Why running should be treated with a much more relaxed and joyful approach, especially if you aren’t trying to become an Olympian, yet. If you’re coming back to running or are just starting to run one of the things that you will be met with is a big confusion about how fast you should run, you’ll try, get out of breath, feel terrible and give up. That, at the very least, is the average progression of a person who has life, things to do, children, hobbies, work, and anything else.

To be an athlete half the job is to cut out as much as possible and stick to caring about a single thing. So, if there is one, single, little thing you take away from this conversation about intensity I hope that it is kindness towards yourself. The act of running itself is the goal, which means that if you come back to it, over, and over again you will reach your distance, time, and weight-loss goals. Give yourself the space to be kind to yourself, there is nothing to compare yourself to, not your past self, and there is equally no reason to beat yourself down for life getting in the way, just start again, put on the running shoes, even if it’s been a few weeks or months, and just get out there.

But now you’re out running and you’re out of breath, how do you know if you’re out of breath because of something good or something bad? When it comes to running there are a kind of fundamental workouts you can do but they all range from relaxed and slow to fast and intense.

If you’re starting to run your goal should be to run just fast enough to move faster than walking without becoming completely out of breath. Why? Because most of the benefits from running occur here: in the I can talk fine but I’m definitely running zone. When it comes to the speed at which you run you have a few options, the first being the I can talk fine zone, the next zone being the I can talk but briefly on and off. Next you get the I can breathe but I can’t talk and then finally the gasping for air zone. These four zones are relatively well linked to the average person’s heart rate and although technically speaking knowing which heart rate zone you’re in objectively is a good idea using the talking test is a pretty solid predictor of your effort and conversely speed. What you’ll notice as a beginner runner is that you likely have the tendency of jumping right into the I can’t talk and can barely breath zone right away – the truth is that you are running too fast, starting too hard. I usually go with the analogy of gears on a bike or in a car, where the higher the gear the more intense the speed and gas guzzling. You probably have heard of the saying, ‘kicking things into high gear’, same idea here too. What I want your takeaway to be is that for shorter, faster events we want to spend most of our time in the can’t talk but can breath zone (aerobic threshold) while for long distance events like marathons or half-marathons you want to always stay in the can kind of talk zone (70% of your aerobic threshold)

What am I talking about when I refer to aerobic nor anaerobic? I know these seem like fancy science words but there’s a reason they sound so cool – they describe two distinct ways that your body burns energy. In Aerobic we use oxygen, and in Anaerobic we don’t use oxygen. The most efficient way of burning calories is by using oxygen to complete the chemical reaction, this chemical reaction happens at the level of the muscles, and you’ll know if you’re using the oxygen system if your body feels normal. On the other hand, you’ll know that you are not using oxygen when you start to feel that muscle burn during exercise. That feeling when your muscles start to ache even as you keep moving is your body going into short term energy debt in an effort to keep you moving. Unlike a credit card statement that you can choose to ignore you feel the energy debt as a burn because your body creates lactic acid – similar to that sour taste of fermented milk products but in your muscle cells. Don’t worry, this lactic acid isn’t going to eat your muscles from the inside out, but instead it is going to do two things: wake up the genes required to adapt to intense exercise and make your muscles stronger and also get recycled when your body get enough oxygen again. What I mean by this is that your body always starts in aerobic but gradually moves towards anaerobic if it can’t efficiently get oxygen to the muscle in time. You might think that the solution is to breath faster and deeper that way you get more oxygen. That makes sense but sadly isn’t truly beneficial. One of the only ways to increase the oxygen delivered to your muscles is to create more red blood cells, make the heart more efficient at pumping blood and to increase the number of energy centers in your muscles. By doing this you end up with more blood, pumped faster, with more oxygen being pushed out to more energy centers per heartbeat.

When it comes to intensity what you are feeling is often the limits of your cardio (heart) vascular (blood vessel) system and its ability or inability to effectively create enough energy in that moment. So. To back to the fundamental question of intensity the right way to look at your intensity is to consider what you want to work on. If you want to improve your cardiovascular system the best long term solution towards better heart health, bloodflow and increased capacity to work for a long time you want to focus on talking to barely talking as your goal intensity – by working in this range you keep the blood moving for a long time, and essentially grow and extend your cardiovascular system. Now on the other hand if you want to create significant and lasting muscular change high intensity work is the way to go, by running at barely breathing you are creating the lactic acid, which you can also consider to be a signal for your muscle to grow strong and resilient. But what about the middle ground? The intensity of running at a can’t talk but can certainly breath intensity? This is the pace you should train at to achieve your desired performance pace. What I mean by this is that working at the can’t talk but can breath is the trick to building your performance. Another question you might have is whether there really is a significant difference between these different intensities, surely there must be some sort of carry over between them? If you think that running at any intensity is likely to influence all of your systems, you would be right. The reason that I described them as separate in terms of their ability to positively influence specific parts like high intensity for muscle and lower intensity for blood vessel and heart health is because in general this is the way your body tends to benefit the most from each of these more specifically.

If you’ve been reading a lot of running related content or spoken to trainer or the average high-performance runner you probably were told that in order to perform at your best you should be doing more than 80% of your running at the easy intensity and the remaining 20% at the can’t talk or can’t breath intensity. This has some validity but there isn’t currently any particular reason for this training style, it is has simply been what most runners do.

The most pervasive idea in high performance culture tends to be that more reps, more distance, more intensity is better for your performance. While it is true that you need a strong cardiovascular and muscular base to support very intense work the truth is that you can get by on significantly less and still be most of the changes that you actually want. If you’re only starting as a runner, it is definitely recommended that you spend the time to build your base by doing lots of slow and easy runs and walks to get your legs ready, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you need to be avoiding the higher intensity work. I would even argue that if you are just starting to work on your running you are even more likely to benefit from working on more explosive and high intensity work. Ultimately here’s what I think could be closer to the ideal: one long run to work on the cardiovascular system, one run at your desired race pace broken into as many repetitions as it takes for you to complete a distance that gradually builds up to your target and a strengthening workout that works on building your muscle and tendon system. From there on out everything else is extra icing on the cake.

Phew, that was so much information! Here it is summarized:

· Chill out when running. The goal is just to run, not to stress. If life gets in the way, don't sweat it. Just get back in your trainers when you can.

· Starting out? Just run faster than a walk, without gasping for breath. That's where the magic happens!

· There are four 'chat zones' when running: Chatting easily, short bursts of chat, no chat but breathing, and total gasping. Use these to gauge how hard you're working.

· Learn two cool words: 'aerobic' and 'anaerobic'. Aerobic is burning energy with oxygen, and anaerobic without. That burning sensation when you're pushing hard? That's anaerobic.

· Intensity is all about your heart and blood vessels doing their energy thing. Want a healthier heart and more stamina? Run at a 'talking to barely talking' intensity. Building muscles? Go high intensity.

· Training for performance? Aim for the 'can't talk but can certainly breathe' zone. This is where performance improvements happen.

· 80% easy running, 20% high intensity? It's common advice, but not a rule. Find what works best for you.

· My take? Do a long run for heart health, a run at your race pace in segments that build up to your target, and a strength workout for muscles and tendons. Anything extra is just a sweet bonus.