Training

How Should Your Workouts Feel

Fine tune your training efforts by learning the specific ways each type of workout — steady state, tempo, VO2 max — should feel.

Training plans are filled with instructions to run at threshold, VO2max, steady state, cruise, marathon pace… the list goes on. Even if you know what these terms mean, there is still the task of understanding what they feel like, which is the most effective way to gauge your effort in each type of workout.

The ability to properly adjust your effort as an experienced runner is critical when you’re pushing for that last one percent improvement to break through a plateau. When you learn to comprehend exactly what certain workouts should feel like, you can easily adjust for weather conditions, workout days when you’re not on your game, and any other wrench that might get thrown into your training.

Here, we’ll explore three important types of workouts — steady runs, tempo runs, and VO2 max work — and how to properly “feel” the proper pace and effort while doing them.

Steady State Runs

Steady state runs, or runs done at or in close proximity to your marathon race pace, are a great way to build aerobic strength, which is the foundation for your best performances from 5K to the marathon. From a pacing perspective, steady state runs are completed anywhere between 10 seconds faster and 30 seconds slower than your marathon race pace. That’s quite a pace range, which is just another reason why learning to run steady runs by feel is important.

What are the training benefits of a steady state run?

Running at your steady state pace maximizes development of your aerobic threshold, or the fastest pace you can run while still remaining completely aerobic (meaning your muscles have enough oxygen to produce all the energy they need). Developing your aerobic threshold is important because the aerobic energy system supplies more than 85 percent of the energy needed for distances of 5K or longer. The more you can develop your aerobic system over months and years of training, the faster you’ll be able to run moving forward.

What does a steady run feel like?

A steady state run should feel “comfortably hard”, meaning you could keep up the pace for an hour or more, but it’s not exactly easy. Since “comfortably hard” might mean something different to every runner, you can monitor your breathing rhythm to get a better feel for what a steady state effort means to you.

Steady state runs should typically be performed while breathing at a 3:3 ratio (three steps: one with your left, one with your right, one with your left, while breathing in;  three steps: one with your left, one with your right, one with your left, while breathing out). A 3:3 breathing rhythm ratio enables you take about 30 breaths per minute, which is needed for running “comfortably hard.” Note: some recommend an asymmetrical pattern of 3:2 to land on a different foot on each exhale, which is supposed to spread the stress.

The Talk Test

Another easy way to test whether you’re running in the range of steady state pace is to perform the “talk test.” While running, try to speak out loud, or to your running partner. If you can get out a full idea using three to four sentences, but can’t quote Shakespeare at length or sing a song, you’re running at steady state pace. If you can only blurt out one or two sentences before you start gasping for breath, you’re running too hard.

women talking on the run to judge feel of effort
Photo: Getty Images

Tempo Runs

The tempo run, or threshold run, is the bread-and-butter of most training schedules. Running them at the proper effort is critical to extracting maximum benefit from the workout. From a pacing perspective, tempo runs are usually completed between 10-mile and half marathon race pace, depending on the distance of the workout.

What are the training benefits of a tempo run?

A tempo run is defined as the fastest pace you can run without generating more lactic acid than your body can utilize and reconvert back into energy. Your body can only “clear” or reconvert a certain about of lactic acid back into energy before the lactate floods our system and contributes to fatigue. To race faster, you must teach your body to clear lactate more efficiently.

By running just below your lactate threshold you can begin to decrease (or improve, depending on how you look at it) the pace at which you begin to produce too much lactic acid for your body to manage. This will enable you to run faster and longer before you produce more lactate than your body can clear, thus enabling you to run faster.

However, running too fast or too slow for a tempo run diminishes the benefits because you’ll either produce too much lactate quickly by running too fast, OR you’ll not produce enough lactate because you’re running too slow and not challenging your body. Therefore, it’s critical that you learn how to feel the pace of a tempo run.

What does a tempo run feel like?

A tempo run should feel like a “hard, but controlled” effort, or “fast, but still fun.” You should be able to maintain your tempo run pace for 30 to 45 minutes. Again, you can use your breathing rhythm to monitor your effort.

Tempo runs should typically be performed while breathing at a 2:2 ratio (two steps: one with your left, one with your right, while breathing in;  two steps: one with your left, one with your right, while breathing out). A 2:2 (or 2:1) breathing rhythm enables you take about 45 breaths per minute.

The Talk Test

Like with steady state runs, you can use the same “talk test” to determine if you’re running in the correct effort range. During a tempo run, you should be able to say one or two sentences out loud before catching your breath, but forget about speaking in full paragraphs or articulating complete thoughts. Try this talk test during your next tempo run and see if you’re in the correct effort range.

VO2 Max Workouts

VO2max workouts, or classic “speed” workouts, are many a runner’s favorite training day because they’re allowed to run hard and push their limits. However, it’s still important for you to learn what these paces feel like so you don’t start a session of 12 x 400 meters too fast and fall off pace during the final few intervals, or even finish the workout at all. From a pacing perspective, VO2max workouts are completed at 5K pace or faster.

What are the training benefits of a Vo2max workout?

In simple terms, VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. It’s a combination of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump and the muscles’ efficiency in extracting and utilizing the oxygen.

Training at VO2max pace increases the amount of oxygen your body can use, and the more oxygen you can use, the faster you can run. In addition, since VO2max workouts are much faster than most every other workout, they force you to run more efficiently and with better form. Developing a proper feel for VO2 max work will enable you to push yourself further during speed sessions and complete workouts strong.

track workout fast young men
Photo: 101 Degrees West

What does a VO2max workout feel like?

A VO2max workout will often feel close maximum effort. You should be breathing very hard and feel like you would only be able to keep running for another 100 meters or so after you finish your interval.

Typically, a VO2 max workout will require a very short breathing ratio to maximize the amount of oxygen to your lungs. Most runners use a 1:2 ratio (one step breathing in, two steps breathing out) or 2:1 ratio (two steps breathing in and one step breathing out) breathing rhythm. This will increase your oxygen uptake to 60 breaths per minute.

The Talk Test

The talk test for a VO2 max session is simple – during the first part of an interval you can blurt out a few words — “Good. Thanks.” — but definitely not a full sentence. In the final half of your interval, you shouldn’t be able to talk at all.

While understanding training terminology is important, to translate these efforts appropriately to your training you need to appreciate what they feel like.

Learning to feel the proper pace of a given workout in training isn’t just a concept for beginners to master. Too many experienced runners neglect what their body is telling them and are driven by the numbers on their watch, which often results in overtraining and not getting the most bang for your buck from a workout. In addition, new and experienced runners alike can use the information about how a certain workout should feel to adjust their training for hot summer weather, hilly courses, and bad training days. Learn to listen to your body and train smarter this summer.