Importance of RPE

So many gadgets out there these days monitoring different aspects of our training. I sometimes wonder how our triathlete and runner ancestors survived. That was sarcasm if you didn’t pick up on it. I’ll be very honest in that I don’t get too caught up in gadgets, they don’t excite me like they do my fellow athletes. I am not one to need the next best thing or updated model; I have my old watch as my bike computer and my triathlon watch and that is plenty for me. This isn’t to say I don’t watch my metrics closely and analyze the data, I just don’t think the numbers tell the whole story.

When I started working with my first run coach back in 2009, we didn’t use Training Peaks, I didn’t upload my data, watch my TSS or monitor my heart rate on my training runs. I wore a Garmin that tracked the basics and I used the watch to capture my total distance and pace. What was so much more important than the numbers was my rating of perceived exertion (RPE). I ran by effort (easy, moderate, hard), learned how they felt and that’s how I learned to train and race. I will note that this was a highly effective way of training as using this approach earned me a spot at Boston.

As we’ve progressed with technology, the metrics provided by the devices are invaluable. Determining FTP and threshold values allow us to know our current limits and then train and push beyond them. However, I will always stress the importance of RPE being used in conjunction with the measured metrics, and here are a few reasons why:

RPE is an early warning sign that you are fatigued. An example: Pushing 150 watts or running a 9:00 min/mi may be your typical easy while other days, these numbers may feel moderately difficult. Your body can still do the work but it’s taking more effort. On the days where it feels harder, your heart rate may still be in the easy zone even though the effort feels more difficult. Your heart rate in this case isn’t suggesting some fatigue but your perceived effort is saying otherwise.

Heart rate can be affected by many factors such as sleep, nutrition/hydration, stress, illness, etc. Your RPE is subjective and telling you how you feel in that given moment. Ideally our RPE will match the objective of the workout and heart rate will fall in line as well. But there will be times this is not the case because our heart rate can be finicky. Using RPE allows you to stick with the objective of the workout allowing for the proper adaptations to be made.

RPE can be an indicator of progress. When I started to come back to running post-surgery, my RPE for my pre surgery easy pace felt like such a struggle. Close to an 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. Since I didn’t have accurate heart rate zones from an extended period of time off and loss of fitness, I relied solely on RPE for my runs. Little by little as time passed, this same pace started to feel easy again and in due time, the same pace was back to feeling like a 1 or 2.

RPE won’t stop working on race day. The batteries won’t die and it won’t give you skewed data. You can always rely on it. If you are a slave to the numbers how will you execute when something goes wrong? Use every workout in training to learn how the said effort feels. The most successful athletes know how their racing efforts feel and can dial in power, pace etc just off RPE.

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