This generally means you’re running too hard for your ability! For any exercise plan to be followed it has to be sustainable and enjoyable. In order to enjoy running, you have to get past the feeling that your muscles may spontaneously combust at any moment and your lungs are at risk of exploding, to the point where you glide gracefully down the road feeling like a true athlete, able to take in the sights around you and appreciate the company you’re in.
The best way to attain this feeling is to avoid it from the outset by beginning your running training at an exertion level which you feel you could sustain for the distance or time you aim to run for. While you’re running, try to rate your perceived exertion and perceived shortness of breath on a scale of 1-10 as developed by physiologist Gunnar Borg, where 10/10 actually is the maximum level you can deliver before having to stop the activity (lungs bursting, legs on fire etc).
An average run, or 80-90% of your weekly training, should be at an effort level of around 3-4/10 (moderate to somewhat strong exertion, moderate breathing difficulty) in order to allow your muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular and other systems to adapt to the training while still supplying them with sufficient oxygen to do so. You should breathe predominantly through your mouth to maximise oxygen going in and carbon dioxide expelled. Your steps should be short enough that your feet land directly under your centre of gravity and you should be able to comfortably carry on a conversation.
If you are able to pass the talk test and carry on a comfortable conversation without panting between words or phrases, you are running at the right pace for you, which researchers have found to translate to a steady aerobic level of exertion of around 65-80% of maximum heart rate. At this intensity, you should be able to easily complete your training run without slowing down dramatically towards the end, while still enjoying the health benefits of cardiovascular exercise. If you feel you are moving outside of this personal comfort zone, either slow down your run or take a walk break.
I would suggest at least several weeks of training at or slightly below the talk test threshold, up until the point where every training run really does become effortless, before intensifying your training to incorporate harder tempo runs or interval sessions. This is where your perceived ratings on the Borg scale reach 7-9/10 (very strong to maximal effort with severe shortness of breath). Even when you do decide to step up your training, working outside your comfort zone should comprise little more than 10-20% of your total training. By interspersing easy runs with harder sessions, you allow your physiological systems to simultaneously recover, adapt and strengthen so that you improve performance while minimising risk of injury or overtraining.
So you don’t need scientists or fancy gadgets to tell you what speed you should be running when you start out. Take off your watch, forget the kilometre markers, call up a friend and go for a run. It’s a great way to catch up the latest news while getting the health and psychological benefits of running.
It’s also a fantastic way to meet new people, so if you don’t have any friends willing or able to be dragged out running with you, join up with a local running club and make new friends.
Failing that, heading out for an easy run is a great way to sightsee as well as clear your head and sort through your own thoughts. So if you have no volunteers for running partners, practice the talk test by striking up a conversation with yourself!
by Candyce Hall
A registered biokineticist in private practice in Hout Bay, Candyce has finished 10 Comrades and eight Two Oceans (by age 28). Her marathon PB is 2:55 and she’s blitzed a 38:24 for the 10km. She coaches and advises runners, from novices to professional athletes.
Originally published in the July/August 2013 issue.