Is Perceived Exertion the Most Important Metric?

Knowing how a race or workout feels—aka RPE—is an extremely important sense for endurance athletes. With the help of top cycling coaches, athletes, and researchers, we explore why RPE may be more important than power, heart rate, and other metrics.

Blurred cyclists
Photo: Marcus Spiske on Unsplash

There are many ways to measure intensity. This is an episode about the one that is often forgotten: RPE.

Perceived exertion is a standardized way to classify a subjective feeling. We’ve touched upon RPE in many episodes, often referring to the fact that top pros all know “the feel.”

RPE is more important than power or heart rate.

In this episode, we argue that the metric of feeling—perceived exertion, RPE, sensations, whatever you call it—is in many ways the most important metric. Yes, we’re arguing that it is even more important than power and heart rate.

We set the stage by defining RPE. Next we lay out our argument for why RPE may be the most important metric—whether in the training or racing context.

Then we turn our attention to ways to learn how to understand or interpret feelings to determine RPE. It’s not an easy task, but there are certain steps you can take to hone your sense of, well, sense.

Finally, we discuss the best ways to use RPE, from the ability to assess where you’re at to knowing what efforts of a given length “feel like” so that you can then use that to pace in races; from adjusting power and HR in training to how the sRPE scale can be used to integrate off-the-bike workouts into overall training load.

Since this is a summary episode, we pulled from previous episodes to hear from a host of the most prominent coaches, athletes, and researchers, including: Jeff Winkler, Joe Friel, Kristen Legan, Amos Brumble, Dirk Friel, Kristin Armstrong, Ned Overend, Dr. Stephen Seiler, Kate Courtney, Svein Tuft, and Julie Young.

References

  • Agnol, C. D., Turnes, T., & Lucas, R. D. D. (2021). Time Spent Near V˙O2max During Different Cycling Self-Paced Interval Training Protocols. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 16(9), 1347–1353. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2020-0314
  • Halperin, I., & Emanuel, A. (2020). Rating of Perceived Effort: Methodological Concerns and Future Directions. Sports Medicine, 50(4), 679–687. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01229-z
  • Meckel, Y., Zach, S., Eliakim, A., & Sindiani, M. (2018). The interval-training paradox: Physiological responses vs. subjective rate of perceived exertion. Physiology & Behavior, 196, 144–149. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.08.013
  • Scherr, J., Wolfarth, B., Christle, J. W., Pressler, A., Wagenpfeil, S., & Halle, M. (2013). Associations between Borg’s rating of perceived exertion and physiological measures of exercise intensity. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(1), 147–155. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-012-2421-x

Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Episode Transcript

Chris Case 00:13
Hey everyone welcome to another episode of Fast Talk your source for the science of endurance performance and today we have a great summary episode. Trevor, I’m really excited about this, as you know, I am a fan of hating on data.

Trevor Connor 00:29
Yes, you are. Going into this episode I was like, Chris should really be the one talking and I should just shut up because this is his thing.

Chris Case 00:42
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Riding On Feel

Chris Case 01:31
We play our characters a little bit on the show, I certainly don’t- I’m not religious in any way about collecting data- and this episode is all about perceived exertion, feeling, using those sensations, and understanding of what your body is going through on a daily basis in a given workout, to inform your training. That’s basically what I’ve been doing forever. But as the title implies, you and Ryan and a lot of other coaches also understand perceived exertion, the RPE scale, or some sense of feeling as an extremely important if not the most important metric.

Trevor Connor 02:18
So that is the question we’re going to get into here. And I’m going to make an assertion a little later in the show about this. But I’ll give you a preview right now, which is I am the data geek, I am that guy that has 10 screens on his Garmin with 10 bits of data each, I love to look at the data, love to get home for my ride and analyze everything. I’m still gonna say if you lose that sense of feel, you can’t train right, you can’t race, right. The data is helpful, but we’re gonna make this case throughout this episode, this is still your most important metric.

Chris Case 02:59
I like to hear you say that. I know we’re going to get there, it makes me think of the fact that maybe some of this learning to ride by feel is lost because people are growing up with so much data around them. And this is from a previous generation, you know, you kind of learned it. But then data came along and tools came along and you had the basis to ride by feeling and then you could apply some of these other metrics to that scenario. And that’s being lost, but we’re gonna get into that I’m jumping ahead already I’m too excited.

Trevor Connor 03:33
Yeah, I’m actually glad you brought that up because this is a summary episode. So we are going to bring in snippets from past episodes, from past guests. You’re kind of referencing Episode 163, where we had Jeff Winkler talk about one of the things we’ve lost from the 80s is that be able to ride on feel. So let’s hear from him.

Jeff Winkler 03:54
I don’t think you can honestly take the position that the advances that have occurred over the last 20 years would have no impact. You certainly could emulate, you could progress, you can overload without the technology and the tools that we have today. It would seem simplistic by comparison, though, and maybe as a form of example, is that now you can rely on a power meter to be very specific in terms of pacing intervals. And that’s linked to the underlying physiological systems and all the purpose and science that’s behind it, that you couldn’t possibly do it in the 80s because there was no power meter. I mean, you did have heart rates so you could use that tool in certain circumstances. But what we did, in reality, was that we achieved a similar thing because we believed at the time in basically the power duration curve without the terms, because you knew okay, well, there’s a maximal effort for one minute. And there’s a maximal effort for two minutes and they aren’t the same from a power perspective. But from a subjective perspective, they are the same, they’re maximal. And so in a way you achieved something similar. You just couldn’t do the nuance that you can do today, which says, well, what if you want to do a sub-maximal effort? Then it was blunt, Right? Your tools were your internal gauge, which of course is a whole nother discussion is when you don’t have the tools to give you the feedback, you were forced to develop your internal gauge, your RPE, your subjective perception of the effort. And I do believe people had a much better tuned- you know, this is making a statement that’s very broad, and there are exceptions,- but people had to tune in to the internal experience more than they have to now.

Chris Case 03:54
Here’s Jeff.

Chris Case 04:05
Well, as we like to do, often, if not always, we want to set the stage here. RPE, the standardized scale has been around for quite a long time. There’s two different versions, at least. Trevor, do you want to give us a bit of an overview of what those standard measures are the Borg scale.

Trevor Connor 06:38
Right. So I’ll give a quick bit of history. But I’m gonna start by saying, if you’re really interested in the science of rate of perceived exertion, this is an actual metric. We have a great video on our website that was done by Dr. Cheung and he goes into RPE, he goes into SRPE, which is session RPE. So when you are just talking about RPE you are saying how hard is it at that moment. Session RPE is a whole assessment of the whole session. And he gives some really good science of how well this correlates with training load, how well this correlates with heart rate and with power. Really interesting videos, I’d suggest checking that out, If you really want to dive into that science, I’m just going to give a little bit. So really the godfather of RPE is Professor Gunner Borg and he did this in the early 60s, he came up with what is called the Borg scale. And no for any of you Trekkie’s out there, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Chris Case 07:38
I don’t know what you’re referring to. But my question is, wouldn’t it be cool if you had a scale named after yourself?

Trevor Connor 07:45
That’d be pretty cool.

Chris Case 07:46
Do you think he gave it the name? Or do you think like his colleagues gave the name to the scale after maybe he passed?

Trevor Connor 07:54
I mean, I think it was used when he was around, but I’m not sure if he named it or somebody else name. So what would the Connor scale be? How badly dressed you are?

Chris Case 08:04
how badly dressed or how dirty your bike is? Yeah,

Trevor Connor 08:06
There we go. Connor scale of 10, there’s more dirt than bike.

Chris Case 08:10
Yes, exactly.

What Is The Borg Scale?

Trevor Connor 08:13
So the original Borg scale actually went from six to 20. And here, I’m going to ruin it for everybody. Whenever I’m in the lab, and they’re testing me and they pull out the Borg scale. I can’t give them an honest answer anymore, because I know the origins of this. But if you basically take a 20 something typical athlete, their resting heart rate is going to be around 60 beats per minute, their max heart rate is going to be about 20. He really felt the scale should somewhat correlate with heart rate. So basically, if your heart rates at 60, you should be a six on the board scale. If your heart rates 120, you should be about 12 on the Borg scale. Like I said, unfortunately, now I can’t use this because as soon as somebody asks me, what am I at, I look at my heart rate. Oh, I’m at 140, I’m 14. So try not to do that, sorry to ruin it for all of you. But he did actually come up with multiple scales. And it’s really important to note, they sound very simple, but I actually just read a review last night that dived into the eccentricity of these scales. And to this point, Borg wrote a whole book on it, of not only is it just a number scale, but you’ll see they have wording beside the numbers. And there’s huge debates over what is exactly the right wording. So this particular review, took three of the words that Borg used. So it was fatigue, discomfort, and heavy, and did a whole assessment of whether those are the correct wording to use. So there’s now probably 40-50 variations on these RPE scales. And often they’re using the same numbering. It’s just what wording in particular do you use to describe what the top is, what the middle is, what the bottom part is to get the right response out of the athletes. And that’s where I’m not going to dive too deep into this.

