Let’s Talk About Your Feelings

No, I’m not going Oprah on you.  I’m talking about training on perceived exertion, or RPE. In others words, training by feel. You hear this a lot in the athletic community. Some try and make it sound scientific (“I train by RPE”), and some throw it out there to denote experience (“I really listen to my body”). While there is certainly something to be said for paying attention to cues that you body gives you, there is also a need to ignore some of those cues. The body is designed to remain comfortable by nature. Pain is a feeling used by your body to let you know something is wrong, not when something is right. So to listen to every ache and pain is going to get you nice and comfortable, but will limit your improvements as an athlete.  Your body also has ways to mask pain, usually through hormones. So what should be a warning sign of sorts isn’t received by your brain the way it probably should. Adrenalin is a great example. So depending on your mood or your surroundings, that feel for what your body is telling you can be off. Way off.

One of the things that I have been doing on a somewhat regular basis is taking athletes to the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute for blood lactate testing. It’s a test in which you run on a treadmill (or ride a bike) at progressively faster speeds, while recording blood lactate levels, heart rate, and RPE along the way. And for every athlete I’ve either observed or helped with there are a few constants in the test. We can usually predict about where in the test the LT is going to occur or the hr is going to climb  after a few minutes, as everyone’s body reacts to stress in a similar way. One of the other constants is that the RPE of each athlete is all over the place. No two are the same. On a scale of 1-10, some athletes will be walking and claim a “7”, while others will be maxed out at the same number. It’s almost comical.

Not long ago I listened to a study that was done with a group of athletes. They took each person and gave them a rather difficult workout to complete by themselves. After the workout they had each athlete rate the effort (RPE). Next they gave the athlete the exact same workout, but this time they were to complete with a group. After the second workout they had to give the RPE again. When they lined the two workouts up and compared results (time, etc) with the RPE, they discovered that the athletes worked as much as twice as hard in the group workout, while rating the 2 workouts equal in RPE. Twice as hard. Felt the same.

One of the points of their test was to show that you get a better workout when you train with a group. But the other, very obvious takeaway from this is that your RPE can be as much as 50% off. About as accurate as a coin flip.

Another good example, but on the opposite side of the “coin”. I had athletes tell me after a race that they felt great and didn’t need to take any real time off to recover. I said rest. They instead went for a short run and pulled something in their leg. Couldn’t “feel” that things were still healing deep down in the body. But it was. Now it’s called an injury.

People like RPE for their ego as well, because they can lie to themselves. That killer group ride that your buddy “kept aerobic and comfortable” yet was out of the saddle on every hill sprinting, then threw up at the end? Suuuuure that was aerobic. Bless his heart.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about how you should just ignore all signs from your body. A “no pain no gain” philosophy is not what I’m recommending either. But to let the most easily manipulated organ in your body control your workout schedule isn’t a good plan either.

Not sure about all this jibber jabber? Guys, try this. Next time your wife goes for a run, tell her how incredibly fat she looks right as she heads out the door. Then ask her how her run went when she gets back. Or, tell her she just got in the lottery and she’s racing in Kona right before she goes for a ride. Same person. Same fitness. 2 very different “feeling” workouts. (On a side note, at the elite/pro level, these are mind games 101. Convince you’re opponent they’re tired through the art of suggestion)

That’s why I promote the use of a heart rate monitor. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it’s a lot more consistent and easy to pick up on the anomalies. Completely ignoring all warning signs isn’t a good plan either. Just know the difference. Training on tired legs is not even remotely the same as being overtrained or having chronic fatigue syndrome. Those are things your heart will tell you, not your feelings.

Of course there is another reason you train by feelings. Rule #7 . But that’s a totally different article you nancy.

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  • Tammie Manchester

    So how does a run go after you’ve been told you’re fat?
    And what is an athlete that recognizes their limitations and doesn’t try to push to the point of vomiting called?

  • TJ,
    This is one of the best blogs you’ve posted! It is soooooo on point! I hope it’s okay to share bc I’ve been saying this for a while and it’s nice to see that other athletes and coaches see it the same way. It’s sometimes a little too easy to “justify” RPE for a weak workout.

  • Of Course it’s OK to share. Thanks!

  • TJ… thanks for this bit of information that oddly seems in line with everything I’ve ever read (but with much better satire… sorry Tammie… you can please some of the people some of the time). I also learned how to kick reading your blogs. Being a soccer player and not a swimmer, “kick from the hips” didn’t make much sense to me… but when you said to kick like you’re kicking a ball, it all of a sudden became so clear! I only wish you posted more often, but I know this isn’t all you do. Good luck in the upcoming season! I’ll be training for my first 70.3… on RPE, of course! 😉

  • Damn I wish I would’ve known you 30 years ago when I was 30 and Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were kings of the hill. Awesome info. Keep up the great work.

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