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Training Tips (Part II of III): RPE Decoded for Active Travel

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013

A few mornings each week, I teach a group cycling class at a local gym. There are typically about 25 people in the class at all different fitness levels, each with different fitness goals. So how do I ensure each student gets the workout they need/want? I use a scale called Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE. It’s not a fancy scale that requires an electronic heart rate monitor or one that requires multiple heart checks throughout class; instead, it is a mental scale determined by each individual student in my class.

RPE is a scale from 0-10 (0 = no exercise; 10 = very, very strenuous exercise); the scale is different for everyone, that is – “very, very strenuous” could be walking at a 3 mph pace for one person or running at an 8 mph pace for another person. Each number on the scale from 0-10 is equated to a different level of intensity. Here is the breakdown:


What It Means


No exertion. The only movement you're getting is pushing buttons on the remote.


Light exertion. This is how you should feel when you're warming up, cooling down, and stretching.


Medium exertion. You're breathing a little faster. Your heart is pumping a little faster. You're feeling a little warmer.


Moderate exertion. You're breathing pretty hard now, you're probably sweating. You can talk, but it's getting tougher.


Hard exertion. You're breathing really hard and you can only say a few words at a time. You're wondering how long you can go on like this.


Hardest exertion. You cannot keep this pace for more than a minute. Speaking is impossible. This is your limit.

Using an RPE scale helps individuals personalize their exercise program; tailoring one’s program to their fitness level and ultimate goal is important, because one exercise routine does not fit all.

When beginning or progressing through an exercise routine, you may wonder if you are exercising hard enough to reach your goal. For example, there is a difference between a leisurely stroll and a hilly power walk: You may sweat and breathe hard on your power walk while during a leisurely stroll you may feel more relaxed than physically challenged. This is an important difference when training toward a certain exercise goal. To simplify the difference among exercise intensities and across fitness levels, many trainers, instructors, and exercise programmers utilize RPE. 

There is no one best exercise for everyone. The benefits to your heart are similar as long as the type of exercise satisfies some basic requirements and you follow the recommended program goals, as prescribed by your doctor or exercise physiologist.

Your aerobic exercise program should have four goals:

  1. It is aerobic. It uses large muscle groups repetitively for a sustained amount of time

  2. You perform it for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week

  3. It meets the cardiovascular goals your doctor or exercise physiologist has prescribed for you

  4. It is something you will enjoy doing for an extended period of time

One way to determine your RPE is known as the "Talk Test." During an "aerobic" exercise session, one should be able to carry on a somewhat stilted conversation, if you are indeed "with oxygen" - which is what the word "aerobic" means. If you are gasping for air and unable to talk, you are most likely working at or beyond the anaerobic "without oxygen" threshold - a very, very, very hard intensity level at or beyond at the high end of their aerobic zone.

If you can sing the entire Star Spangled Banner and hit the high note with ease - you are probably not exerting much effort - and you have a great musical range! If you can sing Row Row Row your Boat, but have to take a breath after every other word, then you are probably working pretty hard! While these methods of reading intensity level are subjective, they tend to be good ways to help participants judge and adjust their level of exertion according to their fitness goals. For Adventures in Good Company trips rated a level 3 – exercising between a 3-4 on most days and a 5-6 once or twice a week is a good routine. For trips rated a level 4 - exercising between a 4-5 on most days and a 6-7 once or twice a week is a good routine. If you have questions about training for a certain trip – please don’t hesitate to contact the AGC office.

Our goal is for you to physically enjoy the trip you choose!


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