Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Rating of Perceived Exertion and the Illusions of Data


I love numbers as much as anyone.  Numbers and objective data keep us honest and separate the “feel” from the “real.”  Emotion can easily cloud judgment making it sometimes difficult to make the right training decisions without objective information.  But often numbers consume the human element and possibly create a false sense of security.  As Jeanes (2011) writes: "Traditionally defined in terms of %maximal heart rate (%HRmax) or %maximal metabolic equivalents, the process of exercise prescription is still difficult and individually imprecise. An alternative, and simpler, method is to define exercise intensity in terms of the Talk Test, which may be a surrogate for ventilatory threshold and more consistent with contemporary recommendations for index training intensity in well-trained and athletic individuals."

Take triathlon and cycling, two sports with the greatest gear fetishes of any others. Though power meters and discrete heart rate zones are certainly valuable measurement tools, they been sold as totally indispensable equipment during training.  Now, given the choice to utilize technology, I will usually take it.  But are these tools THAT much better than good ol’ RPE?  

Several months ago we discussed the reliability of ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) in swimming (HERE).  In short, RPE has been widely established in the literature in many areas from cardiac rehabilitation to elite athletics.  We concluded…"None of this information should suggest we get rid of technology. Instead, given the common logistical constraints of technology, we should recognize the benefits and limitations of subjective measures even if they sometimes require interpretation. RPE remains a trusted means to assess athlete readiness, even for quantitative thinkers. Understanding individual athlete adaptation and readiness is most important for selecting current stressors for driving future adaptations." 

Another way to assess RPE is the “Talk Test” referenced in the opening paragraph.  Indeed, one old tenet of running lore is that easy runs should be conversational, tempo runs should be that you can utter a few sentences, and fast intervals should be anywhere from grunting to maybe a sentence at a time.  But unlike many things in training lore, the there’s actually some evidence to back this one up! 

Rodríguez-Marroyo (2012) studied eighteen highly trained cyclists and compared ventilatory and respiratory compensation thresholds with the “Talk Test” (measured by reading a standard paragraph at the end of each stage during incremental exercise).  Both VT and RCT were established pre-test via respiratory gas exchange.  Talk test was measured at the Equivocal Stage (when breathing became difficult) and the Negative Stage (when talking was impossible).  Results showed significant relationships between the Talk Test, both VT and RCT thresholds, heart rate, and RPE, leading to the conclusion that the Talk Test “can be used as a simple and practical surrogate of the VT and RCT in highly-trained cyclists.”


Take whatever advantage technology will give you but don’t let it consume the human element.  Further, recognize that all technology has its limitations.  Expectations of technology should align with its realities.  Though output measurement devices certainly have their place in the overall training constellation, the evidence is clear they aren’t as indispensable as some may believe.    


Jeanes EM, Foster C, Porcari JP, Gibson M, Doberstein S.  Translation of exercise testing to exercise prescription using the talk test.  J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Mar;25(3):590-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318207ed53.

Rodríguez-Marroyo JA, Villa G, García-López J, Foster C.  Relationship Between the Talk Test and Ventilatory Thresholds in Well Trained Cyclists.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Sep 21. [Epub ahead of print]


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