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How to Use an RPE Scale and Unplug Your Workout

Do you really need a heart rate monitor to tell you how hard you're working? It turns out you probably already innately know, and that's where the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale comes in.

By
Brock Armstrong,
October 17, 2017
Episode #359

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Photo of a woman recovering for a high exertion workout

Back in the 1980s, when we would put on our short shorts, knee-high sports socks, head and wristbands, and go out for a jog, we didn’t have an activity tracker on our phone, a GPS on our wrist, or a heart rate monitor in our hat. We would simply go out for an easy, moderate, or hard run. I know! I'm stunned as well. How on earth did we ever manage to qualify for the Olympics or the Boston Marathon if we didn’t know our splits (a run workouts’ total time divided into smaller parts ), our current pace, or our heart rate zone? Well, unless you were fancy enough to have a coach with a stopwatch, you used Perceived Exertion (PE).

What is Perceived Exertion?

Perceived Exertion is simply how hard you feel that your body is working at any given point during a workout.

Perceived Exertion is simply how hard you feel that your body is working at any given point during a workout. This includes things like heart rate, respiration, sweating, muscle fatigue, and much more. You know, all the delightful physical sensations that we experience during a workout. Using these factors to determine the amount of exertion you feel is a good estimate of your measurable variables such as heart rate (how many times your heart beats per minute) and lactate threshold (at what level of exertion your body manufactures lactic acids faster than it can flush it).

Can Perceived Exertion Be Quantified?

I know what you are probably thinking: "That is fine if you aren’t that serious but for my training program, I need the accuracy of a watch that can measure down to the square meter." Well, I am here to tell you that you probably don’t. Your own sense of your exertion is nearly as accurate as using the latest tech. The trick is to have a scale to judge it by. That is where Swedish researcher Gunnar Borg comes in.

The Borg Scale

Dr. Gunnar Borg invented what he called the Borg Scale which matches how hard you feel you are working with numbers between six and 20. Yes, I know it seems weird to start at six but I will explain that later.

The scale begins at “no feeling of exertion” (which is equal to six) and tops out at “very, very hard” (which is equal to 20). Pretty simple, right? The moderate activities fall between “fairly light” (or 11) to “somewhat hard” (or 14) on the scale. More vigorous activities equal 15 or higher which is labeled as “hard,” “very hard,” or “very, very hard.”

Now, back to the number six thing. This is the cool part. Dr. Borg set the scale to start at six because, if used correctly, the scale would become an easy way to estimate heart rate. If you multiply your Borg score by ten, it gives you an approximate heart rate for a particular level of activity. As crazy as that sounds, it has been tested time and again and proven to be not only useful but also very accurate.

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