Six Tests Every Runner Should Take

If you’re like me, you hate taking tests. They can be a source of great anxiety. However, some exams help us learn more about a certain subject, like running, for instance. Since so many of us here love running, these tests can help us enjoy our sport more and perform better in it. Here are six simple tests that, when routinely performed, will give you more data on how your body is reacting to your training and/or racing load.

The Talk Test

Sometimes it’s just best to put away the watch and run by feel. Weather, altitude, terrain, and our own emotional and physical states affect the paces of our runs. Instead of straining to maintain a speed driven by a device, try implementing the ‘talk test.’ This tool will ensure our efforts fall appropriately in line with the workout’s purpose.

Greg McMillan, who has a master’s degree in exercise science and is the founder of McMillan Running, discusses the importance of the talk test in a recent Competitor piece. “The talk test is a way for all runners to connect with pace, heart rate, and effort,” says McMillan. “It’s a great tool to use during adverse conditions like when it’s hot, humid, or windy. In these conditions, it’s easy for pace to lag but that doesn’t mean you aren’t getting in a good workout. The talk test removes the pressure to hit a pace and keeps your training dialed in so you get in your best workout no matter the conditions.”

How does it work? “You simply use your ability to talk to gauge your effort,” explains McMillan. During easy, recovery, or relaxed long runs you should be able to hold a regular conversation. Hills may make this difficult at times, but for the majority of an endurance-based workout you should be able to chat it up with your training partner or sing your favorite song. When you can only get out one or two short sentences at a time, you’ve moved into the stamina-based training zone. These tempo-like workouts are tough but not as difficult as when effort is ratcheted up once again. When you can only utter one or two words at a time you are now in the speed-based training zone. “These efforts do involve lots of huffing and puffing so phrases like ‘too fast’ or ‘pick it up’ are about all you can get out during speed workouts,” continues McMillan. “By the final training zone, the sprint zone, all you can muster are grunts, moans, and the occasional ‘aack.’”

The Talk Test
Endurance zone: Conversational pace

Stamina zone: Speaking in one or two sentences

Speed zone: Speech is relegated to one or two words

Sprint zone: Grunts, moans, “Aack!”

The Single-Leg Hop Test

Though we use both our legs to run, only a single limb does all the work at any one time. Running is the act of jumping from one leg to another. The ‘single-leg hop test’ is a functional self-screening exam that allows an athlete to determine if an ache or pain (in the knee, hip, calf, or plantar, for example) is reason or not to cease running. The test is also a good indicator as to when it may be appropriate to resume running when returning from injury. “If an athlete cannot hop on a single leg due to significant pain, they have some tissue that is sensitive to the loading demands,” says Dr. AJ Gregg, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at HYPO2 High Performance Sport Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “If this is the case, it’s unlikely the runner will be able to run as well without risking further or continuation of injury. If you can’t pass the ‘single-leg hop test,’ you shouldn’t run.”

How do we perform the test? There are three steps to the single-leg hop test. Complete the three steps for each leg. Start by hopping up and down a dozen times in place on one leg. If pain remains below a 2-3 out of a 0-10 scale (where 0 = no pain and 10 = excruciating pain), then you may advance to step two of the test. On the same leg, hop forward at a comfortable distance and then back to your starting spot 6-12 times. Again, if the pain remains below a 2-3, you may progress to the final step. Finally, test your lateral movement. Hop to your left on the same leg at a comfortable distance and then back to your right 6-12 times. If you’re still under a 3 on your 10-point pain scale you may proceed with your run. If you question your results, seek the advice of a specialist.

Single Leg Hop Test
Step 1: Hop up and down on one leg 12 times

Step 2: Hop forward and back on same leg 6-12 times

Step 3: Hop left and right on same leg 6-12 times

None to negligible pain? Go for a run, but stop if the pain ever exceeds a 3 on the 10-point pain scale. If not, take the day off.

The Morning Heart-Rate Test

Our heart is truly a window into our running. Specifically, monitoring our morning heart rate (HR) can reveal gains in fitness and, alternatively, act as a reliable indicator of overtraining. “The American Heart Association defines a normal resting heart rate as 60-100, but athletes typically run 40-60,” says Dr. Jeffrey Brettler, who has practiced medicine for more than 20 years at the Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center in California and has completed nearly 50 ultramarathons, including Western States and Angeles Crest. “As a runner’s conditioning improves, resting heart rate will decrease and then eventually plateau (in the above range). You can use resting heart rate to assess both short-term recovery after a strenuous workout or monitor it for long-term trends. An increase of 5-10 beats/minute is often an early sign that more recovery is needed.”

What’s the ideal protocol? “Begin by checking your morning heart rate daily for at least a few weeks to establish a baseline,” suggests Brettler. “It’s then reasonable to check it periodically (at least weekly) throughout your training season.” Get your heart-rate reading as soon as you wake in the morning and record it. Electronic heart-rate monitors come in all shapes and sizes, but you can just as easily check your pulse on your neck or wrist. Keep in mind that our pulse rate can be influenced by many elements. “Other than conditioning or overtraining,” warns Brettler, “heart rate will be affected by illness, especially when fever is present, hydration status, and certain medications.”

