How is training measured? Part 2: it’s all about perception

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All physical training can be described in terms of the training process and the training outcomes. In order to improve outcomes, you need to have a thorough understanding of the process. And the process can be measured either externally (power, calories), or internally – how your body responds to that external demand.

It’s more valuable to know the internal training load, because that’s the actual physiological stress to which your body adapts. But defining the internal load isn’t an exact science.

In part 1, we discussed the pros and cons of the often-used heart rate based calculations.

This post describes a measurement tool that does everything heart rate calculations can’t. RPE, or your rating of perceived exertion, is a great alternative for quantifying your internal training load.

Of course there are RPE-haters out there, and some of the criticisms are legitimate. There are no perfect measures of your training. But unless you’re strictly an endurance athlete training year-round with a heart rate monitor, RPE may be the better metric to determine your training load. It’s been thoroughly validated, and it provides a more holistic, dynamic view of your body’s response to training. In reality there are no linear responses to training, and RPE recognizes that.

Perceived exertion not only correlates well with submaximal exercise intensities, but it describes “anaerobic” or above-max exercise intensities better than heart rate. In fact, heart rate and blood lactate predict RPE better than either variable by itself. That means RPE could be a better big picture measurement of your overall training intensity, especially if you’re not doing the old fashioned submax, steady state endurance exercise all the time.

And RPE doesn’t only describe the physical demands of a workout. Your fitness is greater than the sum of its metabolic and cardiovascular parts, so measuring the comprehensive training load should be important to you.

Maybe you thought a workout was hard because you’re going through some emotional stress, or you have other challenges in life besides your training. That stuff tends to happen. Or maybe you thought a workout was hard because it just totally sucked. I hate distance running, and no matter how easy it is in terms of power output, it will always be difficult for me. And my attitude towards my training should count for something!

Whether a workout is difficult physiologically or psychologically, too much of either will contribute to plateaus, staleness, and overtraining. There’s evidence that RPE is much higher than heart rate in overreached athletes, indicating that RPE can more accurately measure accumulated fatigue and describe the multifactorial condition of overtraining.

Your body is a dynamic thing, so training plans should reflect that. If one athlete perceives a workout to be more difficult than another, then either the perception should change, or the workout should.

There’s a reason many of the top athletes in the world train according to how they feel. The more you measure your perception towards training, the more you can develop mental toughness and get in tune with your individual physiology.

While objective data has obvious value, your perception of your training load may be more practical for finding the right amount of training to accomplish your goals. After all, that’s why you’re putting in the work.

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