Posted by Coach Mark


It’s hard to imagine that triathlon is only approaching 40 years old.  I just read that USAT annual membership was over 140,000 in 2010.  Additionally, there were over 326,000 single-day members.  These numbers are a result of over 2.3 million unique individuals participating in triathlon in 2010 – over a 55% increase from the previous year (according to a recent report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA)).  I’m not surprised – it’s a GREAT lifestyle!


Popularity aside, triathlon was ripe for the onslaught of “sports scientists”.  These folks saw a new sport made up of multiple individual sports with lots of questions by it’s type “A” athletes on how to train, eat, dress and race.  It was new and there was a hunger for answers!  Perfect!  Now let’s throw in technology - GPS, heart rate monitors, power meters, and new bike technology.  Awesome! All the budding triathlete has to do is pick up a book or go online and find pre-determined “zones” based on their benchmark tests and train in those zones.  Then, when they race, all they have to do is look at the numbers and stay within their zones.  That’s it!  Wow, how did they ever do triathlon in the 70’s and 80’s without all these gadgets and scientists telling us how hard to go, what to eat and even how we’re supposed to feel?


Let me tell you what I’ve learned both as an athlete and a coach: all the gadgets and all the zones are secondary to knowing your body.  At Multisport Performance Institute (MPI), we certainly encourage those athletes who want to train with heart rate or power meters to do so.  We’ll even provide them some targeted zones if they’d like.  But what we as coaches really care about is their Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) during training sessions.  What’s RPE?  It’s a system of evaluating how you feel – or how much effort you expend - during a training session.  We use the Borg Scale (6-20 with 6 being sitting down and 20 being your maximum effort).  By requiring our athletes to evaluate themselves and how they felt during each session, we start the process of learning about our bodies. 


You see, a heart rate monitor showing you in “zone 3” when you’re trying to get into “zone 2” for an “EASY” session doesn’t mean a whole lot without combining it with RPE.  So, if you get your HR down into zone 2 but then give the session an RPE of 15, well, something’s amiss.  Knowing that, we can then figure out why by looking at weather, nutrition, hydration, fatigue, stress, etc. 


Now let’s look at a race scenario.  You’ve done the training and have what you believe is the perfect wattage range to ride the bike portion of your race.  You’re on the course and feel fantastic, but have to hold back to stay “in your power range”. Your RPE is 10 when it should be 15 for this particular race.  But, you’re loyal to the power number and don’t waiver.  Did you race to your potential?  What if you took that number and combined it with RPE that you’ve honed down throughout months and months of training?  With that knowledge, you could decide to go beyond number limits and just “race”.  This may produce a “Break Out” performance that seemed unlikely if you just based your ability off of numbers and graphs…


Conversely, and more problematic, are those athletes that look down during a race and see a “bad” number – even though they feel good.  Immediately they may think their chance for a great race is over.  They may start to think negatively and get depressed.  Instead, why not look at that number and combine it with RPE?  If the athlete feels good, maybe pick it up a bit. 


I’m not saying we should ditch the gadgets – in fact, I believe strongly in using them during longer races such as Half Ironman and Ironman events so as to focus on RPE and pacing (mph and min/mile).  But why not focus on how YOU FEEL during each training session and hone your knowledge of your own body?  Then, when it comes time to race, you combine that with whatever other system works for you. 


If you solely looked at numbers and raced within defined parameters without including RPE, then I doubt you would ever surprise yourself and have that breakout performance.  So next time you’re out on a long run, evaluate how you feel and start the process of learning more about yourself and your performance.

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