Morning HR Test
Step 1: Collect two weeks of baseline morning heart-rate data.

Step 2: Revisit morning heart rate once a week.

Step 3: Note any changes in morning heart rate. A lower heart rate = possible fitness gains. A raise in heart rate of 5-10 beats/minute = you need more recovery due to overtraining, outside-of-running stress, dehydration, illness, etc.

The Urine Test

The color of a runner’s urine can be used to reveal details about their current health. “Urine color is a reasonable indicator of hydration status,” says Brettler. “However, it can be affected by certain foods (e.g., beets) or medication, including vitamins.”

Normal urine color is pale to darker yellow depending on our hydration level. “Hydration status, especially during an ultra, can be a more complicated topic,” explains Brettler. “For example, exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), although rare, is a well described and very serious phenomenon and is usually associated with overly aggressive hydration. Drinking according to thirst has become a reasonable approach to help minimize EAH.”

The test is easy: observe the color of your urine the next time you have to go.

The Urine Test
Clear: You’re drinking too much water: cut back or increase your sodium intake.

Pale or transparent yellow: You’re normal.

Dark yellow: You’re still okay, but drink some water soon.

Amber: You’re not getting enough water. Hydrate now.

Pink or red: This may indicate internal bleeding (often from bladder trauma in ultrarunners). Transient bleeding is common in ultrarunning. However, contact your doctor if it persists.

Brown: May be a sign of rhabdomyolysis or muscle breakdown that can cause kidney failure. Contact your doctor if this persists.

Cloudy: This usually indicates an infection. Contact your doctor if it persists.

Foamy: Possibly a sign of the kidneys leaking protein. Contact your doctor if it persists.

The Mood Test

I don’t know about you, but some of my worst runs can be blamed exclusively on my state of mind. In fact, the majority of my DNFs are the result of a poor mental outlook and not a physical injury. “Our moods are rarely governed by reason, yet they can be overwhelming and can color our experiences,” says Shannon Thompson who has a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and works as a Mental Performance Consultant in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Moods are wild, unpredictable, and often not to be trusted as accurate representations of reality.”

Mood directly impacts our running performance and overall well-being. For example, Thompson discusses how emotions impact race-specific decision-making. “When we are in a positive mood we work constructively toward a goal,” explains Thompson. “During an ultra, a positive mood will lead us to adhere to our fueling and race plans, we’ll respond better to unexpected struggles (a fall or wrong turn), and view adversity (hills or competitors) as welcome challenges as opposed to threats. We’re also more creative, which enables us to develop solutions to problems that pop up. Negative moods can predispose us to feelings of helplessness. We are more likely to give up or drop out after a fall, getting off course, or interpreting a low-energy stretch as a lack of fitness rather than a fueling issue. Negative thoughts leave us unmotivated during tough moments.”

How do we foster a positive outlook? “The most useful tool for an athlete is to determine who they are at their best,” says Thompson. “By identifying these ‘at-their-best’ thoughts and actions and tracking them in a log, this will help the runner be that athlete consistently.” Start by identifying ‘who’ you want to be as an athlete. (This can be someone you admire.) Write down a three-word summary of this ‘best’ athlete. Next, reflect on your best races or workouts. Record 3-5 words that describe you during these performances. (They may overlap with the words in the previous step.) Finally, create an outline of what you need to do daily—prior to, during, and after training—to become the best you can be. “This exercise is maximally effective when practiced daily, or prior to hard workouts and races,” recommends Thompson. “Just like any skill, when we practice something regularly, we’re more likely to be able to count on it during crucial moments, like a race.”

The Mood Test
Step 1: Determine who you are at your best.

Step 2: Identify and record the actions you need to take and elements you need to think about in order to better your mood.

Step 3: Do this before tough workouts and races.

Step 4: Practice this exercise frequently.

The Shoe Test

There is little evidence that confirms normal shoe wear causes injury. However, after almost five years in the running-shoe industry, I’ve observed that training on worn-out shoes certainly will not improve your chances of remaining injury-free. “Why take the chance?” asks Las Vegas’ Red Rock Running Company owner Josh Brimhall. “Shoes do wear out. The cushioning and support they were designed to provide will degrade with each use. The risk of an overuse injury increases when the shoe breaks down.”

Shoe companies use the word ‘resiliency’ when referring to the life span of the materials that make up your footwear. “Most running shoes will carry you 300-500 miles safely. After that they’ll lose their resiliency,” says Brimhall. “If your feet are starting to feel beat up or you see wear and tear (holes in the upper or an exposed midsole), it’s time to think about getting a new pair.”

