Rate of perceived effort (RPE)

Rate of perceived effort (RPE)

Rate of perceived effort (or exertion) simply provides a subjective way for you to describe how hard you would rate a given workout after having performed it or, sometimes such as during exercise tests, during the actual workout itself. The system was first popularised by my namesake Dr. Borg (no relation) who discovered that a correlation existed between how hard athletes rated their effort and the actual %VO2max they were exercising at. In layman’s terms: how hard exercise feels provides reliable feedback on what intensity you are really working at.

We provide a simplified version of the many different RPE scales out there for our training plans giving you the option to rate your exercise from 1 (“Very easy”) to 10 (“Maximum effort”). Our table  is based on various sources – primarily Timothy Noakes ‘Lore of Running’ and Keith Livingstone’s ‘Healthy Intelligent Training‘.

How to use RPE – after your workout

To use our programmes successfully, rating each of your workouts in your training log after you complete the workout is an essential step for you, and your coach, to evaluate whether you are running them at the right intensity. Run too easy and you will not get as much benefit as you could. Run too hard and you could quickly face staleness and overtraining.

How to use RPE – before your workout

Because your form and general energy levels will wary slightly from day to day and week to week, you cannot always expect to hit exactly the paces suggested in your training programme. Make a habit out of remembering the descriptions of the exertion levels in the RPE table so you can check how you feel and how deep and rapid your breathing is on the run.

How to use RPE – during your workout

Set off a bit easier than the effort level prescribed in the RPE table: for instance, for an aerobic run the suggested range of 3 to 5 means you can start out at 2 for a few minutes and ease into 3. This means starting at easy effort and working up to moderate effort with normal breathing within a few minutes (less if you have done a warm-up prior to the run).

Next use the feedback from your body to tell you whether to keep up this level of intensity, drop it, or start increasing your pace and effort. Using the example above: if after a few minutes you feel comfortable you can slowly start increasing your pace towards the effort levels 4 and 5 (somewhat strong to strong). Here again your breathing serves as a reliable guide. Your breathing at effort level 5 is “deep, but steady” while 6 is “Deep, and somewhat rapid”. Ensure you do not feel any form of quickness of breath such as the described during the aerobic run and you will know you are still not moving into an intensity level higher than the desired for the adaptations of the workout.

Rate of Perceived Effort table
Adapted from tables shown by Noakes, Livingstone and other sources

Some days your legs will simply not be able to move you to the desired exertion level even as low as the 2-4 suggested for endurance-focused runs. Take this a sign that your muscles need more time to recover and stay at the lower intensity and trot gently.

How to use RPE with target paces

Our training plans provide a range of paces from “Slowest” over “Suggested” to “Fastest” for a reason: to allow you to make corrections dependent on how you feel on the day. When you are not hitting your target paces you should only increase your intensity if you still believe you are well within the prescribed RPE level.

Should you feel lethargic, stale or out of breath even at the slowest suggested pace, drop your intensity further. RPE should always trump paces. Hitting paces by forcing yourself into more oxygen debt and stress than prescribed on a consistent basis will eventually only set you back rather than improve you.

Limitations of RPE

The relationship between RPE and pace/HR breaks down over time. So even an easy pace or a low HR can generate quite a high RPE if you continue it long enough.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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