In Praise of RPE

Mar
31

Posted by Coach Chris Palmquist

As endurance athletes, we eagerly read up on the latest in equipment and metrics that can help us understand if we are getting faster through our training. Companies that make the latest in triathlon gadgets know well that triathletes are often the first to spend the money on the latest “new thing.”  But sometimes we also fall into the trap of believing that the objective numbers on our new device are more meaningful that good old fashioned, reliable RPE - Rating of Perceived Exertion. Devices and metrics are very helpful, no doubt. But I would argue that a well-developed perception of how one’s body and breathing feels remains the most valid, reliable and useful metric available to endurance athletes. 

Racing “Like a Caveman”

I’ve been an endurance athlete long enough to know what it was like to be the first runner to bust out of cotton sweat pants into Lycra tights in my town – almost four decades ago. Those were simpler times. Watches were neither waterproof or sweatproof. Running metrics often consisted of checking the kitchen clock on the way out the door and then again on the way back in after my run.  No pace. No heart rate. No mileage unless I drove the Chevy around my intended route and watched the odometer numbers flip over one tenth at a time. No uploads. No one in the world might even know that I just ran…and I didn’t mind.

Today’s runner might ask, “Well how did you know how hard you were running?” The answer is that we would gauge our breathing rate (how rapid, how deep, could we speak) and we would think about how our legs felt (smooth, strong, heavy, burning).

Lessons Learned from Canoe and Cross Country Skiing Racing

I have also raced for twenty years or more in marathon canoe racing and cross country skiing. An athlete’s speed in these sports is greatly influenced by the environmental conditions like river current or snow temperature. It is interesting to compare race times from year to year on the same courses, but not necessarily a good judge of one’s race performance. When we race, we use perceived exertion as well as skills and tactics to be successful. Now we can use heart rate and GPS to help confirm our RPE, but RPE remains our best metric from years of practice.

How to Use RPE

At Team MPI, we use an RPE scale that simply rates effort from a scale of 1 to 10 (easiest to hardest).

  • An RPE of 1 or 2 means a very easy effort, suitable for warm up, cool down or recovery workouts.
  • An RPE of 3 or 4 is an effort that is aerobic, (below the aerobic threshold), good for the longest rides, runs or endurance races.
  • An RPE of 5 or 6 is a moderate effort, (often the pace for a group workout), good for races that are approximately three hours long.
  • An RPE of 7 or 8 is a threshold effort, (one hour race pace), good for 10 km run races, 40 km bike time trials and sprint triathlons.
  • An RPE of 9-10 is best for short races and sprints, (6:00 down to 30 second sprints), good for 800-1600 meters on the track, uphill sprints and attacks in a criteriums.

(click to enlarge)

Simple can be elegant

Begin by recording your RPE in your training log. With practice, you will develop trust in your own RPE  and then you will have a reliable tool that will rarely lead you astray. RPE is honest feedback that naturally accounts for environmental conditions, fatigue, and cumulative training stress. This allows you to complete your training or racing optimally – neither too hard or too easy for the goals and conditions of the day.

 


Coach Chris Palmquist is a USAT Level III and Youth/Junior Coach, USAC Level I Coach and a F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter with 18 years of coaching experience and has coached athletes to success at the regional, national and world level. Chris has coached elite athletes at ITU World Paratriathlon Events and High Performance Camps at Olympic Training Centers. Chris also coaches training camps for USAT Juniors, Challenged Athletes Foundation and Dare2Tri. As an athlete, she has numerous top finishes in many sports including triathlon, collegiate rowing, canoe/kayak, cross country skiing, speed skating and road bike racing. Her coaching philosophy is based on trust, communication, balance, achieving top potential and the joy of training and racing. Chris is married with two children. Contact Coach Chris at Chris@TeamMPI.com.

 

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