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Get To Know Yourself and Your Response to Exercise

 Rate of Perceived Exertion

Get to Know Yourself and Your Response to Exercise


There is a lot of great technology out there that is capable of giving you metrics on your workouts, but there is nothing that can substitute the keen sense of an athlete that is in-touch with their physiology.   Know thyself!

To help you have a reference point for your sense of exercise intensity you can use a well-known scale called the modified Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale which is used by both athletes and medical professionals alike.  This is a subjective rating of your exertion that, with practice and frequent utilization, will allow you to put a number on the level of your exercise intensity.

As an endurance athlete, monitoring your training intensity is important to ensure that you are preparing your physiology for the type of exercise it will encounter in your race.  There is perhaps no greater training consideration for an endurance athlete than establishing what is referred to as an “aerobic base” early in your training calendar.  This consists of the lower intensity workouts that build the physiological hardware that allow your cells to produce energy using the aerobic energy system.   Most people can associate aerobic exercise with endurance sports, but are unsure of why this association exists on a deeper level.  The importance behind this relationship is that for any success in endurance efforts you need to be able to utilize the most efficient energy production system you have—the aerobic system.  If this system is well trained and allowed to serve as the main supplier of energy, exercise can continue for hours and hours.  Once this energy system is exhausted or skipped over altogether, you utilize energy primarily through of your anaerobic system.  This system has a limited capacity for sustained work and is associated with an increased production of lactic acid.  In other words, you will eventually “hit the wall” and your performance will rapidly deteriorate unless you rest and refuel.

I have used the RPE scale regularly enough that I can sense when I am approaching and have passed an important physiological benchmark called the Aerobic Threshold without consulting my watch/heart rate.  When I do look at my watch, I am usually quite accurate in my judgement of my physical response to exercise using the RPE scale.   The Aerobic Threshold is the point at which we shift out of aerobic dominance for energy production and, as a result, become less energy efficient.  A good RPE for this type of work is generally considered to be around 4-5/10 or less.  Another good indicator can be noticed in the way you breathe.  If you can maintain nasal breathing comfortably (inhale and exhale) as you exercise you are likely primarily aerobically meeting the energy demand.  Once oxygen demand exceeds what you can bring in (and exhale) through your nose, you can assume that you are surpassing your aerobic system’s capabilities.

Use of RPE is important because as you become familiar with it you are able to intuitively sense your tolerance/response to exercise in real time and forecast your ability to continue exercising at a given intensity.  Your physiological response to exercise can vary greatly at a given pace/intensity based on numerous factors such as sleep patterns, stress levels, training load, etc..  While technology is improving to allow you to account for these factors and provide you with very accurate metrics, there is no substitute for an inner awareness of your physical state.  This subjective appraisal of your exercise tolerance combined with objective metrics will provide you with more comprehensive monitoring of your physiology.

RPE scales are all over the internet.  The traditional scale considers ratings from 6-20 and the modified scale uses 1-10.  For simplicity’s sake I generally use the 1-10 scale.

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If you have any questions or are interested in learning more about how you can maximize your workouts in order to achieve your individual goals, give Omaha Physical Therapy Institute a call today at 402-934-8688!  We can help you!

Matt Vetter, PT, DPT, CSCS
Ironman Triathlete


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