Chris Case 10:06
And then you got to consider how the words are used, like in Swedish, if you’re doing this. do they have the equivalent words of that? And what is the appropriate word in the different languages? Anyways, tangent, sorry.

Trevor Connor 10:21
So the only other one I’ll bring up is there’s also a what’s called the Borg CR-10 scale, which is a one to 10. And this one’s interesting, because in the original Borg CR-10, there’s actually a dot below 10. Because 10 is defined by Borg as extremely strong. So notice, there again, the wording is very different. If you’re trying to get more fatigue or pain, you would have like, extremely difficult or extremely painful, you’d have different wording. But the dot is, actually, your absolute maximum. So he was trying to get at, generally, you’re not going to go to your absolute limit so 10 is below that absolute limit, but just really, really hard. Later, one to 10 skills, they tend to get rid of the dot.

Chris Case 11:15
This is like 11, from spinal tap.

Trevor Connor 11:17
Exactly, you never go to 11. So why not just make 10 louder? But it goes to 11.

Chris Case 11:28
Exactly. Put a dot there.

Trevor Connor 11:32
So yes, there have been many, many variations on both the six to 20 and the one to 10 sense. Like you said where you’re getting the variation is the wording they use to describe what 10 means, what eight means, what five means, what one means. And that wording is very important. So after giving you that whole explanation, I’m now going to jump and say, even though we put RPE in the title, and we just talked a bit about the rate of perceived exertion. Really, this episode goes further than that what we’re talking about is learning how to ride by feel. But I liked to start with RPE to get the sense that feel is a legitimate metric. So in the lab RPE is actually used as a metric, you will see scientific studies where they’re going to show you trends in power, trends in heart rate, and show you trends in RPE. They’re all equal.

Chris Case 12:36
I do feel like RPE is the terminology we would use in the laboratory setting. I don’t know if a lot of people are taking RPE out onto the road, they might do a sessions RPE rating after the fact, right? But in the moment, on an interval, are you thinking in terms of RPE? Or are you thinking in terms of those key words? Maybe like, really hard or extremely hard or too hard or whatever?

Trevor Connor 13:06
and I think that’s a lot of what we’re going to discuss as we go through this episode is what is feel?

Chris Case 13:12
Mm hmm.

Trevor Connor 13:13
Is it a number, are you sitting out there doing intervals, going I feel about an eight, I want to be 8.2. Or are you just feeling, boy, this is really hard or coming up with particular wording for it. Or is there just this innate sense of, I’m doing a 10-minute interval. This is about how it should feel for me to be able to survive 10 minutes of this. And that’s part of what we’re going to get into. And this is a good point, a jumping-off point we’ve got from Episode 169. We’ve got Dirk Friel talking about how numbers can actually overwhelm his athletes and he actually spend some time getting his athletes not to use numbers and learn that feel.

Chris Case 13:56
Alright, let’s hear from Dirk Fiel.

Dirk Friel 14:01
Yeah, self-interpretation is so critical. Are you on the positive side of this equation or the negative side? And if your on the negative side, that just seeps in and tends to make it worse and worse. I was thinking that when I was riding the trainer yesterday, hating the numbers I’m looking at, I’m like, if this was an indoor test right now, I wish I wouldn’t see these numbers. I just want to do this ramp test with no numbers at all in front of me, you know, because I could probably go farther if I didn’t even know what watts I was at. And so sometimes I think like, I’ve done too many ramp tests where I knew the numbers and that was that was probably not a good thing. Can you prescribe intervals off your RPE and say, Go 10 minutes at eight out of 10. Sometimes it’s a good way to go and see the data afterwards.

Trevor Connor 15:00
Yes, absolutely. Certainly, my athlete if I told him do something by RPE, and then they will say he told me to do by RPE so I didn’t record it.

Dirk Friel 15:00
Well, yeah you need to record it.

Trevor Connor 15:10
How can I help you. so definitely record it.

Chris Case 15:13
Do you ever work with athletes who are kind of not into seeing the data, don’t really care to look at it, you want it as a coach, you want to look at it, you want to check in on all those things, but they’re not really interested in it.

Trevor Connor 15:27
Chris, I have worked with you.

Chris Case 15:30
So you’ve got an athlete like that, who doesn’t really look at the training data. but would you still encourage them to key off of certain things in racing in terms of the data?

Trevor Connor 15:42
Well, Chris already knows my answer so Dirk, why don’t you take this one?

Dirk Friel 15:46
No, I mean, each athlete is unique and different and you don’t need to overburden an athlete with the numbers if they don’t care for it. So if we can set that internal pacing and RPE, and their own self-regulated, you know, that’s kind of the best right there. They can manage their energy reserves, their lactate levels, etc, internally, and that’s a great way to race. Although if it’s a newer athlete, and you put a power meter on their bike, and they do a time trial, and they absolutely horribly mess it up and just didn’t do the pacing, you had talked about doing ahead of time, then we might pull out the data and show what could have gone better in that time. There might be a case of okay, we’re going to have you look at this, but make it simple. I don’t want you to go over 250 watts for the first 10 minutes, whatever it might be, you know. So that’s a very simple case of where numbers can be a benefit, but don’t overburden the athlete with the numbers. Other athletes? Absolutely. To get in love with all the numbers, and you almost have to hold them back. Right? Say don’t get into the numbers too much now. So I think it can kind of go either way, you need to work with that individual athlete because each person is different.

Chris Case 17:09
Okay, so I want to revisit that question that we sort of posed at the top of the show, and we have it in the title, essentially, why do you think RPE is the most important metric? Or how does it serve as the most important metric here?

Why Is RPE The Most Important Metric?

Trevor Connor 17:26
So let me start by going back to the two most common metrics that we actually have, particularly on your bike computer, for measuring intensity, we have heart rate and power. And we have certainly had episodes here where we have had the debates of which of those two metrics is the most valuable. And certainly, people on the power side point out, well, heat is going to impact your heart rate, dehydration is going to impact your heart rate, heart rate fluctuates day to day, so you can’t really use heart rate, it’s a useless metric. Likewise, people who are more on the heart rate side are going to talk about same sort of thing on the power. Power doesn’t show how your body’s feeling about it, so one day, 300 Watts might be pretty hard. And another day, 300 Watts might be unsustainable. So it’s not really saying what’s going on in your body. And there’s this debate back and forth. And here, I’m going to give you my answer to this, which is they’re both right.

Chris Case 18:21
Sure.

Trevor Connor 18:22
Everyone’s like, well, so which is the reliable one, which is one I can look at every day and say, yep, as long as I’m using that number all is good. You can’t with either. And so here- and to emphasize this point, you know, I don’t swear, please, bleep this.- RPE is the bullsh*t. RPE is the thing that -so if you talk to any pro athlete, any very experienced athlete, they’re going to tell you,- Oh, sure, I’ll look at heart rate, I will look at power. But then it’s how I feel that’s going to make me adjust. So one day 300 Watts might be pretty manageable one day, it might be too much. RPE is going to tell you, you’re going to go out start riding at 300 watts and go, boy, this really hurts today.

Chris Case 19:16
I think there’s a process there. You know, we’ve probably all gone out on the bike, or whatever activity we’re doing and started up a session of whatever we wanted to do and have that feeling of God I feel off today. The next thing we probably try to do is figure out what is causing this problem, right? Is it stress? Is it lack of sleep? Is it the power meters wrong or something that you’re seeing is giving you a number that’s radically off? Is there something caught in your chain or spokes? You start searching for a reason. And when you don’t and you start just tuning into the sensations, that’s when you can do that bullshit check- I do swear so you don’t have to bleep that out.- And say to yourself, you know what, it’s none of those other things. It’s just me. I’m off today, it’s a feeling I’m getting.

Trevor Connor 20:18
So this is why I am making that claim that RPE is that most important metric. Because, look, you can use heart rate, you can use power, I use both. They’re valuable metrics. But if you just trust a number without having them framed in that context of how do I feel, you’re not going to use those numbers correctly. And that’s what we want to get across, that shapes how you use the numbers. And so here, let’s do another jump we have from Episode 116, Kristen Legan. And she’s going to talk a little bit about how things feel when they’re off and talk about some of those issues with feel versus heart rate.

Chris Case 21:02
All right, let’s hear from Kristen now.