What’s the best way to track the use of your running shoes? Technology abounds. Apps like Garmin and Strava provide ‘shoe trackers’ that enable you to track the mileage on each pair of shoes you wear. Or track shoe use in a spreadsheet or paper log. Once you near 300 miles, inspect your shoes for excessive wear.

The Shoe Test
Step 1: Track the miles run in each pair of shoes.

Step 2: When you near 300 miles, inspect the shoe for wear and tear. Also consider how your feet and legs feel after each run.

Step 3: Holes in the upper, peeling of the outsole, the disappearance of the outsole (a visible midsole), and degradation of general support and cushioning are indications that you’re in need of new shoes. Sore feet, knee twinges, or calf tightness could also warrant a shoe replacement.

It’s not rocket science. Start today and take a brief moment to evaluate your current physical well-being, mental status, and gear. These simple tests might just save you injury downtime and let you know if you need to modify your training and/or recovery regimen.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have any ‘tests’ you perform on yourself to help you measure your running health and well-being?
  • Do you conduct any of these six tests or something similar to them on a regular basis?
  • How do you otherwise keep tabs on yourself and your running health?

There are 11 comments

  1. Tony Post

    Great stuff Ian, thanks for sharing.

    One thing missing here, what happens when you fail one of these tests? What are the steps for improvement? I can offer some help as it relates to test #2.

    Topo Athletic created a program on our website called ACU-Running (Assess, Correct, Unify). Developed in association with running coach and movement specialist, Brad Cox and Dr. Sonia Pasquale, ACU-Running will teach runners how to self-analyze their underlying mobility and stability weaknesses and imbalances, then show them how to correct those imbalances through a series of strength, mobility, and re-patterning exercises.

    You can check it out here: http://topoathletic.com/acu-running

      1. Ian Torrence

        Hi Barry – This piece never claims that accumulating shoes, like Imelda Marcos, keeps you injury free. I feel, as do probably most folks who run frequently, that your local speciality running store is a great source when it comes to solving your injury issues. They do have your best interests in mind when it comes to your running health. If they don’t have the answer they’ll have the resources to direct to those who do. The wealth of knowledge under the roofs of most shops are matchless. Steer clear of running shoe sources like Walmart and Payless and you might garner a different opinion. Thanks for reading. Ian Torrence

        1. PutMeBackonmyBike

          Except the people you are referring to as having that knowledge are trained very specifically by the people who want to sell shoes. There are no orthopaedic surgeons selling shoes to you, no one that truly understands bio-mechanics from a scientific basis. The knowledge you reference is not necessarily founded on science.

          1. Ian Torrence

            Yes, I like science too. That’s why I got a degree in such a discipline. True, running stores want to sell shoes. However, orthopedic surgeons like to sell custom insoles, give you shots or perform surgery. We live in a world where money drives the motive. I still stand by original advice: I suggest that if you have some running-related issue, that might be shoe-related, that you start locally and much cheaper. Running stores do not charge for the advice they give. Folks who work in a running store are runners. Surgeons, not so much. Ian

            1. PutMeBackonMyBike

              That’s like saying because I eat steak I’m qualified to advise on butchery.

              Many of the road runners around my home town run in the road not on the sidewalk,this is because of the myth that running on asphalt is better for you than running on concrete (because it is softer – never mind the 2 inches of foam separating them from the surface) that ran rampant through the running community years ago. This is runner’s knowledge.

              Perpetuating this myth of the specialist running store for specialist shoes based on purported biomechanical knowledge is harmful – it is based on commercial considerations, not well founded knowledge, and leads to spurious diagnoses of the need for support or other questionable pseudo-science from a retail assistant who may have watched you for 5 minutes on treadmill. You must be able to see that?

  2. NO2 Shred

    Thanks for sharing this informative post. You don’t run for the sake of running, you have to make sure that you’re physically fit too. That’s why it is important for runners to take this test. It is make sure that your body is capable of taking the long run.

  3. astroyam

    Hey Ian! Nice post.
    I’d add that sometimes, for some types of shoes especially shoes with soft cushioning and less of it, the number can be lower like 200 miles. When I reach about 200 with one of my favorite models, the landings get clearly different, more of a ‘thud’, and if I keep going in them [I don’t] my knees will start to ache. (Of course one might argue that these shoes should be avoided… )

  4. Doring

    Hi
    Cool article – one element that came to mind is that what works for me does not interest my other running partners – so individuality comes to mind.

    Just three comments:
    Talk test – well the old way of association and disassociation is a combination of mood and talking. what are you thinking and working on when running by yourself is important. worrying about the aches and pains (and then letting posture slip) instead of positive thoughts (and making sure posture is good) is also something that has worked for many years
    The foamy urine can also be caused by seminal fluid still in the urethra so needs to be taken in context. It may not be proteinuria
    Shoe life: running neutral on an old injury to my lateral cartilage is an excellent indicator the shoes have moved from good t0 injury makers and get relegated to walk and garden shoes.

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