An idiot’s guide to training without “training tools”: RPE and mind-body awareness

Disclaimer: the word “idiot” in the title of this post is by no means meant to be directed at readers; on the contrary, it’s my default way of being self-deprecating while writing these posts as if journaling to myself. Soon to come: “How to overcome unbridled self-deprecation as an endurance athlete.”

My last post, “I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why” received so much positive feedback and enthusiastic sharing of similar experiences from readers that I felt almost immediately inspired to expound upon my adventures in living the analog life–more specifically, how living relatively unencumbered by technology-driven distractions has improved my life as a recreational athlete (I could easily elaborate upon the benefits of this lifestyle in my personal and professional lives, but I’ll spare you the boredom and stick strictly to my badass, ninja, double-life which involves superhuman feats of strength, power, and will).

The theme of this blog post is centered around my newfound—and I use the word “newfound” cautiously—appreciation of how to move and train mindfully. The reality is that this skill is not so much newly found as rediscovered—something that has always been there, lurking just beneath the veneer of GPS watches and dubstep music turned to max volume. Each of us possesses a degree of wisdom within our musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems that can be easily ignored, beaten into submission, or eclipsed by the sheen of a training plan. But what happens when we remove the agenda (mind) and just listen, feel, and experience (full inhabitation of body)?

This is risky, right? With structure comes progress (pretty much scientifically proven at this point) and accountability. Apply a specified, tried-and-true algorithm and, barring any rare medical complications, one can expect a certain outcome. I like this. I like science. I like applying evidence in order to forecast predictable outcomes.

I also like numbers, gadgets, and technical, detail-oriented things. Elevation gain, distance, HR fluctuations, cadence, max power, speed—these digital readouts are like candy for my left hemisphere.

Stripping myself of the comfort blankets that are my training journal, watch, and GPS was, quite frankly, terrifying for me. This was for several reasons, but among them: fear of boredom, fear of failure, lack of trust in myself to follow through, lack of trust in my body to progress, and attachment to the numbers/data game.

So I adopted something I could cling to: RPE. RPE, or “Rated Perceived Exertion” (a.k.a. “Borg scale”) refers to a numeric scale frequently used in exercise science research. The scale is completely subjective; in other words, it’s based entirely on an individual’s personal perception and concept of relativity. The idea is simple: on a scale of 6-20, how intense is your effort right now? (If 6-20 seems like an arbitrary range, rest assured it’s not–it’s based on heart-rate equivalents. It’s math.) For reference, 6 is lying on the couch, 11 is “light” activity, 15 is “heavy” activity, and 20 is “maximal exertion.” How the subject chooses to define “light” and “heavy” is up to him or her. Obviously one person’s light may be another person’s heavy depending on fitness, pain tolerance, and an incalculable number of other factors, but that’s beside the point. The point is to create a relative scale unique to each person, in order to gauge his or her psychological response to physical exertion in a given exercise session. Using RPE can be a useful tool for structuring a workout: intervals of alternating 12 and 15, or 17 effort uphill and 11 effort downhill, etc.—all while sidestepping the common pitfalls of using more traditional training tools (most notably, overtraining). RPE gives numerophiles such as myself something ordinal and organized, while also evading the possible dangers of too intense a focus on objective readouts (such as heart rate, speed, etc.).

Let me tell you something: RPE WORKS. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’re there, you’ve done it. You’ve figured out how to beat the system. But only if you play your cards right (in other words, no slacking!).

Here’s what using RPE requires: intense laser-focus on the present moment; constant and vigilant assessment of physical experience; unabashed honesty and ability to practice being objective with oneself; finely-tuned mind-body awareness; ability to interpret physiologic readouts; mental flexibility; and nuanced ability to ascertain when pushing limits is acceptable and beneficial.

Here’s what using RPE avoids: training to a preconceived number; ignoring bodily sensations for the sake of said number; zoning out; excessive overreaching; excessive underreaching; mind-body disconnect.

Here’s what an RPE-driven workout looks like: start out at a warm-up pace, and once you get to that point where the engine feels good and revved, push a little more speed or power for a discrete period. Mind you, this is all based on feel. Don’t push it too hard or too fast right out of the gates; rather, wait until you’re well into glycogen utilization (or beta oxidation, whatever you’re going for) to push into higher gears. This will become apparent not when you feel like you “should” start to speed up but when your body starts to crave it. I usually hit a point where I am ready to push myself pretty hard (15-19 on the Borg/RPE scale), and then I go for it for as long as it feels doable, maybe plus 15-25% for good measure. I let myself recover for a little while, but not too long, before messing around with lactate threshold again. Then when my body starts to feel like it’s breaking down, like I’m losing my form, I’ll reel it in and call it a day.

This is what my RPE approach to training looks like, but this is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. I really enjoy interval training and have found this to be a great way to fine-tune my ability to put forth honest efforts while also maintaining complete immersion in the present moment. My regimented, schedule-oriented, left-brain self is actually a fan. And my performance has improved dramatically since January by training this way, despite the fact that my workouts are shorter (at least I think they are…I’m not measuring time, so I honestly have no clue. Similarly, my “performance improvement” is entirely subjective…but I just feel much stronger, lighter on my feet, etc.).

Interestingly, training by RPE also opened up a wormhole into a world oft despised (or even discredited) by endurance athletes: weight training. Running and swimming by RPE has made me keenly aware of any and every weakness in my kinetic chain like never before. Suddenly I am flooded with the sensations of specific muscles contracting and relaxing during movement; this is an overwhelmingly cool sensation, and also a wake-up call: my pelvis wasn’t nearly as stable as I thought it was while running, and my glute medius was all but shot; my pectorals were taking up far too much slack during freestyle and I’d need to do some serious work on strengthening my lats; my core and lower back weren’t doing nearly as good a job as they could be. Weak glutes during a run are bad enough as is; but try experiencing them on a whole other level while experimenting with total mind-body immersion practices. It’s horrific. Each step is like nails on a chalkboard: a glaringly uncomfortable and disorienting nagging sensation that was on the verge of driving me to insanity. So I started hitting the weights again. And surprisingly, I haven’t hated it this time around. I think it might have something to do with being fully present and mindful while doing it.

Through all of this, there is one thing I haven’t left by the wayside, and that is this: music. While I do strive for completely distraction-less living some day, I had to start somewhere, and music has been a nice crutch throughout the transition. My feelings on music also straddle the divide: on the one hand, it can be terribly distracting, but on the other hand, the right song can really help endow me with the laser focus I’m looking for. I suppose it’s all a matter of knowing how and when to use music as a tool.

Perhaps that could be said for all of the training tools—watches, GPS devices, training logs, etc. Perhaps it’s all about knowing how and when to use them effectively, while tempering the desire to go off the deep end and become too encumbered with slaving away to them.

This, however, requires a certain degree of moderation and, as I’ve stated before, moderation has always eluded me and to this day, continues to do so.

I guess that just comes with the territory of being an endurance junkie.


3 thoughts on “An idiot’s guide to training without “training tools”: RPE and mind-body awareness

  1. I’m going on one of the harder group rides that my city hosts every Tuesday, tomorrow at 6:30 am. I will not be shooting for a number on my scale, but I will try and pay attention to my body with this laser focus you referred to. I usually just space out the whole time and think about how I’m getting dropped by old leathery guys. On this ride I almost always pay less attention to my body than on other rides. It is a large group so I should be careful, but I am curious to exactly where on my scale I push it.


  2. I want to let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster Award. You can check it out on my most recent blog post. I hope you have as much fun with it as I did!!


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