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  • Christopher Breen

Understanding Rating of Perceived Exertion

Often the best indicator of effort is simply your own ability to rate your exertion. Is your effort an easy effort, moderate effort, or hard effort? This ability is simple and is always available across all three sports in triathlon. The ability to do so also becomes more intuitive as one gains more experience. Our world has become increasingly tech and data dependent. We have apps that tell us how well we have slept and apps that are supposed to calm our anxiety. Triathlon and triathletes themselves have also become increasingly reliant on technology. Often times we lose sight of just how we feel and rely on the data to tell us how we should be performing. Now, technology and data should not be a polarizing topic of good and bad. We just need to know when and how to utilize it properly so we don’t become controlled by it.

To begin to understand our effort level while performing we need to begin with the Borg’s Scale of Perceived Exertion. The Borg’s Scale of Perceived Exertion using a scale of 6-20 is the original. It was originated by Gunnar Borg and is a numerical scale used to assess the intensity of training and competition. The scale ranges from 6, which means “no exertion at all” to 20, which means “maximal exertion”. It is a relative scale as it matches how hard you feel you are working with the numbers 6-20. There is also a modified and more commonly used scale that many athletes may be more familiar with. This scale measures the same perceived exertion, but on a scale of 0-10, as opposed to 6-20. Zero is considered the easiest effort, and 10 is considered the hardest effort. We often use the 0-10 scale in the field and reserve the 6-20 scale for the lab. It is commonplace in training to set specific training zones via lab or field testing and then assign workout sessions with hard and fast rules based on these zones. These zones are most often determined by heart rate, power on the bike, and pace. Although these metrics serve a place when reviewing performance they should not be used as the sole driving force of training. It is in the athlete’s best interest to learn the purpose of each training session and to develop a feeling and perceive the effort of training. Throughout this article, rating of perceived effort (RPE), perceived effort, and intensity might be used interchangeably with the same meaning.

Training zones should therefore include a mix of metrics and RPE for each discipline. The best metric for the swim are perceived exertion and pace. It is imperative that an athlete be aware of their effort level for a given pace while swimming. I have yet to meet an efficient swimmer who checks their watch every 100 meters during the swim leg of a race.

Training zones on the bike often become the most complicated. As with most things in triathlon, athletes often complicate this discipline the most. This is because we can utilize the most information for this discipline. We have power, pace, heart rate, and RPE all available to us and with the efficiency of bike computers these metrics are extremely reliable and immediately available. Athletes can use heart rate and power when training all the while gaining a feel for exertion. This is where focusing on the task and being completely engaged in our workouts becomes increasingly important. By taking into account heart rate for a specific power zone, all the while being aware of perceived effort we are then able to make educated decisions come race day. Most often after a quick swim exit and a hurried transition we find ourselves with an elevated heart rate once on the bike. Here is where we can focus on effort level and monitor our power. Once heart rate settles we should continue to focus on effort level and monitor power, but not ignore heart rate all together. Heart rate is important to monitor as it accounts for external factors such as heat and humidity. As we continue to settle in to a long bike, perceived exertion acts as our protection plan for monitoring surges and spikes.

When training the run, athletes can rely on heart rate, perceived exertion, and pace. During a race it is important to come off the bike knowing what our heart rate averaged. A well paced bike and run will typically see our run’s average heart rate be approximately 10 beats higher than our bike’s average heart rate. This knowledge allows us to pace our run according to the given external factors presented that day. This sets us up to utilize perceived exertion effectively and especially towards the last third of the run for a strong finish.

Different coaches will utilize a different number of zones. Some coaches may utilize 7 zones, some 5 zones, and others even 3 zones. It is important that no matter how many zones are utilized that each zone be indicated by a variety of factors. Power, pace, heart rate, perceived effort/intensity level should all be incorporated into each zone. It is important to not just focus on a given percentage of a number from one specific field test and to try to only adhere to that percentage. To get the most out of abilities and to truly learn to be an athlete it is my opinion that perceived exertion/intensity be utilized with utmost importance while training.

One can incorporate RPE/intensity using a scale of 1-10 into 5 training zones in the following way:

Zone 1: <3 out of 10 effort level is very low intensity.

Zone 2: 4-6 out of 10 effort level is a smooth to moderate intensity. One should be able to hold a conversation while training at this pace.

Zone 3: 6-8 out of 10 effort level is a strong intensity level. The beginning of deep breathing, and conversation has become difficult, but not to the point of breathlessness.

Zone 4: 8-9 out of 10 effort level is a very strong intensity level. Breathing becomes labored.

Zone 5: 9-10 out of 10 effort level is a hard intensity level. This is performed at very high intensity.

This can be altered a bit depending upon how many training zones are being utilized. However, the end result is the same. It enables you the athlete to execute the training as it is intended. Then when reviewing the metrics later you can add context to your power and heart rate data. This will enable you to make educated decisions on race day as well. Part of becoming a proficient and educated athlete is the ability to use technology effectively, while also decreasing your dependence on it.


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