This is my summer of #slowrunning. I’m not training for anything. I’m focusing more on enjoying my runs and observing my surroundings. Because of where I live, local running routes are, for the most part, super hilly.
Factoring in the hill routes, my low-key running mood and the general angst surrounding living in the midst of a pandemic, my traditional measures for runs are irrelevant.
Pace? I’m running hundreds of feet of elevation in only a few miles, my pace is best described as glacial.
Distance? I’m not preparing for a race, so I never need to ensure I can run any particular number of miles.
While my race-less, #slowrunning summer means I don’t have to track and pour over my run stats, I’m still a record keeper and note taker by nature.
I want something to keep track of. Something to write down, so I know how each run fits into the bigger picture of my fitness.
After thinking through my options, I settled on tracking my rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for each run.
What is Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
The rate of perceived exertion is used to measure the intensity of your exercise.
In short, it’s how hard a run feels.
RPE is a subjective assessment of how physically and mentally difficult an exercise is for you.
Your run’s RPE will take into consideration not only your pace and the geography of your route, but also external factors like the weather and ‘fuzzier’ factors like your diet, how well you slept, and how distracted you are on the run.
After all, those external and fuzzier factors have just as big of impact on your run as anything else.
Running the same route, at the same pace, on a beautiful spring day when you are totally focused on the run at hand will feel entirely different from that same course at the same pace on a hot, humid summer day when you haven’t been sleeping well and you are worried about an upcoming work deadline.
I’ve found using RPE is particularly well-suited for our current times when there are lots of distractions and stresses, many of which you may not be consciously aware of as you set out for a run.
Things to Know When Using RPE
RPE isn’t as straight-forward as pace or distance. A few things to note.
It Rarely (if ever) Directly Relates To Pace
For me, walking a super hilly route (likely at around 15ish minute miles) will be a similar RPE to sprinting on a flat track (a 7ish minute mile).
RPE can be a good tool for runners who tend to focus on (or obsess over) pace. Being too focused on pace can make runners ignore what their bodies are saying. Pace-obsessed runners can push too hard on some days (if the weather is nasty, or if work stresses are high, for example). But they can also hold themselves back on days when everything is firing on all-cylinders and everything feels easy.
RPE is a good reminder that not all factors impacting your run can be found in a Garmin data field.
RPE Will Vary
Every run starts off with a blank slate.
There is no way to know in advance how hard a run is going to feel.
RPE factors in so many things that no two runs will ever feel exactly the same (from an RPE POV), even if the run stats match on paper.
You Need To Know Thyself and It’s Entirely Subjective
This is either the best part, or the worst part, of using RPE, depending on who you are: RPE is entirely subjective and you need to be in touch with your body.
For RPE to work, you need to listen to your body and your mind. You need to ask yourself (and answer honestly): ‘how do I feel right now?’
It’s always hard to be honest with self-judgements.
It can be an ego blow when you realize that walking (very slowly) up a steep hill feels like death. I often find myself saying: “I know I’m fitter than this!” puffing up a hill during my recent neighborhood outings.
And for runners who have only ever used pace as a run measure, it’s hard to break the habit of thinking of a particular pace as your ‘hard run’ or ‘easy run’ pace.
Rate of Perceived Exertion Scales
There are endless ways to judge and scale RPE.
I’ve never used Strava’s new(ish) Perceived Exertion feature personally, but they use a 10-point scale broken down into four general categories:
- Easy (1-3): Very comfortable
- Moderate (4-6): Within your comfort zone but working
- Hard (7-9): Outside your comfort one
- Max effort (10): At your physical limit or past it
My Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale
For running, I use a 10-point RPE scale that uses a talk test (how easy/comfortable it is to talk to yourself or your running buddies) to gauge effort.
The talk test can take some of the ego out of determining how hard a run is (or was).
- RPE 1: Very light activity; can talk with no effort
- RPE 2-3: Easy; light activity; can talk with almost no effort; could maintain the conversation for hours
- RPE 4: Moderately easy; can talk comfortably with little effort
- RPE 5: Moderate; conversation requires some effort, but could be maintained
- RPE 6: Moderately hard; conversation requires effort and occasional breaks to catch your breath
- RPE 7: Vigorous; conversation requires a lot of effort. Can speak (at most) a sentence at a time
- RPE 8: Very difficult; conversation requires maximum effort. Can speak (at most) a word at a time
- RPE 9–10: Peak effort; no-talking zone
Give RPE a shot on your next run. If you are running alone and don’t like talking to yourself, sing along to your music (or pretend to) as a replacement for the talk test.
Even if it isn’t something you rely on, it can help you get in touch with your body and where you are with your fitness.