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Solving the Mystery of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)

Solving the mystery of RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion, is a challenge for most athletes.

So you have made your New Year’s resolution and started your new workout program. You have been hard at it for two weeks and you are over the initial soreness. You feel better than you have in years, but you still have that nagging question: How do I know how hard to work and get the most benefit?

Information at the gym isn’t helpful. There are several RPE charts scattered around but even if you knew what they meant, how can you tell if you are working that hard. I have been active all of my life. I started riding horses at the age of 10 at the age of 23 I traded my spurs in for carabineers and spent 10+ years doing technical rock and mountaineering. After a very close call on Aconcagua I toned it down and focused on endurance races. Mountaineering taught me a lot about what I was capable of. I learned how to pull 12 hour days and double digit miles carrying a 50 lb pack, I also learned how to gauge my effort. In the back country, it’s important to always save a little in the tank … just in case you make a bad choice and you need to be able to get yourself out. Once I switched over to racing it took me a while to learn how to gauge my effort to run or bike faster and harder. In the safety of a race you rarely need to worry about self rescue.

As an experienced athlete learning how to manage my effort was always a learning process. I know my body pretty well, I know what it feels like to go hard and I know the difference between hurting because I am tired and hurting because I am hurt. That knowledge has taken 40+ years to learn. How does someone new to exercise determine how hard is too hard, how slow is to slow and what is just right.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is the most commonly used method. I think RPE is the most misused and misunderstood method of rating exertion. First of all RPE varies from person to person. Someone that is used to pushing to extremes will have a very different RPE scale from someone that is new to exercise. RPE also varies from day to day. When you’re tired a 4 might feel like a 7 or 8 and when you’re feeling great a 6 feels like a 3. So what is the solution?

I have been a fan of Heart Rate training for years. I started working with a heart rate monitors in 2002 while training for my first ½ marathon. I found them to be a great tool for managing my effort. But they can be confusing. The trick is to know YOUR numbers. The formula 220 minus your age is invalid. That formula says we all have the same size heart that beat at the same rate and slows as we age. We know that’s not true. The best way to know your numbers is to test.

There are two ways to test:

Metabolic Tests – this is the most accurate but can be expensive.
Field Test – these tests are inexpensive and can be self administered. Field tests are easy; they can be used as part of your workout and can also show improvements in fitness levels. I use a three zone system developed by Zoning. It uses Threshold to set the zones. The zones are color coded using an easy Blue, Yellow, Red system.

If you want to know more about your zones contact us or check out next month’s article on testing, determining your workout zones and building a program to use your Zones.

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