Kristen Legan 21:06
You know, talking about different tells, or ways to understand your body, for one thing I work with a lot of athletes is paying attention to your mood. If you’re just dreading getting onto your bike, and you just don’t want to go out for that ride. That’s something that could be a tell for people of, you know, I’m starting to overreach a little bit, or I’m just pushing the limit a little bit too much. Because there’s always days that we don’t want to be on our bike, and it’s snowing out or raining out and we don’t want to do that. But if you’re really struggling with the motivation, I think that’s a good time to check in with yourself and see where you’re at and what you could be doing to reverse that.

Trevor Connor 21:46
What other indicators would you would you give?

Kristen Legan 21:49
Well I think the heart rate is a really good opportunity. This is a good opportunity to look at your heart rate and start to understand how your heart rate changes with those efforts. When we’re feeling bad, sometimes we can get it out and still hit the power numbers. But that might not be the right thing that we should be doing that day. So one indicator for me is if you’re doing some shorter efforts, or even some longer efforts, and you do the effort, you’re hitting the power okay, you’re not feeling great. But then when you stop and your heart rate doesn’t come back down as quickly as it normally does, between that rest time, that’s a good indicator to me that maybe you might need some more rest coming up or if it’s really struggling to come down, then that might be time to say okay today, I just need to go pedal my bike easy. So I think heart rate is important in this whole question because you can kind of fake the power sometimes, and just make the numbers happen. But you might not be actually working on the physiological stuff that you want to be because you’re just too tired.

How Do You Use RPE In A Race?

Chris Case 22:57
So I think another context where RPE becomes so important is within races. For me, someone who focuses on cyclocross, you’re not really going to check out that power meter or heart rate in a race like that. First of all, you don’t have time, your eyes cannot be glued to a computer screen, they have to be looking at the line, the racers around you, the terrain, all of that sort of stuff. So you have to be in tune with feel, I imagine my experiences in crits, same type of thing, if you in the mix, you just don’t want to be looking at a screen, you want to be paying attention to everything that’s going around you, including what’s going on inside of you and that feeling becomes extremely important. And then of course, in a road racing sense there might be times when sure you can look down at your screen and on a climb you might have the time to look down at the screen, check in with your numbers. But there are definitely times in road races where you cannot rely on that data to inform what you should do next, how you should react to somebody move, how long you’re going to wait before you make your move, etc.

Trevor Connor 24:19
Yep, well, this is where I’ll actually jump ahead to one of my assertions, which is I don’t think you can race well, unless you are racing on feel. For most of us, probably all of us, We can put out better power numbers racing than we can in training. And so what I see is athletes who try to race by power limit themselves because you hit moments in the race, where you have to ride above and beyond what you can do on any training ride, if you are going to stay in that race and stay competitive. And if you’re going on feel you can do that, you just hit that moment and go okay, I got to dig deep and I’m going to do it. And I’ve seen so many athletes that look down at the power meter at that moment and go, oh my God, I can’t sustain that. And they quit.

Chris Case 25:09
Yeah, they put a governor on themselves that way.

Trevor Connor 25:13
Yep. So I know a few athletes who can race by power, or use power in a race, probably 80-90% of the athletes I’ve worked with it is better to just cover up that part of their computer screen and just race. I’m actually one of the few because I know that, I know I can put out much better power when I’m racing. And I actually have those moments where I look down at that critical moment the rays and go oh cool. Look what I am doing.

Chris Case 25:40
Yeah, I mean if you have that sense about you, use it to motivate yourself, right?

Trevor Connor 25:46
Yeah, which is what it does for me, but I don’t see that many athletes. So that’s kind of my first assertion for most athletes- and even there, I’ll even say that for myself. I think it’s cool to look down at the numbers- But it’s feel in a race. And I’m saying this as a breakaway rider, you have to know the feels, you have to know what a 15-minute breakaway feels like, what a five-minute effort feels like, what a 10-minute breakaway feels like. You have to know those feels, or you just can’t race it.

Chris Case 26:16
Yep. Know the feels. I like that phrase.

Trevor Connor 26:20
So with that, let’s throw in a really great conversation we had with Joe Friel and Jim Rutberg back in episode 133. Where very similar to his son, Joe talks about making his athletes learn the feel, and even says you can’t be a well rounded athlete without it.

Chris Case 26:42
Alright let’s listen to Joe and Jim.

Use But Do Not Rely On the Numbers

Jim Rutberg 26:48
So, Joe, one question that I would have for you is, how should people, for instance, with odometer mode, correlate? Because odometer mode only controls power, so what do they need to be doing with correlating RPE and heart rate in order to see whether or not that workout is the way it should be?

Joe Friel 27:11
The bottom line always is RPE. Rating of perceived exertion that really is what training is all about. If every battery on your bike failed, you should still be able to do the workout or the race, and do it in a quite appropriate manner, hit numbers, which are very close to what you’re supposed to be hitting, even if you don’t have the numbers in front of you. So every athlete needs to be able to do that. And all we’re doing with the power data and so forth is giving us a way of specifying more precisely what that effort should be.

Joe Friel 27:49
So, bottom line is the athlete has to know how,- for example, when I was coaching, a lot of athletes, I would have them put a piece of tape over their handlebar device or even over the wristwatch-, so they couldn’t see their heart rate, and still had them do the workout. And then later on, we’d look at it to see how they were doing relative to what their impression was of how hard it was. There was RPE versus power versus heart rate. And so that’s the sort of thing we all must be good at. We’re becoming very used to now to having all the numbers in front of us, but the bottom line is you got to be able to produce those numbers without having them visible in front of us all the time. So tracking is really much more complex than simply looking at numbers. It’s got a lot of feeling it has to do with how am I doing, realative to what am I supposed to be doing? And that’s something that the athlete has to learn. If you only look at numbers, then I’m afraid you’re really not becoming a well rounded athlete, we need to be able to interpret the numbers and use them. But we also need to be able to do the workout without the numbers so we can just do it based on how it feels. So it really goes both ways, there is no either or here. It’s really both the athlete needs to understand how to use the numbers and how to train based on RPE.

Trevor Connor 29:16
Joe, before we get away from what you were just discussing a question I really want to ask you as a follow up, going back to ERG mode, where the trainer is setting the wattage. Do you feel that helps athletes to learn to feel or do you think that takes it away from them and always ride in an erg mode they’re never going to learn the feel?

Joe Friel 29:37
No, I think it works both ways. The athlete needs to be able to know what’s going on as far as production. What wattage are they producing? The bottom line is there’s two things we’re looking at in terms of performance and effort. One of them is power and that a performance measure. That’s what we’re looking at is how am I performing? Whereas RPE, especially, and also even heart rate are measures of effort. How much effort Am I putting into this?

Chris Case 30:17
Trevor you have some other assertions here what are those?

RPE Needs To Be Used For Interval Work

Trevor Connor 30:21
So I’ve already given you my first which is I do not think you can effectively race without learning the feel. But look, so to get to my second assertion, I’m going to bring up something that you’re very aware of, which is we get a whole lot of questions from listeners about trying to get into those eccentricities of the intervals, about how to find the right number to do the intervals at. And very frequently, when we send our response. This is where you see the biggest disappointment in our answer, because they’re looking for, yes, execute this interval 95% of your FTP or 97% of your FTP, and that’s going to be perfect. And I will never give that answer. I’ll always say here’s guidelines with heart rate, here’s guidelines with power. But ultimately, it comes down to the feel.

Chris Case 31:08
And they want a pinpoint target.

Trevor Connor 31:11
That’s not how it works. And this is the reason why ultimately, I’m going to say when you are doing interval work, heart rate and power are guidelines. But RPE, that feel is the most important thing when you’re doing intervals. And that guides it. So my second assertion is, I do not think you can effectively execute interval work without using RPE. And we’ll dive deeper into this, we’re actually going to talk a lot about the execution really talk about how to use RPE to guide your interval work. But I’m going to make that assertion now. You can’t simply go out and do intervals and say this number, hold it and know that you effectively executed intervals, RPE has to guide it. And on that note, let’s throw in another clip here. This is from Episode 138 with Amos Brumble, where he has worked with a lot of high level athletes, he makes the assertion that the best athletes don’t need power to execute effective intervals.

Chris Case 32:23
Alright, let’s hear from Amos now.

Amos Brumble 32:27
I think the best athletes I’ve ever seen, have always been very attuned to things like perceived exertion. And they do an incredibly accurate job of giving themselves just enough training load to improve but not so much that they get exhausted. But that, in my mind, is one of the things that separates like natural athletes from the average, Joe, that would get on a bike and start pedaling around. And if he’s capable of that, then yeah, going around and looking at perceived exertion, mileage goals or hours on the bike, he’ll be able to build an effective plan.

