Perceived Exertion

August 2, 2016


Now 19 weeks into training it is a perfect time to discuss your Level of Effort (LOE) during racing and training.  Actually its a perfect time at any time of the season but at this point you've gained enough experience to determine on your own what your LOE is at any given time.  Yes, absolutely, the electronics you have can measure everything from speed to power delivery and now with power delivery measurement during the run (more about that next week) you have to be able to determine if in fact you are 1) training in the proper zone (heart rate or otherwise) and 2) whether your zones are changing during training or other factors (age, race type, etc.)  The best way for an athlete to do this is to become familiar with Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

There are a couple of ways at looking at RPE: they're the poor man's power meter or heart rate monitor, an old fashioned (1970s) way to gauge level of effort, and a lost art.  When you're three miles into an easy run and your Polar or Garmin is telling you you're working in Zone 4 (meaning your heart is about explode) you can interpret it as, "Wow, I'm cranking and it feels so slow and easy.", or " Great, I need to buy the new Garmin cause this thing is broken."  It can also mean you are a) sick and on the verge of injury and/or 2) so deep into overtraining that you should also run with an AED so someone can jump start your heart when you pass out.  One of the casualties of the electronics monitoring age (we're about to move into the bio-monitor age where sensors directly implanted on you or in you will be the new "Garmin") is Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or the ability of the athlete to self determine how hard they're actually working.  Elite level coaches and athletes use both RPE and their monitoring devices to help assess their day to day performance.

In the 1990s when heart rate monitors (HRM) became the rage and affordable and enthusiasts determined that 220 minus your age gave you your max heart rate and blah, blah, blah, quite a few professional coaches up and decided we've only got a few ideas as to how these things work and what it actually means with the only consensus being that if your HRM says zero you should see your PCP.  (At this time measuring body temperature was also becoming a thing but didn't quite become THE thing most likely because measuring it wasn't as sexy.)  Also in the 1990s battery life and accuracy was eh and the heart rate monitor chest straps were as comfortable as wearing...a heart rate monitor chest strap.  Again we resorted to using RPE to provide context for what the new technology was saying.

So what is Ratings of Perceived Exertion?  If you've ever picked up a book on running, cycling, or triathlon you most likely see the first chapter (right before the chapter that says send your next car payment to Garmin) is about RPE - this is because of all the reasons above but also so that you can have context for what your wrist computer is telling you.  The RPE is a scale:

Rating (6 - 20):
6 - ha, ha, ha - this is just above eating breakfast with Dreamfar
7 - you order the spicy breakfast and then put hot sauce on top of that.
8 - Very very light working out - think putting on a wetsuit.
9 - Very light - your warm up swim, the ride out of Walden to the first light.
10 - You're sweating and realize you're pedaling.
11 - Fairly light workout.
12 - "Who the hell put me in a workout?"
13 - Somewhat hard.
14 - You can keep this up but at some point you can either put the hammer down or call it a day.
15 - You put the hammer down - this is hard.  This is the point everyone looks at their electronics to verify they're just so freakin awesome or lost.
16 - "Lord, I paid someone to do this to me."
17 - Very Hard - you're breathing out of places you didn't know you could.
18 - Your'e considering crashing into a tree to stop the workout.
19 - Very very hard.  This can only be maintained for a few minutes if that.
20 - You're seconds from the pearly gates.  No one will believe you made it to 20.  In fact you're designed to pass out cause your brain ain't smart enough to stop.

Take note of your RPE at the start, the midway point, at the most challenging point of your workout, and at the end for the overall session.  Does it correlate with your other data and what happened that day?  Before you get yourself all giddy with knowing your Anaerobic Threshold (AT), Maximum Hart Rate (MHR), Anaerobic Threshold Heart Rate (ATHR), and your Heart Rate Training Zones (HRTZ) and all the other alphabet soup we'll discuss next week get to know your RPE from your previous experiences.  Yes recall can work.  For the most part what was the overall RPE for the Boston Triathlon?  Or how bout the swim, bike, and run?  Does it match up with your power meter and HRM?

 Remember RPE also works as a strategic tool.  If coach tells you to make sure you stay between 12 and 15 for the race did you?  Or did you try to reach 18 at some point?  That says more about discipline that having the Polar beep at you when you get out of your Zone 3 Heart Rate.  RPE can make you disciplined and give your other measurements deeper and greater meaning.

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