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360 YOU: Let’s Talk About Effort

Why understanding your rate of perceived exertion is important for your workouts.

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Rate of perceived exertion, or RPE is a common marker in training plans. You might see it in treadmill workouts, track workouts, or as something to reflect on after the run is done.

On the scale of zero to 10, a zero equates to rest. A three would be moderate activity, five is heavy activity, moving up to 10 which is maximal give-it-all-you-got effort. But how can you start to gauge those RPE benchmarks? When you’re just starting out—let’s be real—every effort feels like a 10. 

“To start off, it’s important to say that everybody struggles with this,” says 360 YOU mentor and run coach Mary Cain. Using RPE requires you to be in tune with your body. And for beginners who have fewer data points to compare it to (fewer previous workouts) it can be tricky to know how to rate each effort.  

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To get you started in understanding how to utilize effort as a training tool, Cain walks through four things to keep in mind about RPE.

It’s a moving target.

RPE is not an exact science. That’s because it’s based on how you feel subjectively. After all, ‘perception’ is in the name. Even Cain, who has years of experience, says that on any given day her personal scale is different.

“I think part of that is because on paper, people like to make it all about your body, right? In our society we like to separate mind and body,” she says. While you might be tempted to tie RPE to a metric like breath rate, for example, how you’re breathing on a day when everything is good might feel much better than the same rate when you’re stressed.

“If you’re having a super emotional day, the same effort from yesterday is going to be adjusted because you’re actually really stressed and things are going to feel harder,” she says.

Which leads us to the next point.

You have to take in your whole experience to set your rate.

If emotional stress has the ability to change the intensity of the workout, then we know that RPE isn’t just about bodily cues, which is also why Cain loves using it as a metric. 

“It’s not just about your breathing or how you’re moving. It’s literally how your whole being feels and the effort that it takes,” she says. That’s right: That kind of mind-body connection is more than an inspo-post on social media, it’s actually a legitimate marker for understanding your fitness.

Some runners find that it helps to journal their workouts. Along with logging the workout, you could include your exertion rating, plus additional notes from the day like what was on your mind while you ran. This can help put the workout into context for now and in the future of your training.

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It takes practice.

There’s no test, no wrong answers, but you’ll still probably feel like you’re getting RPE wrong at first. Cain admits that “it can be a little hard to figure out. Honestly, it takes a lot of trial and error,” she says. 

“If the first week you do it and you’re like, ‘I still have no idea,’ that’s OK. Week two you’re going to get a little bit better.” You can spend that time finding out what works for you. Maybe it’s not a number scale of one to 10. It could be a list of emojis or colors that elicit a certain feeling. As with everything we do in training, it’s consistency that matters. 

Your RPE could be telling you something.

Once you start using RPE consistently you’ll probably start to see patterns emerge. Do you find yourself finishing an easy run one day and a 40 minute long tempo run the next and giving them the same rating in the end? Pay attention to that. 

Cain says that being unable to change effort might be a sign that you are simply uninspired by your workout or maybe scared to tap into a higher speed. That is your cue to find a way to motivate yourself. 

“Text your friend or meet some people through all the different awesome online resources and clubs that might be in your area and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ If they’re doing something else, just jump in with them,” says Cain. That change of pace, doing something more fun with other people might be the kick you need to turn up the intensity. 

And afterward, you might end up with the satisfying feeling of doing something you didn’t think you could do. 

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