Chris Case 33:11
How would you recommend that a training plan be structured? Anything different about a training plan, in terms of its structure If somebody isn’t using power? I would venture to say that most of the same rules apply? Would you agree?

Amos Brumble 33:26
Yeah, I would apply all the same training, the only thing that would really vary is the numbers that he would look at. An athlete, let’s say he’s going to use perceived exertion and a heart rate monitor, and he’s got some kind of like a watch or something. So he’s going to time his intervals. I mean, my experience has been is that if an athlete knows how to feel, the power that they’re putting out they can do an interval, you can give them like a range of heart rates- like zone training, which is pretty popular years ago- and they can put out a required power. The only workouts they see that are really power-dependent are a lot of kind of the micro intervals that you see offered in like instruction plans now. And those are kind of harder to quantify with just perceived exertion, if that makes any sense.

How Can You Learn Or Teach RPE?

Chris Case 34:21
Okay, now, I think we need to get to the crux of the matter here, which is how to learn RPE or how to learn how to tap into those feelings. I feel like this is a really challenging thing. You can slap a power meter on your bike, and it spits out a number at you. You can put on a heart rate strap, and again, it spits out a number at you. There’s not a lot of skill involved there. There’s none in fact, with riding by feeling, tapping into those feelings, understanding how to interpret those feelings, and then do something about that. That’s a skill that can take a long time to learn and develop. And it’s also a pretty challenging thing to explain to someone how to do if they’re unfamiliar with this type of sensation in this type of practice. So let’s get into that conversation.

Trevor Connor 35:18
And look, I’m going to start by saying, yes, it’s going to take time to learn this feel if you don’t have this feel yet, and it’s something very worthwhile to teach yourself. But we all have an inherent ability to do this. And actually, we just had that episode, just a few episodes ago, where we were talking with Rob Pickles, about some recent studies, and we had the one- this was the time spent near VO2 max during different cycling, self-paced interval training protocols.- this was not high-level athletes in the study, they were cyclists and they did a variety of different types of intervals. So four-minute and eight-minute intervals. And then one of the four minutes they had one-minute recoveries, the other four minutes they had two-minute recoveries, then the eight minutes, one format was two-minute recoveries and the other was four-minute recovery which is actually quite different interval sessions. And you saw that the average power, – sorry, I should mention they couldn’t see power, they couldn’t see heart rate, they had to do everything by feel.- And you saw that the average power varied quite significantly between these different intervals. So for example, the four-minute intervals with the two-minute recoveries, the average group power was 275 Watts, versus the eight-minute intervals with two-minute recoveries, the group average power was 234. So that’s a big difference, about 40 watts. But interestingly, the session RPE, for all these different interval types, was virtually the same, the lowest was the four by one-minute intervals was 16.7. So they’re using the Borg six to 20 scale, the highest was the eight by four minutes at 17.2. So I’m not even sure that that hit the point of being significant. So what you saw was when these athletes were doing these intervals, by feel, they were able to find the power to hit about the same rate of perceived exertion, for all these interval sessions, which was quite extraordinary.

Chris Case 37:42
It’s a fascinating thing to be able to find that pace that elicits the same type of sensation over different time periods, when you don’t have an anchor or a lot of experience to base it on but that’s really cool.

Trevor Connor 38:01
So one of the simple things you can do is go look up the Borg scale or go look up a rate of perceived exertion scale, find one that seems to resonate with you, like I said most of them are either six to 20, or one to 10. I actually, I think I might have seen a one to 20 as well. But almost all the ones I’ve seen have been one to 10, or six to 20. Look more at the wording beside it, find one that’s got the wording that seems to resonate with you, and learn that because that was the one thing that actually these athletes had is they were being asked throughout the session point on the Borg scale where they’re at. And so probably that was influencing their ability to find the intensity. So that’s one simple thing you can do, if you really don’t know the feel, is just memorize ond of these scales. When you’re out doing your interval work, say, I am targeting 16-17 and whatever the particular wording is for that.

Chris Case 38:57
Or put a piece of tape on your stem and write the scale out with a simple word next to it, If you can, that could also be a way to do it.

Trevor Connor 39:07
Yep. So I mean that’s a very simple way if you really don’t know the feel, to learn the feel, and as you can see, with these athletes that was actually extraordinarily effective. And in the study, they show the power and heart rate graphs of the intervals for these athletes. And as a coach, I looked at that and went, wow, with a new athlete, it would take me several sessions to teach them how to execute intervals that well. I was actually really impressed. They saw no numbers, and that was great execution. So we have that inherent sense, and we can all tap into that. Another way I think you can learn this is we’ve talked about FTP tests, we’ve talked about the the 40-p test. I love giving my athletes those tests because on top of getting good numbers from them, it’s a great tool for teaching feel. Because you do a five-second average is easy, It’s just as hard as you can go for five seconds. But the other ones get harder to pace. How do you pace a five-minute? How do you pace a 20-minute? How do you pace a one minute? And I can tell you, when I work with a new athlete who’s fairly inexperienced, they go out and do it and half the time. If I give them the 40-p test, they don’t even finish it, because they don’t know how to pace. but I can then sit down, show them the data and go look at the five-minute look at the graph here what you did. So typically, they go out way too hard and explode. Same thing with the 20-minute test. So then we can start to have a conversation. And then in a month, we’ll have them go out and do it again, talk about you know, remember what you did the last time, and we can work on the execution. And you see very quickly they start to improve, and then what they learn is, this is what a five-minute effort feels like, this is what a 20-minute effort feels like this is what a one-minute effort feels like. And on top of giving my athletes the data as I was saying, I love giving my athletes to 40-P as much for them learning the field, learning the intensity.

Chris Case 41:21
I think that beyond those initial steps to learn the feeling, it’s very helpful. And I find myself doing this all the time to this day. If I do have the power meter on or the heart rate strap on checking in, and essentially not guessing, but saying, Okay, I think right now what I’m doing is 200 Watts, or I’m doing 250 watts. And I’m not talking necessarily even during an effort, just putting a number to a feeling throughout a power band, in an interval or not out on the road and testing myself. And that keeps you and those skills fresh of anchoring the feeling to a number so that you can again, it’s like RPE as a check on power and heart rate and heart rate and power can be a check back to RPE in a sense. It goes both ways.

Trevor Connor 42:22
And that’s a great segue to this is episode 154 where we had Jim Miller, and Kristin Armstrong on the show, we’re talking about time trialing. And Kristin brought up something that she loves to do, which is learning what 300 Watts, for example, feels like or 250 Watts, so she likes to go out, and without looking at power, hit an intensity where she goes, I think I’m at 300 Watts, and then scroll back in her screen and see if she’s actually at 300 Watts. Which is a great skill to learn because certainly if you’re working with a coach who can really help you find whether your physiological power range is, or zones. They can tell you your 20-Minute time trial should be around this wattage, your one hour time trial, your five minutes, and then you should go out and practice without looking down. Okay, I think I’m at that power and look down, see if you’re actually that close to that wattage. So let’s let’s hear from them.

Chris Case 43:23
Very good.

Trevor Connor 43:27
What metrics do you use to gauge yourself? How do you gauge? Do you have a giant computer with every single number on it? Or are you much more I’m going to do this by feel?

Jim Miller 43:38
Both would be the answer. You can have a really good feel and pacing in time traveling. If you know what 300 Watts feels like, you know what 300 Watts feels like you don’t have to see it. And, if you’re in year one of racing bikes, you probably can’t guess within proximity where you’re at, but if you’re in year 18 of racing bikes, you probably don’t even need a power meter to to pinpoint your exact power. So that’s why I’d said both.

Kristin Armstrong 44:12
I agree. I would say that I was growing up as a runner, I remember when I was running, you know, half miles and intervals or miles and in a 10 K raceyou you know what a six minute mile pace feels like, just naturally through experience. And so I think that when you take it to the bike, it’s the same thing you feel that with power. Even today I play these games because I have to play something with myself since I mean I’m not competing anymore. I’ll go out and I play this game where I’m like, Oh, I bet you I’m at 240 watts right now and I look down I’m like yes, I still have it. I honestly play the what watt am I at right now game to this day because I can guess it within five, I really can it’s crazy.

Chris Case 45:07
Yeah, the word I was looking for there is reverse engineer sort of taking the data to teach feeling in a sense. And, you know, Kristin, one of the best time travelers in the world is doing it. I’m doing this, to test myself throughout rides all the time. I’m sure you are too Trevor. It’s a common way of checking or reverse engineering, just informing what certain efforts feel like and putting it a number to it, going back and forth, and using both of those to inform one another.

