Rate of Perceived Exertion for Runners

Rate of Perceived Exertion for Runners – what is it, why does it matter, and how you can use it to become a better all around runner, by Coach Elaina Raponi

Picture this: You lace up your running shoes and hit the pavement for an easy jog. Your legs are light, your breathing is steady, and you feel like you’re practically floating while jogging at an easy pace. 

Fast forward to the next day. You’re running the same route, the same pace, you’re even wearing the same shoes – but everything feels different. Your legs feel heavy, your breathing is labored and your brain is trying to convince you to stop. What gives?

Your body’s perception of effort can vary wildly from day to day, even if you’re running at the exact same pace. Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE for short, is a subjective measure of how hard an individual feels they are working during exercise. Factors like sleep, stress, hydration, nutrition, and even the weather can all influence how hard you feel like you’re working on any given day.

Here, we’ll delve into what RPE is, why it matters, and how runners can use it to optimize their training and racing strategies.

What is Rate of Perceived Exertion for Runners (RPE)?

RPE is like having an internal Siri to tell you how hard you’re working during exercise. It’s a subjective measure that takes into account factors such as breathing, heart rate, muscle fatigue, and overall discomfort. RPE is typically measured on a numerical scale, with values ranging from 1 to 10, where 1 represents very light exertion (e.g., walking) and 10 represents maximal exertion (e.g., sprinting at full speed).

Why RPE Matters

In endurance running, where athletes are required to sustain prolonged efforts over long distances, understanding and effectively managing RPE is essential for optimizing performance. Here’s why RPE matters:

  1. Pacing Strategy: If you’ve ever hit the proverbial “wall” in a race or a workout – keep reading. RPE helps runners gauge their effort and adjust their pace accordingly during training runs and races. By maintaining a consistent RPE throughout a run, runners can avoid starting too fast, ensuring they have enough energy to finish strong.
  2. Training Intensity: RPE serves as a valuable tool for monitoring training intensity. By paying attention to their perceived exertion during workouts, runners can ensure they are training at the appropriate intensity for their fitness level and goals. This helps prevent overtraining and reduces the risk of injury.
  3. Environmental Factors: Weather, terrain, altitude – they all play a role in how hard you feel like you’re working during physical activity. By adjusting their effort based on these factors, runners can adapt to varying conditions and optimize their performance. Who knew Mother Nature was such a sneaky coach? 
  4. Mental Toughness: Sometimes, it’s not just your legs that need convincing; it’s your brain too. RPE can help runners develop mental toughness by teaching them to push through discomfort and fatigue, ultimately improving their ability to sustain effort over long distances.

How to Use RPE

Now that we understand why RPE matters, let’s explore how runners can effectively use it to enhance their performance:

  1. Listen to Your Body: Your body is like your very own GPS. Pay attention to the signals it’s sending you – whether it’s heavy breathing or heavy legs – and adjust accordingly. 
  2. Practice Self-Assessment: Regularly assess your RPE during training runs to develop a better understanding of your perceived exertion levels at different paces and distances. This will help you fine-tune your pacing strategy and optimize your performance on race day.
  3. Use RPE as a Guide: While RPE is a valuable tool, it’s important to remember that it’s subjective and may vary from person to person. Take it with a grain of salt and use it as a guide, not a gospel. 
  4. Experiment and Learn: Every runner is unique, so take the time to experiment with different pacing strategies and training approaches to see what works best for you. Pay attention to how your RPE fluctuates under various conditions and learn from your experiences to become a more efficient and effective endurance runner.

So, while yesterday’s run might have felt like a victory lap, today’s run might feel more like survival mode. That’s the beauty of running – it keeps you on your toes. So the next time you lace up your running shoes, remember to listen to your body, trust your perceived exertion, and enjoy the journey one step at a time.

Coach Elaina Raponi walks the talk! Utilizing rate of perceived effort is a big part of her personal training, racing, and coaching.

Elaina is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with her, check out her coach profile.