How to Use Rate of Perceived Exertion For Cycling Training

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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How to Use Rate of Perceived Exertion For Cycling Training

How hard was your training yesterday? What about your training this month versus last month? Many cyclists look at their mileage or their power data to explain how hard their training is, but both training-metrics can fail to express how hard you are truly training.

HOW FAR DID YOU RIDE?

Distance is a common way to express how hard you are training in many endurance sports, but if you are riding in a hilly area during a heat wave on a mountain bike, then you can see how it is very different than a flat ride on smooth pavement in fall temperatures on a road bike. Further, a 100-mile ride for a pro is not the same as it is for a beginner, so to really understand how hard a ride is, you need to pay attention to a different metric like rate of perceived exertion. Many factors go into figuring out how an athlete feels during a training session, including stress, sleep and recovery.

HOW HARD WAS THAT RIDE?

With all of the external sources of data athletes have, including power meters, GPS and other smart devices, it can be tempting to outsource and fail to develop feeling. It takes work to use feeling instead of data, but by reflecting on how hard a ride was, you can better understand your training and, ultimately, your results. By assessing if you can hit a higher sRPE in your interval workout, you can decide if you need more recovery or additional work to push the rating higher and achieve the goals of your training plan. Similarly, if each ride you do is a middle sRPE (e.g., 5/10), then you might discover a likely reason you are often tired and feel slow in interval workouts, why any injury popped up or why you are feeling fresh after a planned big week of training that ended up flatter, cooler or during a low period of life-stress.

HOW MANY INTERVALS DID YOU DO?

How hard or how beneficial a session is isn’t always directly tied to doing more intervals or riding harder for longer. In one study of different high-intensity interval sets done at the best pace where the workouts could be completed, the shortest set of intervals (4 x 4 min) consistently resulted in higher session RPE versus a longer set (4 x 16-minute intervals). So, the total hard work time was significantly less but the sRPE was higher, since the intensity (power) is greater and it requires so much more effort to maintain than the longer and relatively less-intense 16-minute efforts. You have likely experienced this concept after doing a short but very hard group ride or race and being very tired for days, but then being completely fine the day after a multi-hour, low-intensity ride or a moderate set of intervals.

CALCULATE SESSION RPE (SRPE)

The study mentioned above used the following method to assess a given workout’s sRPE: “Thirty minutes after every training session, each athlete recorded their rating of perceived exertion for the entire session […]. In short, this method was designed to provide a measure of the global perception of the intensity, or physical stress, of an entire training session.”

Those rides, where you collapse at the finish line or require the rest of the day on the couch, might be a 10. But many hard workouts are likely 6–9 given that you can go to work and function off the bike the rest of the day. Many endurance rides are in the 1–4 range, which is often a hard rating for athletes to give as they don’t want it to look like they did nothing, but this is the essence of polarized training — keeping your easy days easy and your hard days hard.

This is a sample training week, where you multiply time (in minutes) by the perceived exertion to get the total load for the week.

Your week might look like below:
Monday: 60-minute easy spin/RPE 1/10 = 60
Tuesday: 90-minutes hard intervals or group/RPE 6/10 = 540
Wednesday: 90-minute endurance/RPE 4/10 = 360
Thursday: 60-minute easy ride/RPE 2/10 = 120
Friday: Rest-0/10 = 0
Saturday: 180-minute hard group ride/RPE 6/10 = 1,080
Sunday: 180-minutes long ride/RPE 4/10 = 720
Week Total Load: 2,880

The above week had a total load of 2,880, so next week plan to either progress, maintain or decrease the training load and then assess how you did. If you find you missed your intended load progression, you might adjust the next week or make the weekend rides more challenging to adjust your loading.

THE BOTTOM LINE

RPE is a cheap, portable measure that’s not reliant on technology, and because it incorporates so many factors that affect training quality and outcomes, it is an essential metric to incorporate in your cycling practice.

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.

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