Have you heard of the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) chart but not sure how it’s used or whether it is useful for your running workouts?
Here’s my mega-guide to explaining what RPE is, why every runner should be familiar with it, and how to use it for creating workout routines.
The topic of RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion, has a special place in my heart – it’s one I think every runner can benefit from being familar with.
Grading the intensity of your runs on a 1-10 scale gives you a universal language that you can use for measuring your training or progress, without having to get deep into data or compensate for variables like weather, tiredness, variance in your route, your running shoes . . . the list goes on!
It also stops you from being too prescriptive in the pace you’re running; some days will be better or worse than others, and constantly trying to hit the same time or speed is often counterproductive.
Using RPE as your guide helps you detach the effort of your workout from the outcome – rather than getting wrapped up in your 10k time or beating a particular Strava segment, RPE has a focus on the exercise rather than the result.
In this article which I put together with Sarah from The Fit Cookie, I’ll show you how to use the RPE method of measuring workout intensity (rate of perceived exertion or RPE) and how you can use it for running and workouts.
What is Rate of Perceived Exertion (What Is RPE)?
Rate of Perceived Exertion (often shortened to RPE) is a simple tool that can help you tune into your body more and still reach your fitness and running goals.
At its simplest, RPE is a scale of 1 to 10, measuring the intensity of your effort – 1 being extremely light activity like a slow stroll, 10 being an all-out sprint which you can only maintain for a few seconds.
(There are a variety of scales and ways to measure RPE, which we’ll get into – but generally these days a scale of 1-10 is regarded as the simplest and also the most widely used.)
Depending on which scale you use, you can even use it to estimate your heart rate during exercise without the need for a heart rate monitor.
Here’s our RPE chart, feel free to grab it, print it, pin it, refer to it wherever you need to:
The Benefits of Using RPE
Using RPE is a great way to keep tabs on the intensity of your workouts and stay in tune with your body without relying on technology or tracking your metrics too closely.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for adopting RPE is recognizing that no two runs are identical: a myriad of factors affect the amount of effort required for a workout, both external and internal – both physical and physiological factors affect RPE.
These can include:
- Weather (especially wind and temperature),
- The terrain (a 6 minute mile on trails takes more effort than the same distance on road),
- Running Shoes (springy vs minimal support)
- Level of tiredness (more tired = harder effort),
- Whether you’ve eaten recently (fuel vs running on empty),
- Willpower / motivation (recent studies have shown this can significantly affect your performance).
When you begin to consider all the varying factors, it makes less and less sense to compare your performance based purely on speed, distance, or time.
For example: if you are scheduled for a 4-mile moderate run, and you had a stressful week and lack of sleep, your moderate-intensity run might be at a slower pace than during a previous week where you’re feeling better.
Your intensity level feels the same, but your pace might be slower, which is perfectly okay! If your body is feeling run down and in need of rest, it is important to listen to your body.
That’s why RPE is such a powerful tool: it prioritizes how you feel, your effort, and doing the workout over the result.
Running based on RPE is an excellent tool for beginner and experienced runners alike, although beginners should spend some time familiarizing themselves with the scale and practicing their runs at different efforts in order to get used to the feel of RPE.
Another reason I love running based on RPE is that I’m no longer looking at my GPS watch every 30 seconds to check I’m on-track: instead I’m listening to my body and checking the intensity.
Using RPE is also great for tuning in and listening to your body better. Using RPE to set your workout intensity can be friendlier to your body instead of adhering to specified heart rate zones or paces.
Your workouts should be flexible to your body’s needs. During your run, you can stick to your desired RPE intensity instead of pushing for certain times or paces.
RPE vs. HRZ Training (the differences between RPE and HRZ)
RPE has a close cousin in the activity metrics world: heart rate. Heart Rate Zone (HRZ) training involves calibrating the athlete’s heart rate at various exertion levels and defining a variety of training zones: the athlete then uses a HR monitor device to track their heart rate during workouts.
HRZ training shares many of the advantages of RPE training, in that it accounts for many of the external and internal factors that are listed above: an athlete’s heart rate generally correlates quite well with their RPE.
While HRZ training is arguably easier to quantify, measure, and document than RPE, it is not without its limitations.
HRZ Training Doesn’t Work For De-conditioned Athletes
Deconditioned athletes typically have a higher resting / starting heart rate, and their heart rate climbs faster and more intensely than that of a condition athlete; this HR surging often does not correspond to the deconditioned athlete’s RPE.
They feel they are performing a medium-intensity activity whereas their heart rate data would suggest they are going at high intensity. The more conditioned the athlete, the closer the correlation between HR and RPE typically is.
HRZ Training Has Issues With Hot Weather and Cardiac Drift
Secondly, even conditioned athletes can find their heart rates drifting higher than their predetermined HRZs tell them it should be at – due to either running in the heat, or a phenomenon known as cardiac drift, which occurs during prolonged endurance activity.
These inherent limitations of HRZ training (deconditioned athletes, heat, and cardiac drift) are not faced when training based on RPE.
3. HRZ Requires a Gadget
Training to heart rate zones requires a GPS watch with a HR monitor, simple as.
One of the benefits of running by RPE is that you don’t even need to use a GPS watch (although I still recommend running with one in order to log your actual performance); but you don’t need to rely on the output of a device (which can often be a bit wonky, especially ones with wrist-based HR monitors).
