Being a smart runner means walking the fine line between listening to your body and knowing when to ignore it to push your limits. The way to walk this fine line is to learn to run by the RPE scale. RPE in running stands for rate of perceived exertion or relative perceived exertion.
Learning how to run by RPE is an art that has gotten overly complicated. Runners are now bombarded by stats from our wearables to our apps to race pace calculators.
All this noise can distract away from the true measure of our training: how we feel.
And because there are so many variables in running and life—which are inextricably linked—how we feel on a run can be very different. We can run the same course at the same pace in the same weather wearing the same clothes after eating the same breakfast and feel GREAT or TERRIBLE on any given day.
Life stress, a sick kid, your menstrual cycle, or a thousand other things, can impact our run. Our Garmin or GPS watch doesn’t factor this in, but our body does.
Related: Running on No Sleep: Do or Don’t?
Because runners can be perfectionists or have an OCD tendency towards numbers (c’mon guys, I know it’s not just me!), we try to run certain paces no matter the cost and this can sabotage our training.
The antidote to this is running by RPE.
In this article, I’m going to explain:
- What is RPE in running
- What the RPE scale in running is
- Why you should run by RPE
- The difference between the RPE scale and HR zones
- 7 Tips for how to run by RPE
So, let’s go!
What is RPE in running?
RPE in running or, running by the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale, is running by the measure of intensity (how hard the run feels).
Rate of perceived exertion is based on physical reactions to your exercise including:
- Heart rate
- Breathing rate, and
- Muscle fatigue
The most common RPE scale for running rates intensity levels from 1 to 10: 1 being extremely light intensity and 10 being all-out running.
There are other RPE scales with different ranges like the Borg scale which I mention below. For my athletes and for this article, I’m going to use the most simplistic RPE scale of 1-10.
What is the RPE scale for running?
The RPE scale for running aligns numbers 1 to 10 with different training zones and paces ranging from recovery, easy, threshold, to interval paces.
Here is your RPE scale for running:
- RPE 1 walking
- RPE 2 recovery jog or shakeout run
- RPE 3-4 easy base-building run, warm-up, cool-down
- RPE 5 Marathon pace
- RPE 6 Half-marathon pace
- RPE 7 Tempo run (pace you can hold for an hour, e.g. 10k to 15k)
- RPE 8 Threshold run or cruise intervals (pace you can hold for 30-45 minutes e.g. 8k to 10k)
- RPE 9 Short and fast intervals (1-mile to 5k effort), VO2 Max
- RPE 10 The end of your workout, finishing kick, anaerobic
In other words, RPE in running is:
- Levels 1-4 are easy
- Levels 5-6 are moderate
- Levels 7-8 are hard but controlled
- Levels 9-10 are giving it all you have!
Is running by effort and running by RPE the same?
Running by RPE is NOT running by pace, heart rate, percentage, or even effort. It is running by exertion or running by feel or intensity.
Effort and exertion aren’t the same though they are cousins. Effort is a factor in exertion. You may be doing an easy run that feels hard because you’re tired but your heart and breath rate are low. Therefore, it would still rank lower on the RPE scale.
You may be running around the track doing fast intervals, feeling like you’re flying. Your effort may seem low but your heart and breathing rates are racing. This is high on the RPE scale for running.
Is running by heart rate and RPE the same?
Running by RPE and running by heart rate zones are not the same—though they are related.
Running by RPE factors in your heart rate but also factors in other physical factors including your breath rate, perspiration, and how you feel overall.
Conversely, training by heart rate zones only considers how fast your heart is pumping which can be influenced by multiple factors. To get your true heart rate zones requires lab testing.
Some examples that could impact your heart rate include:
- If you had coffee before your workout, your heart rate could be elevated.
- Where you are in your menstrual cycle could elevate your heart rate.
- Higher heart rate. Some people tend to have higher heart rates naturally. New runners almost always have very high heart rates when running.
- Your heart rate monitor could also be inaccurate. Wrist-based based heart rate monitors can have a margin of error up to 13.5 percent, research shows.
The Borg RPE scale blends exertion with heart rate zones. It is a scale ranging from 6 (no exertion) to 20 (max effort). To use it, you take the exertion score and multiply it by (roughly) 10 to get the approximate heart rate.
For example, a tempo run should be a 13 to 14 on the Borg scale, so then your corresponding heart rate should be in the 130s or 140s.
Related: How to Start Running: A Complete Beginner’s Guide
How does the RPE scale correspond to HR zones?
