The Talk Test Assesses Exercise Intensity

How many times have you been on the treadmill at the gym listening to an in-depth conversation between the stair climbers behind you? How is it possible, you wonder as you huff and puff, for those two to talk and exercise at the same time? Are they not pushing themselves hard enough, or is their ability to talk while climbing evidence of their advanced fitness? And if you find yourself unable to talk while you walk, does that mean you should slow down?

“If you are beginning an exercise program and can still talk while you’re exercising, you’re doing OK,” says Dr. Quinn, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire. “But if you really want to improve, you’ve got to push a little bit harder.” However, figuring out just how hard to push yourself is one of the biggest challenges to exercising. How do you know when you’ve pushed hard enough? Is it a matter of how much you sweat, how hard you’re breathing, or can you figure it out by simply trying to talk?

Dr. Quinn’s research states that one of the most difficult parts of an exercise prescription is the regulation and control of exercise intensity. A goal of his “Talk Test” study was to identify a simple method of prescribing exercise intensity to conditioned and beginner exercisers. This study was the first to compare both the lactate and ventilatory thresholds with the Talk Test. Ventilatory and lactate thresholds are assumed to represent the same exercise intensity, but this may not be accurate, as different physiological events occur at the two thresholds.

During the Talk Test, Dr. Quinn asked his healthy adult participants to read the Pledge of Allegiance while exercising at different levels of intensity and then rate how comfortable they were while speaking.

Dr. Quinn says his study also expanded the relevance of the Talk Test to include endurance athletes, “I believe that those participants interested in a more vigorous workout could use the Talk Test to gauge moderate to heavy exertion.”

The report, which confirmed the effectiveness of the Talk Test, stated, “The results of the present study and others suggest that when participants can no longer speak comfortably during exercise, they are exercising at intensities that are beyond their lactate and ventilatory thresholds. Furthermore, if one can speak comfortably, the exercise intensity will be at the low end of the prescription, whereas if one can still speak but with some difficulty, the exercise intensity will be moderate. This information should be useful to individuals prescribing exercise: if starting an exercise programme, being active to a level where one can talk comfortably may be appropriate but caution is warranted.”

So the next time you’re on the treadmill at the gym, try joining in on the conversation behind you. If you can’t get your two cents in, then you might want to slow down. However, if you can dominate the conversation, you should pick up your pace.

Timothy J. Quinn and Benjamin A. Coons (2011): The Talk Test and its relationship with the ventilatory and lactate thresholds, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:11, 1175-1182.

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