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.

Brock Armstrong
Episode #359

Is the Borg Scale Accurate?

Back in 1973, the American College of Sports Medicine did a study titled The validity and reliability of a rating scale of perceived exertion where they used Borg Rating Scale.

They took eight lean and eight obese subjects and tested whether they could perceive small differences in work intensity even when the workloads were presented in a random order. The results were compared with the results they had obtained during an earlier progressive exercise test (that you may remember from a past episode about fitness tests). They tested each subject twice and the testing order of the two protocols and also the order of workloads used during the random test were assigned using a Latin square design. In the end, there were no significant differences in any of the physiological and perceptual variables between the two types of test protocols. Coefficients of reliability for both procedures were high.

In 2013, there was a cohort study done in the European Journal of Applied Physiology called Associations between Borg’s rating of perceived exertion and physiological measures of exercise intensity where they evaluated the association between Borg’s RPE and physiological exercise parameters in a very large population.

2,560 Caucasian men and women between 17 and 44 years old completed incremental exercise tests on treadmills or stationary bikes. Their heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) were all simultaneously measured. Rating of perceived exertion was strongly correlated with heart rate and blood lactate. They concluded that “Borg’s RPE seems to be an affordable, practical and valid tool for monitoring and prescribing exercise intensity, independent of gender, age, exercise modality, physical activity level and Coronary Artery Disease status.”

As you can see, the correlation of performance versus perceived exertion during physical activity has been and continues to be an area of considerable scientific interest. The idea that although exertion is unique to every individual, it can still be used as a subjective estimate of the work intensity across a variety of populations is an important one. The intensity at which we all exercise is important because of risks of things like musculoskeletal injuries or potential disorders arising from mismatching an athlete’s capability and the physical demands of their workout. Like I always say, we need to avoid the “too much, too soon” issue at all costs and monitoring your RPE is a helpful tool to have in your injury proof toolkit.

How To Use the RPE Scale

Starting tomorrow, when you exercise, instead of staring at your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or Garmin, you need to start rating your own exertion. You can rate it in your head if you like, you don’t need to write it down or do anything fancy. After all, this needs to become automatic and ingrained if it is going to work. This feeling of exertion should combine all sensations of physical stress, effort, and fatigue including how hard it is to breathe, how much your muscles are burning, how badly you want to stop the workout, how in control you feel of your body, and even changes in your vision and hearing.

Once you have spent some time thinking about that and becoming more aware of how your body feels at different levels of exertion, you need to determine how your RPE scores line up with a particular training pace or workout type. For new runners this may take some time, but for you experienced runners out there here is an estimate of some common workouts and their Borg score rating.

  • Recovery run = 7 to 8
  • Long Slow Distance run = 9 to 12
  • Tempo Run (Half to Marathon race pace) = 13 to 14
  • Threshold Run (10K to 10 Mile race pace) = 15 to 16
  • VO2 max (3K to 5K race pace) = 17-18
  • Max effort (1 Mile to 3K race pace) = 19-20

So, when you start applying this scale to your running, a comfortable run should feel like a nine or 10. A run where you just let yourself go at a “comfortably uncomfortable” pace might be more like a 15 or 16. Then an 800m interval or a hill repeat would be more like a 17 or 18.

The last 400m loop of a track, when your legs are turning to jelly and your lungs are on fire. Yeah, that’s a rating of 20.

What about 20, you ask? Well, picture the final kilometre of a 10K race where you have been truly giving it your all. Or perhaps the last 400m loop of a track, when your legs are turning to jelly and your lungs are on fire. Yeah, that’s a 20.

Why Do I Need This?

Have you ever arrived at the start line of a race and realized you forgot your activity tracker at home? Or  perhaps you have it but the battery is at 1%? Maybe you want to do a quality workout while you are on a vacation or on a business trip and you don’t have any of your tech with you. Or you are at the gym and you know from a previous Get-Fit Guy exposé that gym treadmills, rowing machines, elliptical trainers and step machines are notoriously poorly calibrated. Or perhaps, you just don’t want to (or are unable to) shell out the dough for yet another piece of gear. Isn’t it good to know that your own internal heart rate monitor and GPS are functioning just as well as that $500 watch you were nearly pressured into buying?

If you are someone who has been coached by me at Skywalker Fitness, you will know that I generally give my client athletes a “nature workout” at least every two weeks. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Sometimes we are so hung up on hitting our paces, numbers, steps, or heart rates that we forget to enjoy the fact that we are out in the sunshine, rain, snow or whatever.

  1. It is really good for your nervous system to unplug occasionally. This goes double for us wired fitness folks.

As Emmy-award winning chief medical correspondent for CNN and practicing neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta told Oprah: “Sometimes it's better to ignore the stats and listen to your body instead. You'll probably feel calmer if you just give yourself a chance to unplug.” I couldn’t agree more.

For more info on exertion, tips on heart rate, and to join the fitness conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy. Also don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, StitcherSpotify, Google Play or via RSS.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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