The RPE scale and heart rate zones are related. Both have intensity levels and corresponding runs. Below is a summary of RPE levels and heart rate zones:
- RPE Levels 1-4/Heart rate zones 1-2 (50-70 percent of your max HR) are recovery, easy, and long runs
- RPE Levels 5-6/Heart rate zones 3 (70-80) percent of your max HR) are moderate efforts including tempo runs
- RPE Levels 7-8/Heart rate zones 4 (80-90 percent of your max HR) are hard but controlled efforts including cruise intervals, threshold, fartleks, and progressions.
- RPE Levels 9-10/Heart rate zones 5 (90-100 percent of your max HR) are VO2 max intervals, sprints or, end of a race or workout
Related: How to Use Heart Rate Zones Running with a Stroller
Why should I use RPE for running?
There are so many reasons to use RPE in running:
1. RPE factors in variables of running.
The beauty of using RPE for running is that it factors in all the variables of running such as:
- Poor sleep
- Menstrual cycle
- Sleep quality
- Life stress
- Training fatigue
2. RPE allows you to train more effectively.
Running by RPE is a subjective way of training that allows you truly be in tune with your body. This helps you execute the purpose of each run.
Related: Garmin Metrics Explained
By training by rate of exertion, you will:
- not be tempted to turn a tempo run into a time trial.
- not run your easy runs too fast, for example. (Remember, easy is not a pace.)
- not push a run when you don’t feel great and end up sick.
- be able to balance your recovery and stress.
- improve race performance.
- know your true zones.
- learn what training methodologies work best for you.
Related: What is a Tempo Run?
For example, you may think 60 miles a week is a great training load. But when training by the RPE scale, every run may feel hard at that volume. This may help you recognize that 50 miles is an optimal training volume for you.
Related: How Many Miles Should I Run in a Day?
3. No need for a watch.
Running by feel is simple and gets you back to the pure joy of feeling your body move. You don’t need an expensive watch. You don’t need to calculate data or compare yourself to others. All you need is to tune in to how you feel.
How to calculate RPE in running?
Use the RPE in running to stay in tune with how you truly feel. This requires practice and patience. Start by first differentiating between extremely easy and extremely hard. Then fill in the blanks in the middle.
Remember most of your easy runs should be around a level 3. That’s just a couple of ticks up from walking.
Many runners will need to run without earbuds and watches hidden to raise their physical awareness. Do body scans and take note of how:
- your physical body feels (fatigued or energized?),
- fast your heart is pumping,
- many breaths you are taking,
- positive or negative your attitude is,
- much effort you are putting in,
- much you’re sweating.
These factors collect to create your rate of perceived exertion. Knowing these true indicators will help you tune into your true training zones and know when to push and when to hold back.
Related: The Benefits of Running Easy
How can I tell what a hard effort is?
A hard effort in running (levels 7 to 10 on the RPE scale) is characterized by heavy breathing, a high heart rate in zones 3-5, high perspiration, and feeling tired. It is also difficult to talk.
Chances are, when running at a hard effort, you are thinking about when you get to stop running. Often when running at a hard effort is when you start battling negative thoughts.
Related: 9 Mental Training Tips for Runners from Sports Psychologists
What is easy effort running?
When running at an easy effort you feel like you can run forever, you can hold a conversation or sing a song, your breath and breathing rates are low, you aren’t sweating a lot, and you feel energized, not tired.
7 Tips to Run by RPE
- Start out easy. Begin your run with a very easy light jog. This will help you create a baseline for what RPE 1-2 is. Progress your speed.
- Run without earbuds. Tune into your body. Listen to your breathing. Feel your heartbeat. Take note of how your legs feel.
- Cover your watch. Track your progress but don’t let yourself see what pace you’re running or what your heart rate is. You can look at the data later. Note how it corresponds to how you are feeling to create a new baseline for what easy, moderate, and hard intensities are. You can also run without a watch.
- Do the talk test. As you pick up the pace, talk with others or sing a song to tell how hard you’re running.
- Easy: You can hold a conversation or sing a song.
- Moderate: You can string together a sentence.
- Hard: You can only say a word or two at a time.
- Finish fast. Finish your run with a fast mile pick-up or doing 4 by 50-meter hill sprints to see what your RPE 9 (or 10) feels like.
- Play with pace. On your next run, play around with your pace, do a fartlek, and take mental notes of what your different zones feel like. Pay attention to your muscle fatigue, breathing, sweating, and heart rate. Do the talk test. Write it down or record it in your app to lock in your different levels. Lots of apps like Final Surge (which I use for coaching) let you give an effort score.
- Know the purpose behind each run. As you begin to calibrate your RPE scale, be sure to know the purpose of each run and the corresponding RPE levels to stay true to your zones.
If you’d like more guidance towards your running goals, check out my run coaching services!