One of the classic tools used in training athletes is the rate of perceived exertion (RPE from here on), which is a qualitative measure for coaches and athletes to use both to describe pace and to assess training status. Some scales go 1 to 10, some 1 to 20. It’s not a tool that we’ve used extensively at the high school level with our girls because they don’t have enough experience to know what the difference between a 12 and an 18 is, but we certainly approximate it when we describe tempo as “comfortably hard.”
As an athlete myself, I often struggle with what different intensities mean. Comfortably hard, for example, is somewhat close to “the pace you could run for an hour but no more.” Not actually that helpful.
The researchers attempted to give a little more substance to the intensity scale and evaluate how well athletes did at accurately assessing their training intensities. They used RPE, blood lactate testing and a heart rate monitor to collect data. The sample size was very small and subjects were all collegiate runners.
What they found was that in general, the athletes did a good job of assessing their training intensities and that their perceived exertion was corroborated by the physiological data collected. However, they did note that athletes were most likely to be off at recovery paces; athletes reported a low RPE, but blood lactate levels were inconsistent, indicating that the athletes were working too hard during recovery.
This finding likely resonates with many of us. As runners, we are inclined to go faster, to go longer. Learning to do recovery runs at the appropriate pace and swallow ego, trust training etc is really difficult for runners of all ages. I’ve mastered it by wearing a heart rate monitor and reciting the mantra, “even Ryan Hall runs 9 minute miles.” We’ve approximated it with the girls through our jokingly named “bro pace runs.” Even so, I regularly see my younger runners doing recovery days way too fast as they try to improve faster.
Takeaway: RPE is an effective means to assess intensity as an athlete and coach. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that recovery paces are appropriately easy.