4. Your Heart Rate Is Affected By External Factors Too
Did you know that your heart rate is elevated by lack of sleep, stress, caffeine, warm temperatures, and dehydration?
In that way, HR is similar to RPE – factors that wear you out will make your running tougher.
Your HR can also be affected by medication.
Rate of Perceived Exertion scales are also excellent tools for people using beta-blocker medications. Certain beta-blockers reduce the heart rate response to exercise, so rather than relying on measuring heart rate, people on certain beta blockers are encouraged to measure their exercise with an RPE scale.
Types of RPE scales
There are 2 standardized RPE scales: the classic 15-point Borg RPE scale (6-20 scale) and the revised Borg scale (or Category Ratio Scale, 1-10 scale).
We favor the 1-10 scale, but first lets discuss the original RPE scale : the Borg RPE scale.
The original Borg 15-point scale is a bit more difficult to use than the classic ratio 0-10 scale. The original Borg scale starts at 6, where 6 is no activity or complete rest (like sitting on the couch).
The original Borg RPE scale begins at a 6 since it was designed to correspond with average heart rates.
- Borg score 6 corresponds to a heart rate (HR) of 60 beats per minute (BPM).
- Borg score 12 corresponds to a HR of 120 BPM
- Borg score 20 corresponds to a HR of 200 BPM
So whatever your RPE number is on the classic Borg scale, add a 0 to the end of that number and you have an estimate of your heart rate during that activity.
Since these are estimates, you can create your own heart rate notes on the RPE chart or scale by measuring your RPE while wearing a heart rate monitor.
The other popular RPE Scale, the classic ratio 1-10 scale, detaches RPE from Heart Rate altogether.
So, why do we favor the 1-10 scale?
Borg RPE Scale vs. Classic Ratio 1-10 RPE Scale
The Borg scale is the original Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale, and was developed to allow athletes to grade their PE from a scale of 6-20. While this scale helps peg effort to heart rate, there are a couple of reasons it’s not so widely used these days:
i) Asking an athlete to grade their effort on a 15-point scale is probably too many data points. While you’re running, how do you discern between running at a 14 or a 15 out of 20?
ii) The 15-point scale is tied to heart rates; as we’ve seen, heart rate zones vary widely from runner to runner depending on a multitude of factors, and we’re often drawn to RPE in order to not be reliant on HR data.
For these reasons, many coaches and runners now use a modified RPE scale of 1-10 over the Borg scale.
It’s much easier to ask someone “on a scale of 1 to 10, how hard are you pushing right now?“.
Less data points and a more intuitive range (1 to 10, not 6 to 20) make it an easier system for athletes to become conversant in.
How to use a Rate of Perceived Exertion chart
We created an RPE chart you can use that combines the Borg 15-point scale, the category ratio scale, and examples of activities for
The activity examples in this chart are just estimates and examples and may not be reflective of every person’s training or activities with respect to their RPE. Especially depending on a person’s level of conditioning (which we explain a bit further down in the post).
Using RPE for running and fitness and setting RPE targets
When creating your workout or training plans using the rate of perceived exertion, you’ll need to establish a few things:
- Your fitness level: beginning exercisers will want to start at lower RPEs during workouts than conditioned exercisers. Stick with lower RPE workouts at first as you build your endurance/cardiovascular base.
- Your goals: if you are building endurance for long-distance runs, more of your workouts will be spent in the lower RPE ranges (easier endurance runs). If you’re training for speed or short-distance sprinting, you’ll likely have a few more high RPE sessions in your schedule.
Good running plans already have RPE built into them alongside paces/times that are designed for the runner and based on their recent running times.
For example, long runs are should feel pretty easy on the RPE scale, tempo runs should feel moderate to hard, sprints should feel very hard, etc. So if a runner doesn’t want to worry about trying to track their pace, they can still stick to an effective running plan by paying attention to their RPE.
Here is an example of a weekly routine based on RPE:
- Sunday: rest day or yoga, RPE 0-2
- Monday: 4 mile tempo run, RPE 6
- Tuesday: cross training/strength training, RPE 4-5
- Wednesday: 5 mile easy run, RPE 4, last mile strides, RPE 9
- Thursday: cross training/strength training, RPE 4-5
- Friday: yoga, RPE 3
- Saturday: 10 mile easy long run, RPE 3-4
How To Use RPE For Marathon Training
- Regular training runs should be done at 4-5 RPE
- Long runs should be done at 2-3 RPE
- Any speed work (like interval training) should be done at 8-10 RPE (fast intervals), then 1-2 RPE (recovery)
- Cross-training activities will vary depending on their nature: make sure you don’t do any high RPE activities following a high RPE running workout. Allow for peaks and troughs, and listen to your body.
Drawbacks to RPE
There aren’t that many drawbacks to using RPE for workouts and they are great for most people to help them gauge the intensity of their own workouts without monitoring equipment.
However, there are a few things to consider when using an RPE scale and when using RPE might not be effective:
- Very deconditioned and sedentary people may not be able to use an RPE chart very well initially since even very light activity can feel difficult. Once they begin to improve their exercise tolerance over time, they can use an RPE chart more effectively.
- RPE is subjective, so it can be swayed by mood, perceptions about exercise, etc. In general, men tend to underestimate their exertion and women tend to overestimate their exertion.
- Sometimes conditioned or fit people underestimate their perceived exertion if they are focusing on the workload of the muscles rather than on cardiovascular effort.