Taking the confusion out of workout types and terms
If you are a runner, you will no doubt have heard a few terms used to describe various workout runs. For example “easy pace run”, or “tempo effort run” might be used to classify a workout type. It can get quite confusing to understand and put these terms into action in an effective way. In this article (Running Workout Types and Intensity Guide) I want to resolve any confusion, help you understand how to find the specific effort to run at, and also give you a high level overview of what each type of run is intended to accomplish. I have kept the technical level and terms to a minimum to make things easier to grasp.
Pace vs. effort to indicate workout intensity
Firstly I’ll not use the term “pace” to indicate the level of intensity. Pace would indicate effort over time, also known as speed or rate of change etc.
Think about running on the flat at a given speed (pace), then continue to run up a hill at the same speed. What happened to your “effort” level? I can pretty much guarantee it got much harder, and you might even have had to slow down. Now run on the flat again and think about how much effort it’s taking, hit that hill again at the same effort, and you will have slowed down. This is exactly why I will refer to the workout intensity as “effort” and not pace since your heart rate can vary considerably even when running at the same speed.
There are many other factors governing why your usual speed/pace one day might feel much harder or easier than on another day. Fatigue, life stress, and air temperature etc. are just some of the many variables we have to deal with. Think of effort as your gauge for how hard or easy you are running.
What is VO2 Max
In simple terms, VO2 Max is a measure of how much oxygen you can utilize to create energy per kg of your bodyweight per minute. (CDC P66) As you inhale and exhale, only a certain amount of oxygen is absorbed by your lungs into your blood per breath cycle. The more efficiently you are able to absorb oxygen, the more economical you are. Think of it like fuel economy in a car. One car might only be able to go for 1 mile on the same amount of fuel as another car that can go for 2 miles. VO2 Max is a bit like this, where you are able to make more use of the volume of air you take in with each breath.
Unless you have had a recent lab test to measure this value, you will have to use an estimate. Luckily there’s a few ways to estimate this, and how to estimate your level of effort relative to a percentage of your VO2 Max. These methods are covered later.
Ref: CDC P66 – Physiological Responses and Long Term Adaptations to Exercise https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/pdf/chap3.pdf
Types of workout run
The workout types below are the most commonly used terms. I will describe each one, how you can estimate your effort level to run at, and the purpose of the workout type. Refer to the table below for the correlation between the workout types, perceived effort levels (RPE), estimated heart rate (HR), and VO2 Max.
Purpose: The purpose of this run type is to keep your muscles active while causing as little additional stress to the body as possible. Think of it as an active recovery run if the previous run was a hard effort workout run.
Effort level: Really easy, RPE 3-5 preferably 3-4. Walking is fine if it helps you to keep the effort level low enough, and make sure if you go uphill to slow right down and not let the effort level creep up to the next level which is an endurance building effort.
Duration: It’s best to keep this type of run to less than 60 minutes.
Aerobic Endurance Building Effort Run
Purpose: To stress the cardiovascular system just enough to promote some improvements in aerobic capacity, but doesn’t add a huge amount of stress to the skeletomuscular system. This effort will be where most of your weekly mileage or time is spent.
Effort Level: RPE 5-6. This effort level is something you can sustain for a really long time.
Duration: Anything from an hour or two, to a really long day out of 6+ hours.
Steady State Effort Run
Purpose: Builds endurance by stressing your cardiovascular system for shorter harder efforts, compared to the long aerobic Endurance Building effort runs.
Effort Level: RPE 7. The Steady State level sits between Endurance Building and Tempo runs. The difference with the Steady State effort run is that it’s not an effort you can maintain for the duration of a long run, but also not so hard that it’s reaching the lactic threshold, or VT2. (see table 1 for the levels)
Duration: About 30 to 60 minutes, with a maximum of 2 hours total duration in a single session at this effort. As an example, 30 minutes then 5 minutes recovery walk/jog then another 30 minutes would give you a total of 60 minutes at the Steady State effort.
Tempo Effort Run
Purpose: This effort makes you faster and stronger by stressing the cardiovascular system more than the previous longer duration efforts. Over time it helps improve the efficiency of your muscles by enabling them to utilize more of the oxygen you inhale for energy production, and importantly it also trains your systems to make you more efficient at removing the by-products of the energy expenditure.
Effort Level: This is a strenuous effort. RPE 8-9. This is the first effort level range where at the upper end of it you get close to or reach your lactate threshold level (the point where you start taking short fast breaths).
Duration: Between 7-20 minutes at Tempo effort, then recovery time for about half the Tempo effort duration. The total time at Tempo effort in a single session would usually be no more than 60 minutes. This is one case where more of a good thing is definitely not better! Going beyond 60 minutes in one session would most likely take more out of you than the benefits gained, and in turn it will cause you to underperform in this workout and probably your next workout sessions too.
