Quantifying Training Effort of Middle Distance Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

Most distance running coaches know that training for a 5-kilometer race involves a mix of aerobic and anaerobic workout sessions that will adaptively lead to improvements in a runner’s metabolic system.  The work is varied, combined, and sequenced over a season in a way that is specific to the energy demands of the 5k race.  Workout loads and session sequences designed for the 5k are similar to those of the 3k and 6k, but look far different than what is done for the 800, 1500, and 10k events.  We can safely say training is event-specific in the distance events.  While volume is stressed in events longer than the 5k, the intensity is stressed in the events shorter than the 5k.  Today we well focus on quantifying training effort of the middle distance runner.

What is very fast work in one event, is not so fast in another.  What is running far for one type of runner is not so far for another.  And how does a coach define terms like “medium” pace or “short” distance so that an athlete understands?  Descriptive training words must be in the context of the situation, and many times do not describe the message very well at all.

A science-based training program must include two assumptions, first, the training is replicable, and will yield similar results if the same variables continue to be controlled.  Second, the training load, and evidence of result, is quantifiable.  Quantifying results is easy, the stopwatch, heart rate monitor, or lactate analyzer will do that part.  Quantifying the training load a coach prescribes each day is not so easy.

Coaches commonly want to explain and define a workout’s intensity and volume to their athletes with familiar terms such as jogging, easy, medium, tough, super-tough, short, long, etc.  All these words need lots of contexts to make their meaning clear.  Even prescribing paces with scenarios like “conversational pace” to describe aerobic threshold long runs (AT) or “can barely talk” to describe lactate threshold tempo runs (LT) can vary widely from runner to runner.


* Coaching Resource: Speed Development for Distance Runners


What runners really need from their coaches each day is a number to shoot for in their prescribed efforts, using quantifiable terms such as vVO2 max pace, heart rate values, scaled lactate numbers, or a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) number such as you would get off of the Borg Scale come.  This is quantifiable training that takes no interpretation.  It is crystal clear what the effort should be.

Actually, any of these four numerical values could be used to quantify effort for the same workout.  For example, in a fit 1500-meter runner, heart rate at race pace, lactate number at race pace, vVO2 max at race pace, and RPE at race pace should all correlate with one another for that individual athlete.  The same could be said for any workout that runner is prescribed to do whether is above or below their race pace.  Some experience for a runner would be needed to be able to self-quantify work so that they can perceive what a 170-bpm heart rate feels like, or what a 9.0 mmol/L lactate number pace feels like, or what 75% vVO2 max feels like, or what perceiving work on the 6-20 Borg Scale feels like (so that everything does not feel like a 20).

Heart rate, lactate level, vVO2 max pace, and RPE are the four quantifiable scales that are most effectively used to predict, self-assess, and evaluate workloads in running.  Pick one of the four methods and interact with your athlete in discussing workouts using the preferred scale of that method as your marker.  Fortunately, sport scientists have done considerable work already on this topic for assessing human performance, and have come up with means of cross-referencing data between the four quantifying markers.

Quantification of the metabolic stress of running effort can be measured in the four different ways described.  Generally, the amount of effort to maintain a given speed in a trained individual is consistent with relative heart rates and lactate levels in the blood.


* Additional Teaching Resource:  The Training Model for High School Middle Distance


Running coaches can use reference Table 1 for prescribing and measuring training loads. The table considers several factors and uses an equation developed in 1994 by David Swain Ph D

(% HR max = (0.64 x % VO2 max) + 37. This promotes predictive and measurable training intensities, particularly when used in conjunction with the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) as measured by the Borg Scale.


The ability to understand training loads and to know how they “feel” while doing them is important for middle distance runners continued development.  At first, all they know is that running is hard.  But, as running gets easier because of improvements in power, efficiency, and capacity, the perception of how it feels changes.  Words used to describe these feelings are meaningless.  Like establishing goals, the best training must be measurable and quantifiable for it to be most effective.



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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