Trevor Connor 45:49
Yeah, I think there’s a real value in reverse engineering this. So I think a lot of the ways people try to learn feel and there’s a value to this is to try to target a number, and then go out and sit at that number and see what that feels like. I think there’s as much if not a bigger value to instead, do – we just heard Kristin, say, you go out do- intervals, do something, do an effort. Not looking at the numbers, do it completely by feel, then download the data. In particular, if you’re working with a coach, have your coach look at and get the assessment of looking at the data that was too easy, or that was too hard. And then get that feedback, and then go out and go, okay, that last time was too easy so it needs to feel a little harder. And then go out and do the effort and see if you can get to where you can do that effort that when you download the data, you or your coach looks at and goes yep, spot on. And that’s where the data can be really useful.

RPE Is Not Just One Feeling

Chris Case 46:48
I think one thing we haven’t really spoken about yet. And again, this is where some of the challenge comes in is what are we talking about when we say the word feeling? It makes me think of some of the work that I’ve done with Grant Holicky, we have some workshops on mindfulness and self awareness. What I am considering when I think about the feelings of a given effort- I know this is gonna sound weird, perhaps But- it’s almost like looking at something with peripheral vision, you’re opening up and you’re taking in everything and nothing at the same time. -If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t. -You’re listening to your breathing or you’re understanding how hard you’re breathing, you’re quote unquote, feeling what your muscles are doing and your legs and then the rest of your body. But you’re not just paying attention to that there’s this ability that you have to find of paying attention to the specifics, but also looking more broadly about all of it simultaneously. Does this make any sense at all Trevor?

Trevor Connor 48:09
It does some of it, because this is where you get into it. This is difficult. What is that feel? And you asked me earlier on before we started recording here, describe the feelings and we both kind of went well, I know that when I feel it, but it’s really hard to sit here and go, It’s this, this and this.

Chris Case 48:31
Yeah.

Trevor Connor 48:31
Which is part of the reason there’s now so many of these RPE scales, because that’s exactly what the researchers are trying to get at. It’s not the numbers, but what are the right words beside those numbers, to give that sense of the feel. And I’ll even take it a step further. -And I don’t know if this is in-line with where you are going, Chris,- but there isn’t just one feel. It depends on what you’re trying to do. And the feel for a five minute effort is very different from the feel for a five hour LSD. Right?

Chris Case 49:03
Yeah definetly.

Trevor Connor 49:03
And I actually think one of the mistakes I see a lot of athletes make is the only thing they know about feel is it always has to feel hard. Which is why I think you see a lot of newer cyclists when they get into cycling, don’t like that long, slow ride because it isn’t hard. And if they’re out there noodling on their bike they’re feeling is well this isn’t the right RPE, this isn’t the right feel, it isn’t hard. So I’ve got to go harder, it’s got to feel hard.

Chris Case 49:33
Yeah, that’s interesting. An acute amount of pain or discomfort is easier to put a number on than a sort of vague feeling of not discomfort. It like you said you’re noodling around. There’s something going on, but it’s really vague, and it’s much harder to put a number on that.

Trevor Connor 49:53
And that’s actually, so here’s another good segue this goes way back episode 54 with Dr. Seiler. He talks about the feel of those long rides, which is more just this overall sense of being depleted. So let’s quickly hear from him.

Dr. Stephen Seiler 50:10
I used to always use the analogy that these kind of rides these long low intensity, you feel empty when you’re finished. And one of the ways I tell athletes to see if I am in the right zone is, man when you come off a ride like that, you should just feel like you can go straight to the dinner table, and just start filling the tanks. Because you haven’t created a big sympathetic response. But you have really emptied the system, you’ve used a lot of energy and you need to fill the tank. Whereas when you guys know, when you do a really tough interval session, most people have a real hard time sitting at the dinner table, right after one of those or even half an hour after one of those because of this sympathetic response. So that’s one of the ways I always use just a poor man’s way of saying, Alright, were you in the right zone? You should be able to go straight to the dinner table after this workout, if the goal was a low intensity session.

Chris Case 51:09
Alright, we know Dr. Seiler is a big fan of the long rides and that feeling of depletion that he describes there. Trevor in terms of high intensity work, what are some of the other things people should be noting when they do this.

Trevor Connor 51:26
So the best way I’ve found to describe the field to my athletes is to tell them to think about the overall session. So if they’re doing intervals, for example, let’s say they’re just doing five by five minute intervals, I will tell them, I want you to find an intensity, a level of effort and pain that you can sustain across all those intervals. So at any point, ask yourself, can I keep this up for this five minutes? More importantly, I’ve still got four to go, Can I keep this up across all four? And that’s where you have to check in with yourself and say, Is this feasible or not? And then if you go, No, I could do this for one but there’s no way I can do this for the remaining four, you’re going too hard. So bring it down. If, for example, somebody is doing a 20 minute time trial, they’re in a race or doing a five minute time trial. I’m a little more stringent with it. My explanation is, at any point in that 20 minute time trial, let’s say you’re five minutes in you got 15 minutes to go ask yourself the question. Can I sustain this for another 15 minutes? If your answer is yes, you’re going to easy. If your answer is absolutely not, you’re going too hard. If your answer is Whoa, boy, I don’t know maybe.

Chris Case 52:48
That’s probably right

Trevor Connor 52:49
. You’re doing it about right.

Chris Case 52:53
Yeah. So probably not exactly the word some of the listeners want to hear. Because it’s not that target. It’s not that this is what it should feel like. But that’s where the skill and the experience come in. This is this is not something you should expect to nail the first time you ever employ it.

Trevor Connor 53:16
Yep. So here’s a good place to segue to Ned Overend, from Episode 119. Because here’s a guy who was a world champion, still at 60, he can beat up a lot of the cat ones out there. And he completely learn how to find that feel when he does his work. So here’s him describing a little bit of how he finds that feel.

Ned Overend 53:43
I can plan to go on a hard day. And I know the segments right on Strava. So I’ll pace myself for those certain segments to try and get a fast time on. When I go out and do that, it’s not set in stone, because it’s really just kind of a feeling I have in my legs. I’ll warm up, I’ll start doing the segments, and my legs will feel heavy. And I won’t be able to turn over the gear that I’m looking for. And I know the speeds and just the feeling my body has when it’s rested, then I’ll skip doing intervals do a recovery ride and wait to do intervals on a day when I’m better recovered.

Trevor Connor 54:30
Are there particular feels in your body that you say okay, that’s a dangerous sign or that’s a red flag.

Ned Overend 54:36
It’s a fatigue that I’m feeling in my legs and I’m not going to call it necessarily a burning because I don’t get to the point where my legs are burning. It’s where I’m attempting to put in an effort and you know, I feel like my respiration increases, right? I’m breathing harder and I can’t actually get to that point where I can make my legs burn, sometimes your body has to wake up, right?So if you’re just starting one effort, and you’re feeling fatigue, sometimes you need more of an opener before you can get to the point where you can do a quality interval.

Chris Case 55:16
So when you’re out, it sounds like you don’t use heart rate, you don’t use power to give yourself cues as to how your effort compares to previous efforts or what you’re trying to target. But you are using Strava, which is numbers. I’m curious if you use the live segments?

Ned Overend 55:38
It’s after the fact, I haven’t been using live segments.

Trevor Connor 55:42
So that begs the question, when you’re doing some sort of structured work, like you’re doing, let’s say, threshold on some of the climbs, how do you pace yourself? Do you just know about how hard you want to go? Is it just years of learning the pace?

Ned Overend 55:58
Yeah, it’s from knowing the segments, and then basically feeling in my legs, not going too hard, until I can know that the end of the segment is coming. So it’s kind of just pace learned over 20-30 years of training.

Trevor Connor 56:21
Sounds like you just have this innate sense of…

Ned Overend 56:25
Yeah, I would say it’s trial and error and, you know, the feel on my leg and the building up of fatigue, as far as how long it can last, over this specific climb. You can bury yourself a little harder if you know that the climb is going to flatten out and you’ll get a little bit of recovery. It’s specific to knowing the climb, and not so much just based on time.

Trevor Connor 56:47
So let’s flip this around and ask it a slightly different way. Do you think there’s a danger with some of these younger athletes who have all these numbers? If they’re going out and doing their workouts and time trawling staring at wattage, staring at heart rate? Do you think there’s a danger in not learning the feel and affecting their performance?

Ned Overend 57:10
In the same way, that when I’m doing a group ride, it pushes me harder than when I’m doing intervals myself or it pushes me in a different way. And I think that when you’re in a race, if somebody is looking at a watt meter, or a heart rate monitor, they’re restricting themselves when they may be able to push themselves beyond kind of the numbers they’ve seen in training, whether it’s make or break or stay away from somebody. I think they if they put those kind of parameters on themselves, that it may hinder the performance they are capable of.

