Optimize training with RPE Scale

Prevent overtraining and optimize training using RPE scale
Optimize training with RPE Scale

Training intensity and load is an important aspect of how we get the necessary stimulus required to perform better. Structured training involves increasing the training load on a periodic basis (called Periodization).

Periodization is normally done in weekly cycles called Macro and Mesocycles.

  • Typically Macrocycles last for 4-6 months, while Mesocycles last for 3-5 weeks.
  • Each Mesocycle involves increasing the training load in small amounts, gradually adding higher stress over the Macrocycle.
  • Harder weeks in each cycle is a stimulus for runners to improve by building stress adaptation at cellular level.

Importantly, there will be easier recovery weeks, allowing runners to recover from the stress and ready for the next mesocycle.

Problem of Overtraining

It is often a misconception that more training is better for performance. In reality, overtraining could impair performance. When there is imbalance between training stress and recovery, it leads to:

  • Decreased performance
  • Overuse injuries
  • Mental fatigue and burnout
  • Reduced immunity

It is important to note that stress can also come from sources other than training load. Work, infections, lack of sleep, and other life activities add to stress which often is not considered in training cycles.

As runners we use a variety of recovery strategies including body massages, nutrition, cold baths and more. While these strategies are important, these are reactive. Addressing excessive stress right while training is key to avoid overtraining.

Training at right intensity

There are a variety of metrics that can be used to train at the right intensity. Some of the common mechanics runners use to understand training intensity are:

  • Pace and Distance- Training based on pace zones using GPS watch
  • Heart Rate- Training based on heart rate zones using Heart Rate Monitor
  • Power- Training based on the power used (very commonly used by cyclists, but runners are starting to use it using devices like Stryd)
  • Muscle Oxygen - Training based on the blood lactate and muscle oxygen saturation (using sensors such as Moxy)

While these metrics can possibly ensure we are training at the right intensity, these’t can capture the stress the athlete actually feels.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Surprisingly our brain is the answer to training at the right intensity. Using our brain to rate how we feel during training, called Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is widely accepted as an effective tool to adjust training intensity.

Sports scientist Professor Ross Tucker describes RPE, as a conscious/verbal manifestation of the integration of psychological and physiological cues. It has been observed that our effort on RPE scale climbs gradually as the body temperature increases or carbohydrate stores decrease. RPE is also how we pace ourselves in races. When we are unable to maintain pace, it is because of the mismatch between our brain’s expected and actual effort for a given pace, not because of hitting a physical limit.

One of the popular RPE scales is Forster’s RPE scale. It is a simple scale of 0-10, and we rate our perceived effort using the cues provided on the scale.

Foster's RPE Scale

Using Foster’s RPE scale to avoid overtraining

Using RPE for adjusting intensity during a training cycle is fairly low tech, but is very effective.

  • Rate each training session on RPE scale
  • Note time duration (in minutes) of the training session
  • Multiply time duration and RPE rating gives the Training Load (TL) for a given session (sRPE)

Adding up the Training Load numbers over weeks and and across a cycle gives the overall training load. Training load numbers then can be compared from week to week, and cycle to cycle to against training objective to understand if there is monotony and overtraining.

Here is a sample trainig log to show how RPE can be used. Each workout in the log is marked with RPE and the duration. Duration is multiplied by RPE to get the training load for a given session. The training load is summed up for each week. Bar chart shows how the training load varies with each week from hard to easy.

Sample Training Log with RPE (click to zoom)

Please check this video from Coach Ron George to understand more about how RPE can be used to manage training load

Benefits of using RPE scale:

  • Perceived exertion is directly proportionate to runner’s anaerobic respiration and how heart rate functions, and also brings other subjective factors that affects stress
  • It is highly personalized and enables us to improve pace awareness while training, and helps in recovery
  • Helps build awareness of “Overreaching” and “Overtraining”. Difference between overtraining and overreaching is the amount of time needed to restore performance. It is possible to recover from “overreaching” in 2 weeks but relatively difficult to recover from over training even after 2 months

Compiled by Team GeeksOnFeet for the love of running

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