How to Use RPE for Cycling Training

RPE (rate of perceived exertion) is a well known quantification of exercise effort. First introduced by Gunnar Borg in 1970, RPE was determined on a 6-20 scale with 6 being ‘no effort at all’ and 20 being maximal exertion. In cycling, we have other technologies to quantify intensity. Heart rate and power meters can tell us our training zone and/or quantify the demands of our last group ride. Even so, there is a value to RPE for cycling. Specifically, we can gain insight from comparing our RPE to our other data.

Image of two cyclists. Cycling RPE can quantify their effort in the image.
Photo by Boris Stefanik

RPE Basics For Cycling

Although researchers and coaches still use the original 6-20 scale, Borg later introduced an easier to use 1-10 scale for exertion. For an athlete, a 1-10 scale is more approachable than the abstract 6-20. Comparing the 1-10 scale to expected training zones, we should see something like this:

1 – Recovery (Zone 1) or lighter
2 – Bottom of Zone 2
3 – Middle of Zone 2
4 – Top of Zone 2 and bottom of Zone 3
5 – Middle of Zone 3
6 – Top of Zone 3 and sweet spot (bottom of Zone 4)
7 – Zone 4 (Threshold)
8 – Zone 5 (VO2max effort)
9 – Zone 6 (anaerobic capacity: 60-90 seconds full gas)
10 – Zone 7 (all out sprint)

These correlation make sense. A 10, just like a sprint, is as hard as you can possibly go. Recovery is about as light as you can go without falling off, so that’s a 1. An endurance ride is done at 3 because you should be able to hold it for 4-5 hours. Lastly, a threshold effort is hard, but not thaaat hard, so 7 seems like a good fit.

RPE And Power/Heart Rate

Cyclists commonly ask: “why do I need RPE if I have a power meter? Don’t I know what zone I’m in?” These same cyclists tend to ask why they need a heart rate monitor if they have a power meter. The answer to both these questions is the same: there is value in comparing the values from the variety of data acquisition platforms.

We expect our RPE to match up to our training zone as described above, but it doesn’t always. If you didn’t eat for 24 hours leading up to a ride, is threshold going to feel like a 7 or is it going to feel like a 9? Same with dehydration, heat stress, caffeine deprivation, etc.

Garcin et al. noted this phenomenon in a research paper on perceived effort. Specifically, they noted “RPE was a subjective estimation of the hardness of exercise rather than the intensity of exercise.”

Using RPE in Your Cycling Workouts

RPE’s value to cycling is the ability to compare cold hard wattage data from your power meter to the perceived difficulty of the exercise. It’s even in the name: rate of perceived effort. As an athlete or coach, comparing the produced power to the effort experienced gives valuable information.

If the RPE was higher than expected for a given workout, maybe the athlete didn’t sleep enough the night before or their hydration was off. Furthermore, maybe check the temperature and humidity on that given day.

At the same time, if their RPE was lower than expected for a given workout, the athlete may be developing and improving. If the RPE was way lower than expected, perhaps their threshold is not set correctly, or the workout difficulty is too low.

Athletes should record their RPE after every workout for data acquisition and recording purposes. Once the athlete does a workout 3-5 times, you can go back and compare the recorded RPE. Theoretically, the RPE should be dropping slowly, maybe by 0.5 points, but enough to notice that the athlete can handle the training stress better than before.

As with all data acquisition: start today! Get in the habit of recording your RPE after every ride and you’ll thank yourself in the future with the treasure trove of data you accumulated.

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