Ryan Kohler 58:01
Hey, I’m Ryan Kohler, head coach and physiologist at Fast Talk Laboratories.

Trevor Connor 58:06
And I’m Trevor Connor, CEO of Fast Talk Labs. Between the two of us Ryan and I have over 40 years of coaching and clinical experience. From juniors to masters, national level athletes to club riders.

Ryan Kohler 58:17
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Trevor Connor 58:27
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Ryan Kohler 58:36
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Trevor Connor 58:41
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Chris Case 59:34
Alright, now that everybody out there knows how to do this. Let’s talk about the application of feeling the application of RPE. How does someone use this now that they’ve learned how to employ it?

How Do You Apply RPE?

Trevor Connor 59:52
I’ll say one of the most important ones that you hinted at earlier in the show is using it to assess where you’re at. And this is one of the biggest mistakes I see athletes make who are completely reliant on the numbers, they go out to do an interval session and they go, I’ve got to do this at 270 watts. And so absolutely bury themselves to hit the number and finish the workout and are quite proud of themselves as they get accomplished. They never ask the question, should I be doing this? And this is again, where RPE comes in. Because if you’re going out, you can normally do these intervals pretty easily at 270 Watts, and you are dying now you are struggling. And it’s way on that RPE scale way above what you’re used to, you need to be asking that question, Should I be doing these? Because you might be fatigued, or you might be beat up. And it is not the right time to be doing those intervals. And RPE is going to inform that. So that’s where a coach can really help out. And that’s where you just have to gain that experience of going out. But the first thing you have to do is every single time hit whatever number you’re used to. And then ask is this feeling right? And there’s a range of boy, I’m feeling really good today. So fantastic. Maybe I’ll up the wattage a little bit, or I’m not feeling great today. But I can get through this. But there is a point where this is feeling too off. And the worst thing you can be doing is struggling through that and you need to learn that line. And certainly a coach can help there, but experience can teach you that as well.

Chris Case 1:01:36
And I want to set some expectations, I think in my experience, the number of times you would go out for a particular session and actually pull the plug based on something you’re feeling. Again, personally, it’s pretty low, this doesn’t happen all that often. If it is happening a lot, that’s probably saying that something’s off with the training as a whole. So I wouldn’t expect this to happen too often. But that’s why you employ it. That’s why you make this assessment based on feeling every time because one of these days, it’s going to crop up and you’re going to need to say you know what, today’s not the day to push through this.

Trevor Connor 1:02:19
Right, and you just brought up something that’s also really important, which is, look at the overall trend. You are gonna have days where it’s gonna be a struggle to get through the workout, you’re gonna have days where you feel great. Most days- I mean, look intervals hurt, you’re rarely going to go out and go, Oh, boy. Alright, this 20 second effort is gonna suck I can’t wait.- So factoring that out most days, it should just be I’m getting the work done. That was fine. If every day you are struggling to get that done, you need to take a look at what am I doing with my training? Do I have a good balance between recovery and training? Because you shouldn’t be dragging your feet every single interval session. So now here’s where also RPE can really help with when we’re talking about trying to figure out am I just feeling a little off or push through. This is actually where heart rate can be really valuable. Because if I’m going out on a day and going boy, it’s harder to hit whatever wattage than the normal. I’ll look at my heart rate and see how my heart rate is responding. And if heart rate is also low and sluggish. That is a physiological sign. And that’s where I go yep, body is not ready. I am fatigued, go home. So this is where all these metrics help. But the first one is that RPE to say, Do I feel on course here or not?

Chris Case 1:03:54
Yeah, it gets that first warning sign. Yep.

Trevor Connor 1:03:57
And I’ve had times I will go out. So for example, I remember last spring I went out to do my hill repeats. Now strangely. I could hit my normal power, no problem. The feeling was not, oh boy, this is really really painful. It wasn’t higher on the RPE scale, the feeling was just off. I’m not even sure I could describe it. Now I normally do my hill repeats right around 170 beats per minute. So I pushed through the first interval, but by the end of that interval, I hadn’t broken 160. And after I looked down and said something feels off, even though I can hit the numbers. Heart rate is 10 beats below where it should be. Something’s off today, and I turned around went home.

Chris Case 1:04:44
What was it? Do you know?

Trevor Connor 1:04:45
I don’t know. I just know that was the wrong day to do those intervals. Yeah.

Chris Case 1:04:50
I know that we’ve spoken in the past with Dr. Stephen Seiler about how to use RPE to pace four by eights, how to adjust up or down accordingly based on how you’re feeling that day? Did we not Trevor?

Trevor Connor 1:05:02
Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. Because that also goes back to what we were talking about much earlier in the show that when people ask us about the power to do intervals at and I never give them a number, I always talk about that effort that RPE. And people being dissatisfied. Well, this is exactly what Dr. Seiler brought up. So we asked him on a recent show, this was episode 185 to explain what’s the right intensity for those four by eight minute intervals that he’s so famous for. And you’ll hear in this clip, he did the same thing he talked about using feel, to guide the power numbers, not to just lock in at a power number. So yeah, I think that’s a great example of everything we’ve been talking about here. So let’s hear that.

Chris Case 1:05:51
Very good, here is Stephen.

Dr. Stephen Seiler 1:05:57
Let’s go ahead and put in a cycle, a four week cycle, where every week for four weeks, we’re gonna do a four by eight session, just one. Then what you do, you may have a second hard day that you do a race or you do whatever, but we’re going to have one session. And we’re going to start that first week, totally on feel. In week one, that’s what I would have them do is I would say, just, yeah, you’re looking at your power, you’re looking at your heart rate, but just try to find what feels uncomfortably comfortable, or comfortably uncomfortable.- You can decide which way you want it, you get my point- it should feel like alright, this is tough, but I’m in the zone I can I can hold. And each bout feels tougher, but you try for even pacing, but just go on feel, And then you get some numbers. You say okay, I held 350 watts. Alright, so now you got a benchmark. And now, you can start saying all right, what was my heart rate, and then you can go in week two, you’re going to try to add five watts or maybe 10, but not more. Or you could say I’m going to add an extra interval, an extra bout. So you could start at three times eight in week one, and then go to four times eight in week two at the same power, and go to five times eight in week three at the same power. And then week four is your unload. Or maybe you do three times eight at a slightly higher power. So I would try to get listeners to think about is thinking of it as a staircase approach. A set of stairs has a rise and run, it lifts up and then it goes forward. And so you want to use the run, you want to extend also when you’re doing intervals. And so that’s a tool in your toolbox is plan a four week cycle, start with three times eight minutes on feel. And then based on what you achieved in week one, so let’s say it was 350 or 300 watts or whatever. Now say, alright, I’m going to do one more of those. So now the workouts four times eight. And then if that goes, and probably your heart rate drifted up even farther, you were even farther on the edge of what felt like you could do, but you did it. So now we’re going to say week three, I’m going for five of these bad boys, five times eight. So now I’ve extended, extended, extended, and then if I achieve that, now I’m up at 40 minutes of total work. Now I’m going to add 10 watts and go back down to three repeats for my next cycle, or I’m going to try to peak at the end of that four weeks with a three times eight at a higher wattage than I have achieved before.

Chris Case 1:08:59
You know I point out to you that way back in 2019. That’s not that long ago, but we did an entire episode entitled when to push and when to pull the plug. It was with Kate Courtney. And it really got into this assessment that we’ve been talking about how to use feeling and tools and all of the data, internal and external to understand just what we’re talking about. Do you push through the set of intervals? Do you pull the plug? Do you continue them but maybe shorten them or maybe drop the intensity a little bit? So let’s hear from Kate now.

