Even as technology delivers remarkably accurate data about an athlete’s true workload, a seemingly archaic measure of intensity refuses to disappear. Rating of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, is the ultimate in simplicity: It is nothing more than a scale of how hard you feel you are exercising. There’s not one single piece of data collected and you don’t need any special equipment. All you need is the scale.
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To Borg or Not to Borg?
The scale CTS Coaches use in the physiology lab is the Borg Scale, which ranges from 6 to 20 (6 being no exertion at all and 20 being a maximum effort). Why 6 to 20? Well, Borg’s research has shown that there’s a high correlation between the number an athlete chooses during exercise, multiplied by 10, and his or her actual heart rate at that time. In other words, if you’re on an ergometer during a lactate threshold test and tell me that you feel like you’re at 16, there is a pretty good chance your heart rate is around 160 beats per minute. This isn’t absolutely true of all athletes, but you’d be surprised how accurate the 6 to 20 scale tends to be.
Outside the lab, however, we haven’t found the Borg Scale to be as helpful for athletes. Most athletes find it easier to relate to a simpler 1 to 10 scale (1 being no exertion at all and 10 being a maximum effort). Under this scale, an endurance or “cruising” pace would be a 4 to 5, a challenging aerobic tempo would be a 6, lactate threshold work occurs at about 7 to 8, climbing and time trial efforts are a solid 8 (sometimes 9), and VO2 intervals and all-out sprints are the only efforts that reach 10.
Just as the Borg Scale multiplies the perceived exertion number by 10 to correlate with heart rate, the number chosen on the 1 to 10 scale, multiplied by 10, seems to correlate closely to the percentage of VO2max that an athlete is currently maintaining.
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The Ten Point Scale of Perceived Exertion
When you say…It means you’re at…And you can…
1… Little to no effort Talk freely…breathe through your nose
2-4…Active recovery pace… Talk comfortably
4-5… Aerobic “cruising” pace… Talk comfortably… breathing through mouth
6… Aerobic “tempo” pace… Talk in shorter sentences while breathing somewhat hard
7-8… Challenging lactate threshold pace… Talk only in short phrases due to labored, deep breathing
8-9… Time trial and/or hard climbing pace… Utter a word here or there between panting breaths.
10… Maximum effort (sprints or 1-3 minute all-out VO2 max intervals) Grunt. Groan… Cry.
Perceived Exertion Provides Context
With power meters providing an accurate and direct measure of workload, some athletes are tempted to relegate RPE to the trash bin of sports science history, but power meters have actually made RPE more important than ever. While it’s true that 200 watts today is the same workload as 200 watts tomorrow, RPE provides valuable context for your power files. When you’re fresh, 200 watts may feel like a moderate spin, but when you’re fatigued you may feel like you’re working harder than normal (sluggish, heavy legs, pedaling through peanut butter, and similar terms may come to mind) for those same 200 watts. RPE is a great early warning device for revealing fatigue; your body is telling you it can still do the job, but that even though the work being done is the same, the effort to complete it is greater.
Perceived Exertion Indicates Progress
RPE can also indicate progress, even without a change in your power outputs. For example, at the beginning of the season, a 20-minute climb at 250 watts average power may feel strenuous enough to rate a 7 or even an 8. Later in the season when your fitness has improved, riding at 250 watts up the same climb may take less out of you and feel more like a 6. An RPE of 7 to 8 on the climb may end up being 275 watts at the height of the season.
Perceived Exertion Can Liberate You From Data
We include RPE values with each workout in our library, and I encourage you to record your RPE during each effort in the CTS Field Test. Not only is perceived exertion important for providing context for power and heart rate files, but it also helps you learn to accurately evaluate your intensity level in the absence of all other technologies. Part of becoming a skilled cyclist is learning to use technology effectively while also reducing your dependence on it.