Many coaches suggest using the “talk test” as a method to evaluate your effort level on easy runs. However, it can be used for any other form of aerobic exercise as well.
But what exactly is the talk test, and what are its purpose and use?
In this article, we will discuss what the talk test is, the purpose and use of the talk test, and how to use the talk test in your training.
We will cover:
- What Is the Talk Test?
- The Purpose and Benefits of the Talk Test
- How to Do the Talk Test During Exercise
Let’s get started!
What Is the Talk Test?
The talk test is a method used to help assess the intensity or effort level you are exerting during exercise.
To do the talk test, all you have to do is see how well you can talk while running or doing any form of cardio exercise, such as cycling, elliptical training, hiking, incline walking, rowing, etc.
Depending on how easily you can talk or sing, you can have an idea of the intensity of the exercise.
For example, if you can easily talk in full, fluid, complete sentences and even sing a simple song like the National Anthem, you are probably performing low-intensity exercise or running at an “easy” pace.
If you can speak in complete sentences fairly easily but not really sing a song while simultaneously performing the activity, you are probably working at a moderate-intensity effort level.Finally, if you can only mutter a few words or short, choppy sentences, you are working at a vigorous intensity.
The Purpose and Benefits of the Talk Test
The purpose and use of the talk test is to have a tangible way to try and assess the intensity level of the effort you are exerting during exercise.
The principle behind the talk test is that the harder you are working during exercise, or the more that you are exerting yourself, the more breathless you will be, so the more difficult it becomes to talk.
The talk test is useful for two main reasons, knowing what your exercise intensity is and being able to asses it without the need for equipment that may be even more qualitative and arbitrary when reading effort levels.
Let’s look at each of these benefits of the talk test individually:
The Talk Test Helps You Assess Exercise Intensity
As mentioned, the primary purpose of the talk test is to have a handy method to gauge the intensity level of your workout.
This is important for several reasons.
From a more general health and fitness perspective, being able to differentiate whether you are doing moderate-intensity physical activity or vigorous-intensity physical activity can be important in terms of how much exercise you need to do to satisfy the physical activity guidelines for adults.
The guidelines for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation are to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate-intensity cardio exercise elevates your heart rate to 50-70% of your maximum heart rate, while vigorous-intensity exercise corresponds to an intensity that is 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.
Therefore, having a way to assess whether we are doing “moderate intensity“ or “vigorous-intensity“ aerobic exercise is important because there are different guidelines as to how much of each intensity of exercise you need to do to reduce your risk of lifestyle diseases.
If you don’t do the talk test or use any other form of measuring or estimating exercise intensity and just assume that you are exercising at a vigorous intensity, you might decide to only do a 25-minute workout three days a week to satisfy the physical activity guidelines for overall health and disease reduction.
However, if you are actually only working at a moderate intensity, you will only be doing half as much exercise per week as you should be getting to improve your health.
In this case, the talk test would be a useful tool for assessing which intensity designation you are working at.
Additionally, if you are following a training plan geared towards a specific race or fitness goal, the workouts may use qualitative terms to describe the intensity, such as “easy,” “medium,” or “hard” effort, and the talk test can be useful for ensuring you are exerting the approximate effort level prescribed in the workout.
Following a training plan as closely as possible is important for your success in reaching your goals.
If you are habitually running too easy or slow—assuming you are working at a harder level than you are—you might not improve your fitness enough to achieve your goals or be prepared for your race.
This could occur in instances where a training plan might say to run at a “hard” effort level during fartlek intervals, which should correspond to vigorous-intensity exercise as determined by heart rate, but you actually only run at an effort level that ultimately corresponds to moderate-intensity exercise.
The converse can also occur. Habitually overexerting yourself and running your easy runs too hard can result in overtraining syndrome—pushing yourself too hard without giving your body adequate recovery.
You might think you’re running at an easy effort, but if you actually do the talk test, you might find that it’s pretty difficult to speak in full sentences, and you’re really exercising at a vigorous intensity.
Also of note, many running coaches often prescribe runs at a “conversational effort.“ The talk test is a perfect tool to use in these cases to ensure that you are indeed running at a pace where you can comfortably sustain a conversation.
The Talk Test Doesn’t Require Equipment
The other major benefit of doing the talk test during exercise is that, unlike some other methods of measuring exercise intensity, the talk test doesn’t require equipment.
Although certainly more accurate, the other primary way to assess intensity level while running or doing cardio exercise is to wear a heart rate monitor.
A chest strap heart rate monitor or even a slightly less accurate wrist-based heart rate monitor will still give you a much more accurate and precise measurement of your relative intensity because you can actually see physiological data.
Research has shown that your heart rate during exercise is strongly correlated with your effort level in terms of the percentage of your VO2 max that you are working at.
Furthermore, the physical activity guidelines set forth by the government for the minimum amount of exercise you should be doing to reduce your risk of disease are based on intensity level designations that have defined, correlated heart rate zones.
Therefore, wearing a heart rate monitor will help you directly see what relative intensity level you are working at and how much exercise you need to be doing as a result.
However, heart rate monitors can be expensive, and we don’t always have access to them, so the talk test can be a free, easy alternative in those situations.
The talk test is also arguably more useful than a basic rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale because it is slightly less subjective.
Though it’s definitely not an exact science, it is true that you should be getting more breathless the harder you are working, so performing the talk test will help you base your assessment of exercise intensity on a little more than a completely subjective RPE evaluation.
How to Do the Talk Test During Exercise
There isn’t a specific protocol for how to do the talk test. The general idea is that you want to assess how easily you can speak in full sentences.
If you are running with a friend or exercising side by side with a partner, you can simply see how easy it is to fluidly carry on a normal conversation.
If you are running by yourself, you can still do the talk test, as long as you aren’t too self-conscious to talk aloud to yourself.
Good options are to tell yourself the story, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or count up to 100.
- As a general rule of thumb, if you can sing, or really comfortably talk in long diatribe-like paragraphs, you’re exercising at a low intensity, below 50% of your maximum heart rate.
- If you can speak in full sentences, but it’s kind of difficult, or you feel pretty breathless after doing so, you are in the moderate-intensity exercise zone, somewhere between 50 to 75% of your maximum heart rate.
- If you’re struggling to string together a full sentence without having to grab breaths in between words, you are doing high-intensity exercise at or above 75% of your maximum heart rate.
Ultimately, even though the talk test isn’t an exact science, it could be a useful method for assessing exercise intensity without requiring the use of a heart rate monitor.
To refer to the Rate of Perceived Exertion mentioned, take a look at our chart and article to go into more detail.