Rewind 30 plus years to the late 80’s. September 1987 to be precise. That’s when I started my triathlon journey.  After my first event I was hooked, and determined to train hard for a bright new dawn in 1988.

I trained hard.  If I had to race at this particular intensity, then surely I should train at this intensity too, right?  I had limited physiology knowledge back then and I soon learned that if you went out on a long run or ride, going had for any length of time had only one ending.  On a training camp in 1989 I met British Triathlon champion Bernie Shrosbree.  I asked him why running was so hard, and why I hated running anything longer than 45 minutes.  What he told me then, I still remember to this day.  “Just run slowly.  You’ll be able to keep it up for a longer duration, and that is how you build running endurance.”  So, I tried going easy and guess what? Yep, I started to like long runs.

By that point I was starting to feel my way into what I would learn years later is known as polarised training.

By the way, the only thing we had back then to measure how fast you ran was a Casio sports watch, and that wouldn’t measure distance.  On my bike I had a small computer that would measure time and distance, so speed was my focus.  Could I average 20mph?  What I’m really coming round to is that until the mid 90’s when Polar introduced the first commercially available heart rate monitors, we could only judge effort by feel.  Just 3 levels:

An observation from my coaching in the last 25 or so years is that recreational athletes have become more and more dependent up[on their gadgets, to the point where they have lost the ability to gauge effort using internal metrics.  One can often find examples of this during events like Ironman where a Garmin device on the bike fails and the athlete reports feeling lost and not knowing how hard to ride.  Another example might be a session which includes multiple reps, and the athlete works too hard in the early reps, then struggles to hold the required effort level in the final reps.It’s easy to forget that every endurance athlete before the mid ‘90s had to rely on their ‘internal’ gauge to work out their effort.  Of course, when running intervals on the track or swimming in the pool they could also use the clock, and they might get some feedback during an effort, but it was still largely about pace judgement and effort.  This is known as Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and was a phrase coined by Swedish physiologist Gunnar Borg back in the 60’s.  He created this table to allow athletes to rate their effort using a scale ranging from 6-20 (where 6 represents the resting HR of 60 for an average human being, and 20 represents the maximal HR of 200 for an average human being).

I am not suggesting that we go back to the days when we had no gadgets.  They serve many valuable purposes.  However, I do feel that all athletes should first be able to judge effort without reference to a watch or GPS device.

There are many advantages to using RPE, including:

  1. Free
  2. Reliable – No batteries needed and no hanging around for satellites to align
  3. Never breaks down – Simple technology that works better each time you use it
  4. Portable – Take it anywhere
  5. Rugged – Works in all conditions (hot, cold, wet, indoors, outdoors)
  6. Lifetime guarantee, no questions asked

Granted, there are some downsides as well:

  1. Requires manual labour to download data
  2. Does not look flashy so may not impress your friends
  3. Everyone has one
  4. Requires time and patience to master the instructions

Seriously though, If you can learn to interpret the messages that your body is giving you about pace and effort, then you have everything you need to race well.  Yes, you can get marginal gains with a power meter or a GPS device that gives you precise pacing data, but please remember that until the mid 90’s athletes were winning gold medals and setting world records using RPE.

The goal is to run, ride, and swim without referencing your watch. By all means collect the data, but once started do not look at the face.

To become an RPE master, these are the steps I would take:

  1. Focus on just 3 zones., easy, medium, and hard (see Table 1).  Use breathing to gauge which zone you are in.
  2. Calculate your paces for each zone.
  3. Choose a zone for each session and try to get as close as possible to your target pace or heart rate.  With practice you should be able to get as close as 1%.
  4. Plan a session with multiple zones and see how close you are.
  5. Go long – can you stay in the right zone on a 2hr run or a 4hr ride?  What happens to your pacing as you get hot or tired?
  6. Enter an event and race purely on feel.  Set a goal for the event (if it’s single sport), or multiple goals (if it’s triathlon).  What happens?

It may take some time to get to point 6 but that’s OK because you have as long as your athletic ambitions extend.  Each time you practice you will get better, and you can always have your gadgets to provide you with some precision when you need them most.

I can, however, tell you that your greatest satisfaction will be the pure joy of exercising without having to be controlled by your device telling you when to slow down and speed up.  The freedom of adjusting efforts based on feel alone is liberating.

*If you want to see how RPE relates to other training zones you may be familiar with, please see the table attached to this post, “Wardy’s Unofficial Comparison of HR Zones.”

Wardy unnoficial comparison of HR zones