Say I run 5 times a week, 2 hard sessions and 3 easy sessions are usually considered better than 5 sessions at the same level.

What would be the best approach to estimate how optimal my effort is from such a viewpoint? Assume I can capture all appropriate data.

The example is very simplified of course. Especially one should see it in context over longer periods.

ideally I would like some kind of precise mathematical formula, but that does probably not exist.

Other answers could be

  1. Use the knowledge and intuition of a personal trainer.

  2. Develop my own intuition by reading this forum

An example of what I would like to know, is the relative benefit, on a particular day, of say biking to the office or gym, or to know how much I should push myself in what I do. (The complete answer is outside the scope of this question.)

The real world for me is quite complex - different activities etc. I don't have any particular goals, just to gradually become fitter and used to higher loads.

  • It looks like you're asking "How do I estimate how hard I work", "What is the benefit of biking to the gym", "How hard should I work". These are a lot of questions in one. Could you split these apart?
    – user4644
    Dec 1, 2012 at 17:56
  • It is about knowing the benefit/how hard on a particular day (I will try to improve the question). I can't see how I can split it. (And only indirectly estimate how hard I work)
    – Olav
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:14
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    So, it's "What would be the best way to estimate these things (How optimal the effort is)". Optimal in what respect? I really think this would be easier to chat about, though: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/6514/…
    – user4644
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:38
  • 3
    Estimating, evaluating, and programming to avoid overtraining is a topic that spanned multiple chapters in a book I just finished. Perhaps this question is too broad? Dec 3, 2012 at 16:23
  • 2
    It's still a pretty broad question. The answers are all very general too. It seems as if there are too many things to cover in just one question/answer here.
    – Matt Chan
    Dec 7, 2012 at 17:46

4 Answers 4


This answer is really scattered, sorry! But, your question is really scattered. If you could simplify your question, I will try to put together a better answer.

How optimal the effort is

This question doesn't mean anything without the context of a particular goal. For example, running 5km is far from optimal if your goal is strength. But, running 5km at an appropriate pace and placed appropriately in your training cycle could be optimal if your goal is improving your 10km race time.

the total benefit of say biking to the office or gym

Again, the benefit of a particular activity is only useful in the context of a goal. The benefit of biking to the gym could be negative if it happens on a scheduled rest day in an intense team practice cycle or strength training program. But it could be positive if you're starting out from a sedentary lifestyle and your goal is to simply increase your activity level in various ways throughout your day.

how much I should push myself

This again depends on your goals. Generally, you'd like to be able to push yourself as hard as you can, but there are many standard exceptions. Just starting out? Ease into an activity instead of pushing as hard as you can. In the middle of an intense training cycle? Schedule "easy" days, where your distance, or speed is intentionally decreased. Training for a marathon? You need to include long easy runs to just increase your base miles to prepare your body for harder training. Of course, all of these "easy" workouts are for the purpose of letting work as hard as you can at a later time.

I think what you might be asking is "how do I quantify my effort?" You need to pick a goal, an activity that gets you there, and then track your improvement at that activity.

  • If you're weightlifting: Track the max weight that you lifted in your heaviest set. If you lift that weight for more reps, or lift a higher weight, you'll require more effort.
  • If you're running a straight distances at constant pace, your load will be proportional to the speed that you run at multiplied by the distance. Increase your pace, or distance, and you'll require more effort.
  • If you're running intervals, track the pace and time of the speed portions, and the pace and time of the rest portions. Increase the pace and time of the speed portions or decrease the time of the rest portions to increase the effort required from you.
  • If you're just looking to increase general activity levels, track estimated calorie burn from the various things you do during the day
  • It is inefficient not to challenge yourself, it is also inefficient to go into overtraining. I will try to make it more precise.
    – Olav
    Dec 1, 2012 at 18:43
  • If i do the same strength program Mondays and Tuesdays it is less optimal than Mondays and Thursdays. That is what is relevant in this question.Further it is interesting to know benefits/time and benefits/pain The goal is only important if you go beyond general fitness.
    – Olav
    Dec 1, 2012 at 22:28
  • Are you asking about strength training, then?
    – user4644
    Dec 1, 2012 at 22:29
  • It illustrates the goal better, and I think perhaps the danger for overtraining is higher for things that are hard for the muscles? On er other hand aerobic effort is easier to measure.
    – Olav
    Dec 2, 2012 at 9:02
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    So, is your question, "How do I work hard without overtraining?"
    – user4644
    Dec 2, 2012 at 19:37

