RPE vs Performance

Recent conversations with people have generally revolved around the recovery from my heart attack. People say hello, ask how I am and ask how my recovery is going. Generally it’s going well, if a little slowly for my impatient self. I’ll tell them that I still have some ongoing chest pain, although even that has been a little better in the last week or so (touch wood). I’ll tell them that I’m managing to get out and do some running, swimming and cycling.

I will qualify that last statement by saying that it’s exercise rather than training but that it’s better than nothing. There are a number of reasons for this.

  1. I’m not planning on any races at the moment so there’s nothing to ‘train’ for.
  2. I’m not really confident enough to increase the intensity or volume to what I would consider ‘training’.
  3. I don’t think I’ve got the ability to increase the intensity or volume even if I had the confidence to do so.

Point 3 is difficult to explain though. I can kind of go a little harder and maybe even all out, but there seems to be little difference between an easy effort and a hard effort. It’s almost as though the relationship between perceived effort and performance is broken!

RPE vs Perfomance

Normally, in times before my heart attack there would be an almost linear relationship between my rate of perceived effort (RPE) and my performance. The harder the effort, the faster I’d go.

It wasn’t completely linear because at the lower end there wasn’t much difference between the first few stages on Borg’s scale. These are essentially resting or very light efforts so there isn’t much to measure in the way of performance anyway. Once into levels 10-18 though the relationship would become fairly linear and my performance would increase in line with increasing efforts. The last couple of effort levels would see performance level off a little. This leveling off would be simply because I was at or close to my maximum effort levels where there would be a diminishing return on investment. At these sorts of efforts I’d also loose some form and technique too. So, although I’d be putting in more effort I’d lose some efficiency so the actual performance gains would be negligible.

Since my heart attack this relationship seems to have broken down. For a start, the performance levels for a given effort are lower across the board. This is to be expected I guess for a number of reasons:

  1. I have a damaged heart so won’t be able to perform as well as before.
  2. I’m on various medications that limit performance somewhat.
  3. I haven’t done any proper training for 5 months so will have de-trained quite a bit and will have lost lots of fitness.

On top of this, the curve itself has changed.

RPE vs Perfomance post Heart Attack

RPE vs Performance

As before, RPE levels 6-9 are inconsequential due to the fact that they are little more than very gentle walking. After this, initially there is a small rise in performance as effort levels increase from 10-14. Things seem to level off a little after that though. I might feel as though I’m going harder but any increase in speed or performance is minimal. By the time I reach levels 14-16 the performance gains seem to have stopped altogether and then once things get hard (I haven’t gone all out yet) the performance gains seem to actually go into reverse. I feel as though I’m going harder, I’m putting in more effort but I’m actually getting slower.

What’s causing this?

Maybe it’s the medication doing it’s thing and limiting my abilities to go hard? Sometimes (especially when swimming) the halt on performance increase feels like a switch. It’s like my body suddenly puts on the brakes and no matter what I do I just get slower.

Maybe it’s my self-governing mechanisms kicking in to simply stop me from pushing too hard? Perhaps my body knows when too much is too much and puts things into place for the sake of self-preservation.

Maybe it’s the fact that my damaged heart needs more resources to work at those levels and so resources are diverted to that rather than to my legs.

How to Train

I don’t know what it is, but it makes ‘training’ difficult as it’s hard to know which metric to use other than RPE. Speed, pace, performance and even heart rate to some degree don’t seem to correlate properly with RPE. I guess it’s going to have to be all down to feel for a while.

Maybe that’s it for now. Maybe I will just have to exercise rather than train. Maybe I’ll have to keep things to relatively low RPE’s as well. If going harder doesn’t actually manifest itself as faster, further and better it seems silly to be trying too hard. The ‘athlete’ in me still thinks I need to try a little harder now and then but I think I’ll leaver it for now. It’s the winter anyway so a long period of Base training would usually be on the cards. I think it’s time to work on higher efficiency at low efforts. Not the most exciting of exercise modalities but if it does the job then it’ll do me just fine.

4 Responses

  1. Avatar forComment Author Mum x says:

    I’m sure by the sprig and summer you and your body will work it out . Just keep exercising at a sensible rate until you feel ready to train and maybe even enter some “easy” events if you want, if not then just excercise for” fun “

  2. Avatar forComment Author Les says:

    The original Borg (6 – 20) RPE scale was developed with individuals who were young, fit and healthy as far as I’m aware (unlike me!). You’ve probably inadvertently highlighted one of the major problems with automatically applying this scale to everyone (although there are slightly modified RPE scales). A more objective (and better in my opinion) measure would be your heart rate and what is tolerable and safe (or a range if looking for different intensities).

  3. Avatar forComment Author Alan Cole says:

    Thanks Les…
    Young – Hmmm, not so much these days I guess, does mental age count?
    Fit – I think I can probably just about tick that box still, but it’s all relative.
    Healthy – Not so sure now!

    Heart rate isn’t quite as reliable an indicator for me as it was thanks to the beta-blockers as I have no idea what my Max is these days or what range is useful / safe. but I guess I’ll work that out with time.

    We’ll have to meet up for a coffee soon! 🙂

  4. Avatar forComment Author Les says:

    Hi Alan, my last reply was posted after skimming your post. Perhaps I should have read more closely and thought about my reply a bit more before posting. There is generally a linear relationship between subjective effort and heart rate but not always. Even with individuals a lot younger and healthier than you or I! I guess what you’re interested in is the change you’ve experienced (i.e. a change from linear to non-linear relationship with heart rate). Remember it’s a subjective scale so entirely plausible (expected?) that any correlation with heart rate would change in your circumstances. Add the influence of beta blockers and “how you feel” I’m not surprised there’s a change from before your incident. Isn’t there a clinician who could clarify what would be safe for you in terms of heart rate to use for training? That aside, I hope your generally well and things are positive! (I can’t imagine you’d be anything but that to be honest). Agreed about the coffee!

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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