Intervals Effort Run
Purpose: This is an anaerobic effort done above the lactate threshold (VT2). One of the many benefits is to boost your power for short explosive bursts. These high effort intervals are also great at improving your running form, because it’s hard to run fast with poor form.
Effort Level: These are really hard efforts. RPE 10, and the level should be something you can only sustain for a few minutes.
Duration: Interval workout runs can vary considerably depending on the phase you are training in, and your goals. They are generally done back to back with a 1 to 1 ratio of run/recovery.
Purpose: These are effective in getting you accustomed to running faster, and can be used in a long run, or as part of the warmup before an Interval workout effort.
Effort Level: Harder efforts, which should feel like you’re working, but not maximal effort.
Duration: Strides are very short 15-25 second bouts of hard faster running, with about 1 minute recovery time between them. You should make sure the effort is something you can sustain for the duration of the stride. They are not “all-out” sprints which would end up with you slowing down at the end.
Other Workout Run Terms
There are many other workout terms used as well as the ones detailed above. The following list includes some of them, and they are all variations on running at different intensities and durations. Once you have learned how to estimate when you are at, above, or below the two main reference points, VT1, and VT2, you will be able to run at any of the other workout efforts based on the plan you are following.
Other examples include:
1 mile, 2 mile, 5k, 10k, and Marathon workouts.
Ref: Based on information from the references below
Jack Daniels Running Formula
Jason Koop Training Essentials for Ultrarunning
Estimating your effort relative to your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds
Hopefully you should now have a better understanding of the terminology, and it’s time to put it into practice.
Heart Rate related to effort
There are three heart rate zones which are separated by specific reference points. These reference points are indicated where breathing changes. We can use this to determine effort levels, and the specific effort levels for different exercise benefits. The table below shows the reference points and how they relate to % of max HR values, ratings of perceived exertion, and effort levels. Running workouts can also be based on these values.
Ref: Based on the Borg 1-10 RPE Scale – https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/1982/05000/Psychophysical_bases_of_perceived_exertion.12.aspx
Heart Rate Zones
As mentioned earlier, unless you’ve had a recent maximal HR test conducted by a medical professional in a lab, the threshold reference points and max HR value are always going to be an estimate. However, we can use a field test to get these estimated values.
Zone 1: From resting HR to the level where speaking starts to become less fluid. This upper level is known as VT1 (First Ventilatory Threshold), which is the point where you start to accumulate lactic acid, but can still process and manage the levels.
Zone 2: This is the HR range between the upper level of zone 1 and the lower level of zone 3. In this zone lactic acid is building much faster, but has not reached the point where you can’t continue at that effort.
Zone 3: This zone starts at the upper level of zone 2, and is where speaking is hard. You can only exercise at this level for a limited time. Lactic acid is accumulating much faster than it can be removed at this effort. This is roughly the HR at VT2.
A talking test can be performed to identify your HR zones, VT1, and VT2. It’s fairly easy to do, but you have to experiment a few times to gauge the levels. This is something that you will learn to get a “feel” for over time. If you have a heart rate monitor you can also record the values at each point in the test. Bear in mind that optical wrist based HR monitors can be quite inaccurate, and it’s best to use a chest strap connected to the monitor. Having the “feel” for where you are exercising is a really useful skill to learn.
Warm up with a really easy effort run or brisk walk. Once you are warmed up recite the alphabet and see how far you get in one go without having to stop for a breath. This is your reference starting point. Now run a little harder until your breathing increases (deeper breaths), but not to the point where you are taking lots of short breaths. Recite the alphabet again, and see where you get to. Repeat this test until you can only get to roughly F-G. Note your HR at this point, and this value reflects somewhere around the VT1 threshold level (roughly equivalent to RPE 6-7). You should also try to get familiar with what this level of effort feels like so you don’t need to rely on measuring your heart rate during every run or race.
Repeat the same procedure for VT1, but this time you increase your effort until you are only able to say the first 3-4 letters of the alphabet. Note your HR at this point, and this reflects around the VT2 threshold level (roughly equivalent to RPE 9). Breathing at this point will be short frequent breaths. This is a level of effort you will only be able to sustain for a few minutes at a time.
Hopefully this article helped you to understand a bit more about the commonly used run workout types, and most importantly how to run at the intended effort. You don’t want to unintentionally run an Endurance effort workout at either Recovery effort or Steady State effort, and likewise you don’t want to run a Tempo effort run too slow. Neither of these scenarios would serve the intended purpose, and would likely affect the outcome of your running program and achieving your goals.
Getting familiar with these effort levels, and how to judge the effort level for each one, is a skill which you need to practice and be comfortable estimating. So get out, practice figuring out these levels, and most importantly, enjoy your running!
Thanks for reading my Running Workout Types and Intensity Guide article. Be sure to check out my running coaching page for more information on my coaching services. I am a Team RunRun coach and would value the opportunity to help you achieve your running and fitness goals.