at all

How do you measure your running fitness? Do you go high-tech or low-tech? Tell us in the comments!


myfitnesspal Big-Book-of-RunningReprinted from The Runner’s World Big Book of Running for Beginners by Jennifer Van Allen, Bart Yasso, and Amby Burfoot with Pamela Nisevich Bede, RD, CSSD. ©2014 by Rodale Inc. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.

The Runner’s World Big Book of Running for Beginners provides all the information neophytes need to take their first steps, as well as inspiration for staying motivated. The book presents readers with tips for smart nutrition and injury prevention and includes realistic training plans that enable beginning runners to achieve gradual progress (by gearing up for a 30-minute run, a 5-K, or even a 5-miler).


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