How to Measure Your Exercise Intensity

When you’re running, are you training hard or hardly training? Do you even know the difference?

Here’s the main reason you should care. Training at the right intensity can help you get the most out of your running program. That’s why you need to learn how to measure your exercise intensity.

You ought to make sure you’re not pushing your body too hard or too little. This, of course, depends on your planned workout, fitness level, and training goals.

Today’s blog post gives a brief overview of one reliable method of measuring training intensity known as the Rating of Perceived Exertion (R.P.E). This is a way of measuring physical activity intensity level.

But first things first, what do I mean by exercise intensity?

Training Intensity Explained

Training intensity is related to how hard a workout feels for you. This is determined by your breathing rate, heart rate, muscle fatigue,  and sweat rate.

When it comes to measuring exercise intensity, there is quite a few ways to do so. One of my favorites is the Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) method.

The RPE Demystified

Also known as the “Borg CR10 scale”, or the “Modified RPE scale.”, the RPE is, in essence, a method of rating exercise intensity.

As the name implies, rate of perceived exertion is a subjective measure of hard you feel while working out relative to what you perceive as your maximum intensity—regardless of whether you’re weightlifting, swimming, cycling, walking, rowing, or, of course, running.

The modified RPE scale starts at 1 (no exertion) and goes all the way to 10 (maximal effort). The original scale (running from 6 to 20) was created in 1982 by Dr. Gunnar Borg (thus the name) and was developed as an oversimplified way to estimate heart rate.

The numbers correspond to descriptive statements that rate the intensity of physical exercise based on an array of sensations of physical stresses, such as increased heart and breathing rate, muscle fatigue, sweating, etc. For example, a rating of 1 means you’re barely putting in any effort, whereas a 9 is near maximal exertion.

It’s So Easy To Use

The RPE rating system requires no equipment. As long as you’re willing to listen to your body, you’re good to go. The scale is especially useful when you don’t have  a heart rate monitor and/or can’t (or won’t) o stop mid-workout to check your pulse.

Don’t get me wrong. I have simplified my explanation on purpose, but that doesn’t mean that using RPE is an easy walk in the park. In fact, for beginners, this method’s complex rating system might be quite overwhelming. However, with practice, you can learn how to use it with ease.

As a side note, keep in mind that your ratings will also vary in line with external factors, such as terrain, weather conditions and even how tired you feel. That’s why some sessions might feel harder than they usually do, despite training just as hard.

The Keyword is Practice

By now I believe that you a thorough grasp of the RPE method. Let’s now discuss how to put it into practice.

Here is the key: If you’re serious about making the most out of this rating system, you need to start using it—even if you’ve never done it before. Build the habit of rating each run on a 1 to 10 scale both during and right after the session. Then, keep tabs on your RPE in a training diary.

What’s more?

Don’t focus on just one sensation, such as sweating or muscle fatigue. What you should do instead is get a broad sense of how hard—or easy—you’re working out—that’s your total feeling of exertion.

Remember: The RPE scale is subjective, so the ratings mean different things for different people. For instance, super-vigorous activity could be jogging at 4.5 MPH for one person or faster running at 9 MPH for another. So it’s up to you to figure out the most appropriate ratings.

The RPE Ratings Explained

  1. Very easy. No exertion. You could talk about anything with ease since you’re not doing anything physically demanding.
  2. Fairly light effort. You’re moving, but it’s slow and easy. That’s how you should feel whenever you’re warming up or stretching. You can converse with no effort.
  3. Light exertion. You’re moving, your muscles are warm, and your breathing is slightly labored, but you can easily carry on a conversation without having to pause to catch your breath. Think easy-paced recovery runs.
  4. Moderately easy. You’re starting to sweat, and your heart is beating faster. You can talk but are breathing more heavily, and you need to take occasional breaks to catch your breath. Think long runs.
  5. Moderate to somewhat hard exertion. Your heart is beating faster and are working up a real sweat. You’re also breathing hard so talking is strenuous.
  6. Hard exertion. You’re working harder and breathing super hard. Talking requires a lot of effort so you’d rather not do it. Think tempo runs.
  7. Hard to somewhat intense exertion. You start to wonder how long you can maintain the hard effort. You can speak no more than a few words during your session thanks to rapid breathing and elevated heart rate. Think threshold runs at 10K race pace.
  8. Very hard. You’re nearing your absolute fatigue limit. You’re gasping for air on every and feeling like your lungs are about to explode. Think VO2 max training at 5k pace race.
  9. Super hard. You cannot sustain the intensity for more than 30 seconds. Even saying a few words is impossible. Think VO2 max training at 3K pace race.
  10. Absolute exertion. This is your ultimate limit of what you can do. You cannot sustain this level of exercise for more than a few seconds. Forget about speaking. Think 400m to 1K race pace.

How to Use The RPE system?

After warming up at a low to moderate level of exertion, begin your run. Then, after  a few minutes in, assess your exertion level from the scale.

For instance, if you still are feeling at an RPE under 6 and want to push more, then pick up your pace to increase your intensity. You can this by running faster, adding intensity intervals (think sprints) or seeking out inclines or uphills.

If you’re feeling an intensity of 8 or 9, but you’re still mid-workout, you might want to slow down your pace until you’re back to the moderate intensity zone.

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There you have it. The above guidelines are all you need to start using the RPE system with ease and efficiency. The rest is up to you.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Thank you for dropping by.

David D.