Why You Should Ditch Your Heart Rate Monitor and Just Talk

Studies have shown the talk test is an effective way to measure cardiovascular thresholds in novice athletes, but how about at the elite level? A new study shows this test isn’t just for beginners.

As a coach and a writer I try to find simple but effective methods to teach athletes and arm them with information. You need accurate information in order to record data. You need to record data if you want to ensure consistent progress. And you need to ensure consistent progress if you want to be elite.

But let’s face it, we don’t all have a lab for measuring our progress like Ivan Drago did in Rocky IV. The good news is, studies are performed so the Rockys of the world can use very simple methods to attain the same data. For example, in my recent article here on Breaking Muscle, I wrote about using your heart rate to measure overtraining in lieu of blood tests, mechanical tests, and so forth. Along that vein, researchers this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning wanted to find a way to measure cardiovascular thresholds using the simple “talk test.”

Traditionally, the only known and reliable way to determine cardiovascular thresholds like the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds was through methods like analyzing blood lactate or ventilation. Not only did you need the equipment to do this, but you also needed an analyst who knew how to use the equipment and read the results. The athletes would potentially need to donate a little blood.

The talk test is the alternative proposed by the researchers in this study. You’ve probably heard of it before. It’s been around since 1939, when British mountaineers used the technique to determine climbing pace. Indeed, since that time the talk test has been demonstrated to be an effective assessment for untrained or somewhat trained individuals. However, never before has it been tested in highly trained athletes – the kind of athletes most of us want to be.

The researchers did determine a very strong correlation between various stages of the talk test and various levels of intensity. For every two minutes of work, the participants spent the last 30 seconds reading a 38-word paragraph out loud. At the end of the two minutes, the intensity increased. They kept doing this until they were too tired to continue.

Two of the talk test measurements were especially useful. The first was the point at which the athletes were unsure they could speak perfectly normally, which occurred as soon as breathing and cadence interrupted their speech. This ability to speak corresponded with the aerobic threshold, or about 150 heart beats per minute.

The second measurement was the point at which the athletes could no longer speak comfortably because their sentences were interrupted by repeated deep breaths. This marker corresponded roughly to the point of respiratory compensation, often called the anaerobic threshold, or roughly 177 beats per minute on average.

The participants were elite cyclists, so the results probably transfer well to runners and other full-body endeavors. The results may not be as applicable for novice cyclists, who tend to have lower heart rates compared to perceived intensity.

For a coach or an athlete, understanding cardiovascular thresholds can be critical in assigning both training and competitive intensities. But now we know we don’t need any specialized equipment to determine what level to train at. We can just talk test our way to success.


1. Jose Rodriguez-Marroyo, et. al., “Relationship Between the Talk Test and Ventilatory Thresholds in Well-Trained Cyclists,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(7), 2013.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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