Kate Courtney 1:09:41
The discussion on these different ones is something important to note that there’s just a lot of indicators. And so for me it’s about using all these data points to really paint a picture of my recovery and not just on one given day but kind of in the aggregate. So if I have many days consistently where I’m under recovered, that’s a different scenario than if I just have one day where I maybe am tired from the day before. So really kind of keeping a good handle on these data points and understanding over time how they’re changing, helps me on any given day. But I would say, in terms of like going out for intervals, I usually can tell on my warmup how I’m feeling. And often for me, it will be really high heart rate if I’m not as recovered. So if I go out and do my warmup, and my heart rate just skyrockets, it’s a pretty good indication that it might not be a great day. And then it becomes a consideration of the quality of the training and the value. It’s pretty rare that I turn around and go home. But it has happened this year, we had a really high intensity workout. And I remember like looking at the numbers and being like, man, this, I don’t think I can do this. But, you know, Jim has basically never been wrong. So I’ll give it a whirl. And I texted him, and I was like, man, these numbers look really high. And he texts me back and said, visualize today is like a World Cup. And I’m like, okay, so I got to just work out. And by interval two, I’m just sobbing at the end of the interval. And that, for me, it’s a very funny thing. But anyone who’s like really pushed that hard knows that feeling of like, You’re not upset it’s just your body’s response, you just like start crying. And for me, whenever I start crying on a interval, I’m like, Okay, this is not good. That’s not normal. Normally, I will feel better, or at least just be really tired and feel accomplished at the end, so called Jim, he tells me to go home, because if I can’t hit the numbers, it’s not worth doing for a really high intensity ride. So I go home I’m really bummed about it, and then I get a call later. And what had happened is, I hit some numbers in a race and my FTP on training peaks auto adjusted. And Jim was like, I’m gonna go in and recheck that, and he was getting on a flight. And he somehow didn’t go in and check it. And so the numbers were like, you know, 15% higher than they should have. So I basically killed myself on that workout. But it was very humbling, and like, was a really hard day. And what ended up happening is that workout was my nemesis. And the next time I did it, I actually ended up -you know, two weeks later, -I was really recovered and ready to go and actually hit the numbers from the first workout. And that was right before I went to the World Cup. So I would say, you know, having an understanding, like when something is wrong, and knowing, okay, if you’re crying at the end of an interval, I don’t know what it is for you, that’s like my tell. But something is not going well. And having the courage and the confidence to trust that go home, and be ready to completely smoke that interval maybe the next day, maybe the next week. Sometimes those days can be the most important in your entire season. Well, that day, I was able to get a hold of Jim, he is also notorious for ignoring calls when his athletes are on really hard rides. Like he will actively like decline calls. And I’ve had a lot of moments. -It’s a tactic. -But I’ve had a lot of moments where you have to stop and think is this is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But is this hard in the right way. And I think getting to the point where you can make those calls for yourself. Because ultimately, when I call Jim, I’m giving him information to lead him kind of to a conclusion. So if I call him and say, something’s really wrong, I shouldn’t be doing this workout. How can we adjust? That’s very different than calling him just because it’s challenging. And so I think, as I’ve gotten kind of more mature as an athlete, those calls have gone down. And I’ve understood that it’s really my call. And if I can push through that I should, and no one can do that for me, and no one can really make that call for me.

Chris Case 1:14:03
We talked a bit about how important feeling and RPE are in races. Let’s talk more specifically about how to use them in certain race types. Trevor, I know time trialing this is huge.

Using RPE For Different Race Situations

Trevor Connor 1:14:18
Yeah. And we actually even just heard Chris and Armstrong talking a little bit about that of knowing that feel. What I will say is one of the ways you can really tell a highly experienced cyclist is in racing they know exactly how hard to go in any given scenario. So I’ll give you an example where you’re in that race and you hit that climb. When I am in a little local event with less experienced riders, there’s one strategy you hit that climb you go all out. And you will constantly see athletes they’ll put up 500 watts at the base of a 20 minute climb and by five minutes up that climb, they are done. Where what you will see is the really experienced athletes, they’re aware of how long that climb is and when they hit it, they know exactly how hard to hit it, what pace to go so they can get over that climb effectively. And what they know is actually the most important part is how hard you come over the top of the climb, always save enough to come over the top hard. And you’ll also see them pace that climb differently if that climb is in the middle of the race versus a finish line at the top of that race. And it’s amazing to see the ability of the cyclists to know exactly that pace. And their willingness in a race,- you’ll see this in the tour all the time- you’ll see a yellow jersey, let one of his top rivals go away. Because that person will go really hard and they’ll just go, not my pace. And I’m going to take this climb as hard as I can take it for the length of this climb and hope that I can bring that person back. But I’m not going to be caught up in going above my ability and blowing up. So that is one of the most important things to learn in racing is knowing your pace. So that you don’t blow up in the race. And again, it goes back to we were talking about before, I think this is a feel thing. Because your numbers and training and your numbers in a race are different. And if you use your numbers in training to say, here’s my pace for this climb, I think you are gonna under pace it. And with that, this is from Episode 169 We have a short clip with Svein Tuft, who was one of the top time trialers in the world talking about knowing the feel these different paces.

Chris Case 1:16:44
Alright, let’s hear Svein now.

Svein Tuft 1:16:49
Yeah, unfortunately, our labs have all been bombarded with this power output. And there’s not a lot of guys that can go by feel. It’s especially aparents, when you’re doing a team time trial, you know, guys will live and die by the SRM or whatever your chosen device is. And I think it can be very detrimental to base everything we do off of this set number that we did in some physiology lab and I really believe that, okay, these things are important, and they are definitely a huge help in what we do. But at the same time, they really disconnect you from the reality of where you might be at that given moment. And you know, it’s more important to understand your body and understand where you’re at at that moment, then try and live up to some impossible expectation on yourself. And, you know, like I said, it’s very fresh in my mind because of team time trialing and all the work we’ve done in the last little while. I see young guys just trying to push this incredible number that they all believe is necessary to win the World Championships, but it’s not sustainable. So that’s why I think a lot of times these things when you don’t understand your body and you don’t understand what’s working behind the scenes there, you really run into trouble and yeah, I’ve seen it many time. So for myself, it’s more about understanding where you are at that moment, and what you are actually capable of. So in the case of having to ride the front full to bring a break back. Okay, I’ll have a look at the power here and there. But really, I’m going by a feeling that I know I can sustain for if it’s necessary, I might have to chase for 20K, If I have to ride for 50k is a totally different feeling. And that’s just lucky from years of experience. But I think more than anything you need to find your own N equals one type of magical numbers instead of trying to push some imaginary perfect number. I see so many guys trying to, in a time trial or whatever, trying to hold this power output and it’s never really the case you know, it’s just never really how it’s done and a time trial is all about picking your battles and can understanding the course and yourself. Yeah, numbers are great, but they don’t win all the bike races.

Chris Case 1:19:47
So we just turned from Svein, incredible time trialist. Whether you’re in a TT or in a breakaway, sometimes you just have to put your head down and go for it. How does someone use RPE or feeling to inform that type of an effort?

Trevor Connor 1:20:07
You need to be acutely aware- And Svein mentioned this a little bit- of how much time or distance is left in the race.

Chris Case 1:20:14
Sure. That’s a very important thing to be aware of. Yes.

Trevor Connor 1:20:20
And this is where knowing what you can sustain for that sort of length is really, really critical. So you have to have those awarenesses, and you have to learn this. So these are good things to teach yourself. And then I go back to what I said before, to do this, right. You have to be basically saying, I’m going to an intensity I’m not so sure I’m gonna make it. It’s not an absolute no,

Chris Case 1:20:46
you’re on the edge,

Trevor Connor 1:20:47
but not absolutely, yes. And you’re on the edge. And that’s exactly, in my opinion, the way to do a time trial. In a breakaway, I think the thing that gets people the most worried is what happens if the field catches me. And this isn’t so much a feel thing, this is more a mindset thing. But when I get in a breakaway, I have 5-10 minutes of let’s see if there’s if this breakaways got a shot. So I’m going to be assessing the riders with me and how strong they are. Or if I’m by myself assessing myself, seeing what sort of gap we can put into the field. But then there’s a certain point where you have to say, This is my move for the day. And I’m going to stop thinking about getting caught. Because if I get caught my races done, And then think about it like that time trial and put that head down. And be doing those assessments of what does it take to get to the end and being right on that edge being right on that limit and that’s the feel Yep. And I can tell you, that can make you a great breakaway rider, just knowing that because I can’t tell you how many breakaways I have been in, where there are guys there that don’t know the feel. And when I was living up in British Columbia, we jokingly refer to them as booster rockets. Because if you’re in an hour breakaway, you know, they’re gonna be giving there all for 30 minutes, and then blow up. So when you when you get one of those booster rockets, you let them do their thing, sit on their wheel and rest, because they’re gonna be putting out 400 watts for 30 minutes and then explode. And great, they just helped you out, they didn’t know it. And a lot of guys get in breakaways, don’t know that feel, don’t know that right intensity and do that. If you can be that person in the breakaway, who’s always self assessing how you feel, and whether you can get to the end of that intensity, you actually have an edge over a lot of the other riders.

Chris Case 1:22:49
Interesting. One other thing that I know we want to work in here, it’s a little abstract, I think, it comes from Kristin Armstrong, it’s about this sense of knowing the feeling of speed. Tell us more about that aspect of using RPE here.

Understanding The Different Feels Of RPE

Trevor Connor 1:23:11
Yeah so this is probably actually where we’re getting a little outside of RPE, because RPE is really a user of intensive.

