Fitness Training and Obstacle Racing

Top 3 Ways to Track Effort During Training and The Mistakes You Might Be Making

Ready to take your running to the next level? If you’ve been running off and on with no real tracking and perhaps  putting in workouts with no real understanding of why you’re doing the workouts you’re doing, this article may offer some strategies for you.

First, every training session should have a clear goal (we’ve moved beyond finishing the race here). You need to know if your workout is trying to build your aerobic system, anaerobic system or possibly motor skill development or VO2 max. You need to track the mileage that you’re running and how often you’re running at different intensities based on your overall goals.

During training, here are three methods you can use to track different efforts.

Perceived Effort

Remember that time your coach asked a lot of questions while you were running on the treadmill? That was for him/her to gauge your effort. But you can do this too. Perceived effort is how much effort you perceive you are using on a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being a walk with your grandmother and a 10 being a sprint with Usain Bolt).

When used correctly this tool can set you up to use the right system for your training (generally speaking your aerobic zone, anaerobic zone and VO2 max zone). While on the run you ask yourself, on a scale of 1 – 10, how do I feel? If you answer 3 or 4 you are likely in your aerobic zone. This is your easy run zone for a long duration. If you answer 7 – 8 you are likely in your anaerobic zone. If you answer 10, you are at your VO2 max and won’t be able to run very far or for a long duration.

The issue with perceived effort is that not everyone has the same threshold and will push into the zones they should be pushing. Beginner runners especially might work too hard when they shouldn’t because they don’t really know what easy is supposed to feel like; or, they will go too easy during training that is meant to be really hard.

Heart Rate

I’ve used heart rate training for a while. The issue with heart rate is that it takes time to get your heart rate up. So training a VO2 max in a 30 second or one minute sprint will probably not be enough time to get your monitor and heart rate reading VO2 level effort. The same can be said for anaerobic training although to a lesser extent. If your anaerobic heart rate zone is 172bpm you might run too fast to start the interval in order to get your heart rate up, then have to slow down to keep it under control.

I still like heart rate training but I tend to use it for aerobic conditioning and in combination with perceived effort. Your heart will also give you a lot of feedback if you’re doing too much (if your heart rate has a hard time coming up during training or gets high really fast even when you aren’t doing much). Resting heart rate in the morning is also a valuable tool because variations over 3 – 4 bpm in the morning might mean that your body is under stress and your heart is working to correct the issue. I’ve been able to see the flu coming from a couple of days away by watching my heart rate slowly elevate. Taking some extra rest when you see this will pay back dividends. 


Pace is a traditional method of tracking training effort but has its own problems to be aware of. If you get VO2 max testing done with blood checks during your testing, you’ll know the speed at which you start going anaerobic which is very valuable feedback. If you can do this testing once every six months you’ll have a very good idea of where different training zones will be for you. However, most people can’t afford or don’t want to go through this testing regularly.

There are a couple of issues with pace training. One is that it’s very hard to hit the exact pace you intend to hit. It takes years of running experience to know what a specific pace “feels” like. So you might be running too fast, then too slow, then spending too much time watching your Garmin. It’s not a lot of fun to train as a slave to your Garmin, working to figure out what pace you are at.

The second problem with pace is that people think of it as a measure of their fitness and will often push the pace harder than they should, often ignoring their body and the feedback it’s giving, to hit a pace that puts them in the wrong zone. If you’ve heard of the “black hole” of running, people who fuss with their pace often enter this zone and don’t do a good job of training their aerobic or anaerobic system.


What’s a runner to do with reasons not to use every system?

What’s fun about running is that it’s still a science when you’re trying to get faster and better in as short a time as possible. This means experimenting with the different systems to see what combinations work best for the goal that you have. The first step would be to know what the goal of each training run is. Running mindlessly without any idea of what you’re trying to do is great for the love of running, but likely won’t get you the results you’re looking for (remember this article is aimed at people looking for optimizing results).

Here is how I currently combine each system:

Aerobic – Combination of perceived effort and heart rate training. I use a heart rate monitor and once in a while during my run glance at my watch to make sure I’m not running too slow or too fast. At this point in my running journey I know almost exactly what my heart rate will be when working aerobic so the need for a heart rate monitor is lessened. I also make sure I don’t go into too high of a zone and risk being anaerobic. Post-run I use my heart rate results to track how I’m doing over time.

Anaerobic – Perceived effort with planned paces. I have a good idea of the paces I can sustain for different intervals so I use perceived effort often with a goal of speed in my mind which I calculated prior to running. As an example, if I have a goal of completing a 5km run under 20 minutes I know I need to run 4-minute kilometers or faster during most of my speed intervals. How realistic this goal is depends on how close I currently am to that goal. If my best 5km run is 27 minutes and I have a goal of running 20 minutes some day, I won’t plan speed work based on running a 20 minute some day. I’ll plan my speed based on a 25 or 24 minute 5km until I can successfully accomplish that. I want to be successful quickly, but I have to be smart – running is a 10 year plan.

Motor Skill Development – This will be done at various paces using various skills. I don’t use any specific system but rather concentrate more on what my body is doing. Having a good strike pattern, stride frequency and proper lean takes time to develop and keep developed.

VO2 Max: I don’t spend a lot of time working on VO2 max in the sense of running all out for 10 – 60 seconds. As a long distance runner there is only so much value in running that fast. My shorter anaerobic workouts will do plenty to help with VO2 max and the science behind VO2max is highly contested in running performance especially at distance. If I do really short fast running sprints, I’m not using any specific system although you could argue I’m using perceived effort since my mind and body will choose the speed I think I can maintain for that distance and time

As always, by default have fun and love to run!

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