Track your goals, workout "points", and state. The method described in this post comes from Fahey's Fit & Well, my own experience, and the medical physical therapy model.

  1. Quantify your goals. Choose measurable indices of strength, endurance, coordination, flexibility and any other trait you plan to improve. (Strength, endurance, and coordination can each be divided into sub groups, such as core strength, leg strength, coordination for dancing, or tennis, etc.) Be as specific as you can here. Searching for "fitness goals" may help.

    A fitness goal should be quantitative, measurable, and specific. For example, you may want to be able to do 10 pull ups and run 2 miles within 15 minutes. If you want to be stronger, perhaps you want to be able to lift 100 lbs.

  2. Assess where you are. Now that you have your goal, you need to figure out how to get there. It may help to work with a personal trainer at this point or do your own assessment of your current fitness state, with respect to your fitness goals.

  3. Next identify what workouts you'll do to accomplish your goals. To do this, you'll quantify your work outs. For each workout, assign a point value to how much it helps you get to each of your goals. For example, a 30 treadmill workout may give you a specific amount of cardiovascular endurance "points" and some leg and core strength points. The faster and longer you run, the more points you'd get. Playing tennis hard for 40 minutes might give you 40 tennis coordination points, 60 cardiopulmonary endurance points, and 40 arm and leg strength and coordination. Assign and track relevant points toward each fitness goal for each workout.

    To determine what you get out of each work out, think about what you need to do to accomplish it and how you feel during and after. If you get out of breath, the workout provides cardiopulmonary endurance. If your arms burn, then it adds arm strength; if it makes you a better swimmer, then it adds coordination for swimming, etc. As you exercise more and track your goals, you'll refine your point system to be able to answer the question, how hard should you work out.

    In general increasing intensity, duration, and reps should be done about 10 percent every 10-15 days. This rate is slow enough to prevent injuries and fast enough to build up over time at a pace most bodies can adjust to.

    If you are left feeling energized after your workouts, it was a good intensity. If you are exhausted or in pain, it was too much. If you can't feel any difference, it may not have been enough. To know, track it daily and review and adjust weekly.

  4. Assess your ability to work out each day. This includes your nutritional, stress, immune, mood, and motivation state. You will be able to do more if you are fed, rested, healthy, in a workable mood, and motivated. If any of these are not true, address them before you work out.

Once you've been tracking goals, workout "points", and state, you may find you need to adjust your goals or your point system.

  • I like this. It covers another question that Olav asked a few days ago: fitness.stackexchange.com/questions/9811/fitness-assessments
    – user4644
    Dec 2, 2012 at 20:48
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    About judging when a workout is "too much" I think a better metric is whether or not you're able to do as much or more in the next workout. If you start regressing, you're entering overtraining/under-recovery.
    – user4644
    Dec 2, 2012 at 20:50
  • I like all kind of measurements and assessments (But not goals :-) In this question I am thinking of effort related aspects like aerobic capacity, strength, ability to take strain (Like the strain running put on the legs) and to press the limit to overtraining. These has in common that they can also cause pain, fatigue and overtraining, so balance optimization is more important than for example yoga.
    – Olav
    Dec 3, 2012 at 9:34
  • I don't think one can attach score to everything, but we know something. Like that strength sessions should be spread out, and that the effects of a bike-trip depends on the other things that you do that week (How is the question :-) Also there are reasons to think that a slow increase in effort and results is a good place to be.
    – Olav
    Dec 3, 2012 at 10:49
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    @Olav You might want to pick up Practical Programming (Rippetoe and Kilgore) or Science of Sports Training (Kurz), or another book on workout programming. Dec 3, 2012 at 16:43

