If you want to improve your performance as a runner, you need both easy runs and hard workouts in your training. In order to do those well, you need to be able to gauge your intensity and distinguish between hard, easy, and moderate efforts. Training paces have their place, but numerous factors can affect pace: weather, stress, sleep, terrain, training fatigue, etc. Heart rate may work for some runners, but it requires field tests and appropriate equipment to be accurate. One other reliable method for gauging intensity is rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE scale) which uses a scale to assess different intensities.
The rate of perceived exertion scale is versatile. You can use it for trails, track, or road running. RPE automatically adjusts for hills or flat terrain. You can use it alone or in conjunction with pace and/or heart rate. It allows you to adjust for any conditions while keeping each workout true to its purpose. In short, the RPE scale is a valuable skill for all runners to learn.
What is the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale?
The Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE) is a 1-10 scale used to determine intensity during a run. RPE allows you to judge the appropriate training intensity of workouts and ensure you are training in the appropriate easy/moderate/hard zone. Unlike pace, RPE automatically accounts for changes in terrain, weather, and training fatigue. Unlike HR, you do not need extra tech or field tests to calibrate the appropriate zones.
The RPE scale is only one of various intensity scales. Another common one is the Borg Scale, which uses a scale of 6-20. The 6-20 scale allows more nuance. The Borg Scale theoretically correlates the perceived exertion with heart rate and various accumulations of blood lactate, as evidenced in this 2013 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
Should you use the 1-10 or 6-20 scale? Ultimately, it’s up to your preference. I use a 1-10 scale since then it’s easy to translate to a percentage of maximum effort (i.e., 8-9 out of 10 is an 80-90% max effort).
How to Use the RPE Scale
The RPE scale is based on how hard you are perceiving your intensity – not necessarily on how you feel. It’s a fine nuance but an important one for runners to grasp. An easy run may feel like a slog, but it should still have a relatively low perceived exertion. Likewise, you may feel awesome on a set of intervals and cruise along smoothly, but just because the workout clicks doesn’t mean it’s “easy” intensity.
The RPE scale does require some calibration. It requires awareness, practice, and reference points to understand how to gauge easy, moderate, and hard intensity. It may feel confusing or challenging at first. A helpful way to think of it can be to consider the endpoints of what is 1 and what is 10. Then, assess where you currently fall in between those reference points.
The RPE scale will take practice. Like any skill, it requires practice to learn. Do not expect perfection of yourself the first time using it. Do a variety of running workouts in your training to practice gauging your RPE. With time, you will find it easier to appropriately gauge your perceived exertion on runs.
Additionally, the RPE scale may not apply to a novice runner. When you start running, your exertion may be higher than it would for a trained runner. With time, adaptations will occur, and you will be able to divide your training into easy, moderate, and hard runs. Until then, focus on finishing your runs with something left in the tank and use run-walk intervals to control your intensity.
The Advantages of the RPE Scale for Running
The RPE scale can be used in virtually any situation of running. Once you learn how to use it, you can effortlessly adapt to any conditions, terrain, or workout. Particular situations where RPE is highly useful include:
- Trail running: Pace will wildly vary on trails. Your pace can often be different on the same trail due to mud, downed trees, etc. RPE allows you to gauge intensity on the trails and adapt for any type of terrain or elevation.
- Summer running: The heat and humidity will slow down your velocity at any given effort. Trying to hit your normal training paces can lead to non-functional overreaching in summer. Using RPE allows you to train at the same intensity in summer, no matter how high the temperature.
- During an intense training block: Ever notice that your easy runs are slower during the peak weeks of marathon training? According to the supercompensation theory, fitness temporarily drops below baseline when fatigue is high after the deliberate application of a training stimulus. Once you recover (taper), your fitness returns to higher than your previous baseline. But when you are stacking runs during peak training, fatigue accumulates more rapidly than you recover. As a result, runs are slower than when you are in less intense training. Focusing on RPE helps keep each run true to its purpose.
Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale for Runners
Many coaches have slightly different nuances in their RPE scale. I like to frame mine within endpoints that most runners know: walking and a finish line sprint. Most long-distance run training occurs between 3-8.5 RPE.
Think of the increases as a log scale, not linear. The closer you get to maximum effort, the exponentially harder it becomes to increase your effort. The difference between 8-9 RPE is greater than the difference between 3-4 RPE.
- Very light jog effort, such as recovery between intervals
- Controlled, easy run
- Near the end of an easy run
- Truly moderate
- Moderately hard
- What you could sustain for an hour if racing
- Hard yet smooth; think of many interval workouts as 85% effort
- End of an interval workout or final mile of race
- Sprinting at maximal speed
RPE Scale for Common Training Paces
There are typical training paces used by most runners, including easy pace, threshold pace, and interval paces. This guide can help place where they fall in the RPE scale. Many paces will start on the lower end and increase slightly in effort throughout the workout.
- Recovery jog: 2 RPE
- Easy: 3-4 RPE
- Marathon Pace: 5 RPE
- Half Marathon: 6 RPE
- Threshold (10K-15K): 6-7 RPE
- Cruise intervals (8K-10K): 7-7.5 RPE
- Hard intervals (3K-5K effort): 8-8.5 RPE, up to 9 at the end of a workout
Troubleshooting Common Problems with RPE
I frequently start too fast, despite it feeling easy at the time. How do I avoid this?
For any run, whether it’s a hard workout or an easy run, ease into the run. Aim to start on the lower end of RPE or, if you start out too fast consistently, aim for lower. An example of this is aiming for an RPE 2 for the first mile of an easy run (RPE 3-4).
How do I relax into a run, no matter the RPE?
Whether you are running an RPE 3 or 9, you want to run smoothly and efficiently. Holding too much tension or having sloppy running form is counterproductive. To relax into a run at any intensity, focus on releasing extra tension. Every mile or every interval, scan your body and release tension in the jaw, shoulders, hands, and anywhere else. Counting your breaths can also encourage relaxation. Common breathing patterns are 3:3 for easy, 2:2 for moderate, and 1:1 for hard.
How do I ignore my watch and run using RPE?
Most GPS watches allow you to adjust the display settings. Set your watch to show you time and distance, but not pace. (If you are good at mental math, choose just one of these). Practice running various types of workouts without the pace displayed on your watch.
How do I use RPE when fatigue or my menstrual cycle makes anything feel hard?
Work on framing your RPE scale as separate from how you feel (terrible to great scale). Even when you feel crummy, you can work through easy, moderate, and hard intensities. The corresponding paces may just be slower and that’s okay! Focus on the intensity, not the pace. If the run feels hard no matter how slow, it may be worth taking an extra rest day instead.