The Talk Test: How Fast Should I Go?

By R.C. Goode

This is a common question for people starting an exercise program. We want to encourage participants to exercise hard enough to receive training benefits without pushing them unnecessarily.

The target heart rate can be a method of finding out whether your heart rate is in the range for your age, but is not always practical since the participant has to stop to take their pulse and perform mental calculations. There are also some individual variances and it is very difficult to know what someone’s maximum heart rate is.

Dr. Robert Goode, from the Department of Physiology and Exercise Science Unit of the University of Toronto recommends using two simple measures: the “Talk Test” and the “Breath Sound Check” for general fitness purposes. These two tools allow participants to quickly judge themselves if they are obtaining fitness and health benefits from their aerobic workout.

The “Talk Test” originated in the mountain climbing community, where climbers would say to one another “Climb no faster than you can talk.” Goode took that phrase and applied it to exercise at sea level recognizing that at sea level the limiting factor in allowing people to exercise is insufficient oxygen supply to the muscles. He and his colleagues demonstrated experimentally that if you have difficulty talking, you are close to or at your anaerobic threshold (the point at which there is insufficient oxygen supply to the muscles) which results in muscle fatigue. This observation allowed the investigators to set a “lid” on how much aerobic exercise you can comfortably do.

The “Breath Sound Check” (BSC) developed as a result of observing older adults and children who could not take their pulse accurately. The BSC is a way to ensure a minimal level of exercise is reached: you should be able to hear your breathing (not panting or wheezing) when you perform aerobic exercise. Goode emphasizes that you want to reach the “Ventilatory Threshold”, which is that point where you just start to hear your breathing. When you exercise at this intensity your aerobic power (VO2max) increases.

To establish your Ventilatory Threshold, jog slowly or walk vigorously for one minute. Increase the pace so that the sound of breathing is audible, and maintain the pace that gives you that sound level. Often you can hear your breathing merely walking up a set of stairs, especially when carrying groceries, books or a brief case. Those people who are regularly physically active have higher Ventilatory Thresholds and are able to do much more before breathing sounds are audible. Those who are less active, can hear their breathing much sooner.

The “Talk Test” and the “Breath Sound Check” are good tools that can be used in combination and provide individuals a personalized, yet simple, criteria. “Just listen, can you hear your breathing and are you able to talk?”

The “Breath Sound Check” and the “Talk Test” approximately correspond to the “moderate” to “vigorous” level of activity recommended by the Physical Activity Guide. Participants should be recommended to start slowly, perhaps spending six minutes a day at that level (plus a few minutes to lead up to it and slow down) and building up activity to 30-60 minutes a day, 5 to 7 days a week.

(1) Goode, R.C. Mertens, R.,Shaiman, S. and Mertens, D.(1998). Voice, Breathing, and the Control of Exercise Intensity. Advances in Experimental Medicine & Biology, 450, 223-229.

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