The question is relevant since it is easy to be "off" in terms of effort, both to practice too easy and practicing too hard. I have not found any research on this but I think it is quite clear from observing how many never reach their goals and - on the other side - how many that overtrain and become injured.

A system that tries to make your next workout in the right effort range is Firstbeat Athlete. It terms of your framework, it captures data from a "R-R" pulsmeter or through a manual entry of heart rate. Then, based on your age, sex, training history and a model for gradually increasing effort, it recommends the effort for a number of work outs.

As an example, assuming that you have an exercise profile as you described in your answer (2 hard, 3 easy) then the system would recommend the next exercises as you can see in the diagram below.

Firstbeat diagram for Olav

As you can see, I have assumed that last 5 exercises up to December 6 where of different effort and different lengths. Effort in Firstbeat is measured in Training effect. Then the system recommends a workout for December 7, rest day for December 8, a light workout for the 9th etc. In the bottom right corner, you can see how the system gradually increases the weekly EPOC load, through a mix of easy, hard exercises and workout length.

Your optimal effort per week is then to be in the "grey" zone of the diagram in the bottom right.

I have used the system for about 5 years now, for all my workouts (resistance training, yoga and swimming). It has helped me to avoid training too hard.


There are two aspects that are vital when you are wanting to evaluate your training:

  • How much effort am I exerting?
  • How much reward am I getting?

These are two sides of the same coin, and it can show how two radically different training styles using the same measurements can be equally valid depending on how you define the reward. At it's simplest view in this context:

Efficiency = reward / effort

Defining Reward

The most useful tool for deciding what a valuable reward is a clear, concise, measurable goal. Wanting to be "fit" is not measurable. I made this same mistake starting out. Because I didn't know what I want, I wasted my time, and the time of my personal trainer who tried to get me closer to his definition of "fit".

Even within the world of goals you have to prioritize some goals over others. For example, the work needed to improve your 50 yard dash times will be vastly different than the work needed to increase your endurance. If you want to run a marathon, endurance is going to have to be your primary goal. You can work on speed later, or be OK with the fact your speed as a marathoner won't ever be as fast as a sprinter. There's changes in the way your body has to use energy that are mutually exclusive with these two goals. Both marathoners and sprinters are extremely fit--but in very different ways.

If you have no goals, your efficiency is by definition: 0%

Defining How To Measure Your Goal

Each sport has a set of measurements that make sense in the confines of that sport. Running, swimming, weightlifting, etc. all have different metrics. Get used to those measurements and use them when you record your work. This is all about tracking your effort, and measuring how that effort is helping you progress toward your goals.

Express your goals (your reward) in terms of these measurements.

Evaluate Your Effort

Whenever you change your program (the way you organize your effort), see if you are progressing toward your goals more quickly.

  • This question is about reward/effort, but I think most people look more at for example reward/time (I don't think you need 50% more reward to work 50% harder). For me anyway it is better to look at reward/pain separately (With "energy" as negative pain). AFAIK the inflammation is much less with small muscle breakdown, so the best reward/pain is with a low level of breakdown (balanced against reward/time), and it is best to target for example a small steady increase in muscle mass.
    – Olav
    Dec 7, 2012 at 13:12
  • You think it is better to look at reward/pain, but your question is about reward/effort? Just include pain, as part of effort. Or call it "cost" and look at reward/cost, where cost includes effort, extra food you need to eat, pain, time, etc. Berin's got a good answer here.
    – user4644
    Dec 7, 2012 at 15:56

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