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The Power of Perception (of effort)

We live in a marvelous time where we can measure almost anything, from power to heart rate, to sleep… recovery scores, adaptation scores, body batteries… the list goes on. It seems like a new device, or some new metric or something to measure pops up every day. In the hustle and bustle of technology, I feel that athletes are losing sight of one of the most powerful tools at their disposal… perception. RPE, or Rating of Perceived Exertion. Your body has lots to say if you just learn to listen.

RPE was first introduced in 1982 by a Swedish scientist, Gunner Borg. Why the original scale was 20 points, it has since been simplified down to a standard 10-point scale where 0 is doing nothing, i.e. no exertion, while 10 is the hardest thing you could do. It has been found that the scale lines up fairly well with physiologic events such as “threshold” and that, with experience, athletes can subjectively feel when they are close to significant measurable metabolic thresholds based on their perceived effort.

Below is a chart I borrowed from Apex coaching and adapted for use with my athletes. On the left is the typical “zone” you might be familiar with, and next to it is the corresponding RPE. To the right is how it feels with regard to breathing, pressure on the pedals, and internal monologue as well as how long you might be able to hold the effort.


Now, I am not suggesting that we should do away with data such as heart rate and power, but that information becomes much more powerful in the context of how it felt on that day. By using RPE in conjunction with heart rate and power data we can get insight into progress as you’re able to produce the same power at a lower effort or fatigue status if certain outputs feel harder than typical. In addition, getting in tune with your body’s sensations can be a powerful pacing tool, especially in the event of a power meter dying, or racing in different environmental conditions such as heat, humidity, or altitude.

To start using RPE, just start asking yourself how each training session felt, about 30 minutes after you finish. (if you ask immediately after you may over-score it due to the pain being fresh in your mind) You can then enter this number on the TrainingPeaks mobile app, or online.

By tracking RPE along with your other training metrics, you will have a more complete picture of how you are adapting to the training, when you are getting stronger, or when it might be time for some recovery. In addition, it helps your coach to add context to the heart rate and power data.

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