Quantifying how hard your workouts feel can help you push past the psychological barriers that may be slowing you down.
Think about the last time you did a hard session: Was there a point where you felt like you were going to die? If you’re reading this, then you obviously survived (congrats!) …. and you probably finished the session, and maybe even went a little further.
That’s because exhaustion doesn’t come from physical limits (like glycogen depletion or dehydration). Exhaustion is actually more of a psychological barrier. You hit the wall when you reach the maximum level of perceived effort you’re mentally willing to endure.
If you’ve ever had a treadmill class instructor yell at you about running at a 7 out of 10 effort, then you know what a rate of perceived effort or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is. But is it something you proactively track? It should be.
What Exactly Is RPE?
Your rate of perceived exertion is a subjective assessment of how physically and mentally difficult an exercise is for you. It’s not a number that you should be using in isolation to dictate a training plan, but it’s something that can better inform your training so you can be more efficient and optimize your workouts.
Is Heart Rate Training Right for You?
Since the 1960s, scientists and coaches have used a scale ranging from 0 to 10 to subjectively assess effort, with 0 being no exertion and 10 being the highest level.
So, really, it’s just an arbitrary number—but one that gives an athlete a way to track performance without fancy tech and while considering all the other variables that affect performance. Yes, activity trackers are incorporating fancy new technology to track training load, but RPE clues you into your body’s actual response to what you’re doing which is so important because of the role perception of effort plays in exercising.
Training helps your body get fitter, but it also helps your brain become more comfortable with higher levels of perceived effort. In other words, you have to train your brain to be uncomfortable just as much if not more than you train your body. By training with RPE in mind, it extends your ability to withstand that hard effort. When those higher levels of perceived effort become easier, that’s when you can really start to push your performance to the next level.
How to Use RPE
Most athletes use metrics such as pace and/or heart rate to determine effort ahead of time. Setting a specific RPE for a workout, though, can help you account for the effect that external stressors (think: dehydration, altitude, lack of sleep, or poor nutrition) have on your performance.
Any of those stressors will make your body work harder than normal to hit your goal RPE. In some cases, that could help you learn how to be comfortable at an uncomfortable certain pace; in other situations, you may have to adjust your workout to avoid overdoing it.
Assessing RPE, though, is highly subjective (it’s always hard to be honest with self-judgements).
If these descriptions sound familiar, it’s because they are often the same descriptions used to outline heart rate zones.
Because the 0-10 scale is totally subjective, it’s important to figure out what feels “easy” and “hard” to you, not what someone else deems so.
How RPE Helps You
You should be paying attention to your RPE while you exercise. That’s because workouts shouldn’t be one-intensity-fits-all. Slower, easier sessions serve as aerobic conditioning or recovery, while harder speed work and intervals push your max heart rate and ability to sustain higher-intensities for longer.
The more you take note of your effort level, the better you’ll get at accurately gauging it. And the better you can gauge your intensity, the more you can push yourself and the less likely you are to push yourself too hard.
This keeps you from falling into the moderate-intensity trap, that comfortably efficient pace that inevitably leads to a rut because you’re never doing low- or high-intensity.
How to Identify (and Recover from) Overtraining
And if you’ve been following a training plan but the same workouts are actually starting to feel harder, that pattern of increased exertion is actually a sign of overtraining. If you’re tracking that, you can identify where it started and adjust your future training.
Like pace and heart rate, RPE is just another tool in an athletes arsenal—one that reminds you to trust your body and not just swear by high-tech devices. Data can be imperfect, which can negatively impact the course of a session. Many athletes like to exercise by feel because it prevents judgements and provides a more holistic look at exercise. Because solid training is about the big picture …. not just the data points on your activity tracker.