If you’ve ever felt totally crushed and defeated halfway through a workout, gasping for air and wondering if you’ll make it home alive, you can probably relate to needing some way to gauge training intensity. Enter rate of perceived exertion (RPE) – your trusty internal guide. RPE is essentially a fancy way of saying “how hard this feels on a scale from couch potato to calling the ambulance.”
Unlike heart rate monitors, power meters, or pace cues, RPE zeroes in on your subjective physical sensations in the moment. It can account for all the fluctuations in your current state of fatigue, fitness, stress, nutrition and effectively regulate intensity across different modalities. RPE transforms you into your own best biofeedback mechanism, allowing your body to communicate directly with your brain. No expensive wearables required!
What Exactly is RPE?
RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. It is a subjective measure of how hard physical effort feels to you while exercising. The classic rating scale ranges from 6-20, with 6 meaning no exertion at all, like watching Netflix or scrolling social media for hours, and 20 meaning complete exhaustion, like getting chased by a hungry lion across the savannah.
The standard 0-10 RPE scale comes from the Borg scale, named after Swedish professor Gunnar Borg. But for athletes, the 6-20 scale provides more nuance at higher intensities. An RPE of less than 10 is considered “easy”, 10-14 is “moderate”, 15-17 is “hard”, and 18+ is “very hard” training.
RPE differs from tracked objective measures like heart rate, pace, or power because it allows you to quantify the overall physical sensations happening inside your body and muscles. It can fluctuate day to day based on factors like:
- Levels of fatigue
- Stress and recovery
- Motivation and psychology
- Environmental conditions
For example, the same 8 mile run at an 8 minute pace may rate a perceived exertion of 13 on fresh legs but spike up to a brutal 17 on a hot day when you’re already tired from other training.
Using RPE to Guide Training Intensity
The real power of RPE comes from using it to actively guide how hard you’re working in training. By pairing certain target RPE numbers with different session goals, you can modulate intensity relative to your own dynamic capacity at that moment.
This RPE-based approach allows for “autoregulation” in your training program. That means you can self-adjust to find the appropriate stimulus threshold rather than relying on standardized external metrics. Heart rate drifts in heat? No problem – you have your trusty RPE dial to turn things up or down. Unusual fatigue one day? Just shift zones and paces down slightly. It provides a built-in governor that prevents you from overextending while still working at an optimal level.
Here are some examples of session targets on the RPE scale:
- Easy aerobic endurance runs: RPE 4-6
- Long runs: RPE 6-8
- Comfortable base pace runs: RPE 7-8
- Tempo/threshold sessions: RPE 7-9
- VO2 max intervals or hill repeats: RPE 8-10
- Race pace segments/speedwork: RPE 9-15
- Sprint/power intervals: RPE 15-17
- All-out max effort intervals: RPE 17-19
Tailoring intensity to land in these effort ranges for different run types is the primary way to utilize RPE effectively. It ensures you stimulate desired physiological adaptions consistently regardless of changing external variables.
You can also integrate RPE targets into other cardio modalities like cycling, swimming intervals, rowing sprints, or even metabolic conditioning circuits. Just be sure to use the full dynamic spectrum from easy to hard across different session goals.
Benefits of Using RPE
There are many upsides to embracing RPE as your go-to guide for dialing in workout intensity:
- Prevents Overtraining: RPE provides your internal warning light against pushing into dangerous overtraining territory. Trying to precisely nail certain paces or wattages day after day can lead to buried fatigue and breakdown over time. But even when fitness markers are still high, creeping RPE informs you it’s time for recovery.
- Allows Flexibility: Basing sessions on RPE zones permits flexibility to have harder or easier days when needed. Life stress, poor sleep, travel, injuries, etc can all impact what is doable at a given time. RPE allows you to modify intensity based on how you feel to avoid digging a deeper hole.
- Accounts for Fluctuations: Unlike set paces, power zones, or heart rate ranges which can change day to day based on many factors, RPE normalizes all sensations so you can match relative effort. It automatically smooths out dips or spikes in other metrics.
- Promotes Quality Over Quantity: Chasing distances, paces, elevation gains, or other quantitative measures often fatigues athletes disproportionately. RPE encourages building intrinsic fitness with balance versus simply hitting bigger numbers. Quality intensity aligned with readiness beats rigid volumes.
- Prevents Underperforming: Just as RPE protects against overdoing it, it also gives permission to push harder on days you feel strong despite what a workout may prescribe on paper. Why hold back if you have more in the tank? RPE allows you to tap into that flexible reserve when motivation and legs align.
How to Determine and Use RPE Accurately
It is one thing to understand the concept of RPE, but another challenge entirely to become skilled at listening to and quantifying physical sensations in the midst of challenging training. Here are some key tips on determining and utilizing RPE effectively:
- Check Often: Don’t just peg one RPE number at the start then forget the scale exists for the rest of your session. Check in frequently, especially at transitions or intensity shifts during intervals or hills.
- Differentiate Acute Pain: Make sure to differentiate acute pain from injury/strain versus general integrated exertion fatigue in muscles. It’s easy to spike RPE if you have local leg pain for example.
- Master The Middle: Get very comfortable with RPE ratings between 6 to 14 so you can pinpoint intensities for endurance paces. Most aerobic training resides here. Granular ratings matter to balance stimulus and adaptation.
- Account For Total Load: Consider overall whole body sensations – not just localized effort like breathing rate or leg burn in isolation. Systemic cardiovascular load plus muscular demands together determine RPE.
- Give It Time: When intensity shifts such as intervals start, give your RPE a few minutes to normalize and equilibrate a bit before locking in a score. The initial spike often settles.
- Be Honest: No fudging or ego here! RPE only works if you are extremely honest about physical sensations. Start conservative and call it like you physically feel it. No over or undershooting.
- Practice Consistency: Try perform the same benchmark workouts monthly and compare RPE scores across similar distances and paces. Your ability to replicate ratings improves with time.
Really dialing in on the nuanced RPE numbers like no other takes diligent practice tapping into physiological feedback. But the payoff of self-regulated training makes it well worth the investment!
To wrap up, rating your perceived exertion using the 6-20 RPE scale during training provides a powerful way to tap into your dynamic physical capacity and accurately guide workout intensity independent of objective metrics.
Key benefits of embracing RPE include preventing overtraining, allowing training flexibility when needed, automatically accounting for fitness fluctuations, promoting quality work over rigid quantified targets, and permitting you to push harder when feeling strong.
Learning to monitor and differentiate subtle physical sensations and exertion levels is a skill to continually develop. But doing so pays massive dividends via self-autoregulated training compared to rigidly following prescribed external volume and intensity without consideration for your daily readiness.
Next time you train, leave the heart rate strap, GPS watch, power meter, or pace calculations at home for a session. Instead, channel your inner Borg, tune into your breathing muscles, your churning legs, your pounding heart working together to seamlessly float across the RPE scale. More rating, less debating!