Chris Case 1:23:20
Sure.

Trevor Connor 1:23:20
But this is really getting at there are other feels that you need to learn. And one of them is speed. If you all you’re ever doing is riding at 20 miles an hour, even if you’re putting out decent wattage, and then you get into a time trial where you need to be going 30 miles an hour. You’re not gonna know the feel of that and believe it or not, there is a different feel. So if you are a racer like I always love when people tell me oh speeds and outdated metric, just rely on power. I always turn around and go there’s never been a race where the race wasn’t won by the fastest person. You need to learn speed. And there is a fear when you are going 30-35 miles an hour, it feels different than going 20 miles an hour, even if you’re putting out the same power. So yeah, thanks for bringing that up. And let’s hear from Kristin, that’s episode 154.

Kristin Armstrong 1:24:21
You know time trial is all about speed. And if you don’t know what speed feels like it’s not going to the front and chasing the next group down. That’s like setting pace on the front and bridging that’s not time trialing. And if an athlete’s having a hard time trying to figure out what his speed is, like what’s true time trial speed, what does it feel like? Because how do you ever get that experience of what it feels like? And you know, people will say oh, in the road race I had to get in the front I had a time trial like I dig so deep to like bridge that gap. I’m like, You weren’t trialing, So you put them behind a motor and you show them what time trawling is, you bring them up 50k an hour, right? You show them over 50k An hour what that feels like. Because that speed and until you understand and feel speed, you don’t even understand what getting up to speed is.

Chris Case 1:25:19
Another use for RPE, I think that’s quite beneficial, so say you have a power meter on your bike, but you do plenty of other things off the bike, you run, maybe you hike, all these other things that you’re doing in daily life have an impact, they have a load on the body. And RPE can be used to give a greater picture of what’s going on in terms of training load. But it also can translate- I guess, a little bit better between or not better, but- can translate between sports, where in one you have a power meter and in another you don’t. So there’s a common denominator, I guess you could say.

Trevor Connor 1:26:02
To take that a step further. Even if you use heart rate, which you can use in all these different sports, it doesn’t necessarily translate. So heart rate running tends to be significantly higher than heart rate, cycling. Plus, if you spend most of your time training at one sport, let’s say you’re a runner who periodically gets on the bike, you’re not as efficient on the bike. So again, heart rates going to be different. So you can’t use any of these metrics to translate from one sport to the other. The only thing that’s going to tell you is RPE. So if you are a cyclist and been cycling for years, and you’ve gotten that good sense of feel, you can go out for a run and go, okay I know what threshold feels like on the bike, I know what long slow distance feels like on the bike, and seek that same sort of feel seek that same level of RPE. And then, at that point, look at oh what’s different about my heart rate here?

Chris Case 1:27:01
Interesting, very good. To close out this really great discussion today on RPE. And on feelings, think it’s worth closing with a bit of a reminder, if you will, that for those who do rely quite a bit on numbers. Numbers don’t necessarily lead to successful interval sessions. They don’t guarantee success. There’s something more to an interval session than just hitting a number.

It Is Not About Just Hitting The Numbers

Trevor Connor 1:27:36
Yep. Yeah, I think this is Julie Young, and Steve Neil from Episode 91. So these are both very experienced coaches, bringing up the fact, exactly what you said hitting numbers doesn’t mean that you did a successful workout. But I love closing out with this one because Julie brings up another- I’m not sure you could even call it a metric,- but another feel in intervals, which is a really important one, which is getting that feel of success.

Chris Case 1:28:09
All right. Let’s hear from Julie and Steve.

Julie Young 1:28:14
So I think when people just focus on the numbers, and they think that in training, just by hitting numbers, they’re guaranteed a successful outcome in a race. I think that really marginalizes what it takes to put together a successful performance. And I think, for me, it is really, training provides all those aspects of conditioning that lead to a successful performance. So it has to be more than just chasing numbers on the device.

Trevor Connor 1:28:50
So Julie and I, during our conversations, we came up with a list of some of the areas that both of us as coaches feel are absolutely critical to training, critical for performance that just don’t show up in the numbers. So I’m just going to do the quick list and then we can take a deeper dive into each of these but the first one is – I really like Julie’s terminology for this- building mental and physical competence. The next one that’s a big one for me is knowing and focusing on the big picture. And that includes having both balance and perspective and also having purpose and goals. So Julie, let’s let’s throw it back to you and tell us a little bit about what you mean by mental and physical confidence.

Julie Young 1:29:37
So for me and again, I go back to a podcast you guys have done and you talk about executing the workouts and you know, I think you guys did a great job explaining that. Sound training is not this ever changing, like circus of workouts where you’re simply just trying to entertain the athlete but it’s a core group of workouts that the athlete does better and better and better. And to me execution is not about chasing a number on my power meter, it’s about using that as a reference and definitely getting in that zone. But mentally, like using that training session, to put yourself in an upcoming race, like an important piece of an upcoming race, like visualizing yourself while you’re doing this intense workout and mentally visualizing yourself in that part of that race. And I think thinking about ways that, you take your mind beyond the discomfort of the physical sensations and whether it’s focusing on a fluid pedal stroke, your breathing, your posture, whatever it is, you know, but essentially, these are things that you’re going to lean on in the race. I know for myself, being in races, I’ll fall back on, a training session and just say to myself, Hey, this is no big deal, this is just a hill interval. So for me, like the execution is really about, again, mentally using that interval to put yourself in an upcoming race versus just again, chasing that power number, or mentally taking off the time. I think we reall lose out on a lot of the benefits of training when we approach it that way. And I feel like when you can attach this mental like visualization, you’re going to glean so much more effectiveness out of your training sessions.

60-Second Take-Homes

Chris Case 1:31:43
Well, we both know what we do at the end of an episode, which is 60-second take-home. So I’ll start if you don’t mind.

Trevor Connor 1:31:50
I like this because you always finish.

Chris Case 1:31:54
So I’m going to go right back to the title of the episode where we pose the question is RPE is perception of effort, the most important metric, and I’m going to say yes, it is. Especially for me, but I think for a lot of people out there, they may ignore this, they’re satisfied with numbers and data that come to them from devices that they attach to their body or to their bike, or to their running shoes, or whatever they might be doing. And I’m not discounting any of the value of those things. But for me, and for everybody out there, you will gain a lot by knowing feeling, anchoring those feelings. So you can translate them across sports anchor in a feeling on a scale, whether it’s the Borg scale, or a scale of your own creation, to know when to pull the plug to know when to push through to inform training in the long term, and the short term right down to a particular session that you might be doing on any given day. So I think it’s an extremely valuable metric. You could in fact, throw out all the other metrics, if you so choose to do like Ned basically did entire career and be an extremely successful athlete using just perceived effort to inform your training. Trevor, what do you got?

Trevor Connor 1:33:28
Good summary. And so I’ll continue with that, which is, this is not an episode to bash on numbers.That’s not the case at all. I love my power, I love my heart rate, I love looking at those numbers.

Chris Case 1:33:43
You’re a nerd.

Trevor Connor 1:33:44
I am very much so. And you hang out with nerds all day long. But there was a theme in all these clips, as I was looking for clips for this episode, the same message kept coming up again and again and again and again, which is the top athletes need or have this ability to use feel. And so I’m going to continue with what Chris said which is, numbers are great, but feel needs to inform the numbers. And likewise, numbers can inform the feel. But if you use those numbers in isolation from the feel, I do not- and I will go as far to say this is almost a statement of fact, in my opinion. -You can’t use those numbers effectively. Feel has to be part of the equation. So my one minute is if you take the time to learn feel to listen to everything you just heard from these experts in this show, and go and practice the feel learn the feel. Learn what 20 minutes feels like, what five minute feels like, learn what your intervals should feel like, learn what 300 or 250 Watts should feel like if you take the time to do that, that is going to make you a better athlete in your training. And if you are a racer, it is going to make you a far better racer. So take that time. Learn the feel.

Chris Case 1:35:13
All the feels.

Trevor Connor 1:35:15
Yes.

Chris Case 1:35:17
That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcasts and be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual as always we love your feedback. Join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalk abs.com/join and become a part of our education and coaching community.

Trevor Connor 1:35:45
Okay, Chris, take a breath. Take a deep breath

Chris Case 1:35:47
For Jeff Winkler, Dirk Friel, Kristin legan, Joe Friel, Jim Rutberg, Dr. Stephen Seiler, Svien Tuft, Ned Overend, and Jim Miller, Kristin Armstrong, Amos Brumble, Steve Neal, Julie Young, and Trevor Connor. I’m Chris case. Thanks for listening.

Trevor Connor 1:35:59
Well done.

Chris Case 1:36:00
Thank you.

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