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How to Use Borg Perceived Rate of Exertion to Enhance Your Cycling Performance


Stage 2 of this years Giro d'Italia finished at the summit of the Oropa and despite falling victim to a puncture and slow speed crash at the foot of the final climb, Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) was able to regain contact with the peloton, attack 4.5km from the finish, and go on to take victory on, as well as the overall race lead.

Marco Pantani holds the climbing record on Oropa

The dramatic moment loosely mirrored that which happened to Marco Pantani on the same Oropa climb in 1999. Another similarity would be the fact that Pogacar rode the climb on feel, as his spare bike didn't have a head unit to display his speed, power, heart rate.

Tour de France - Pogacar overhauls Roglic to win title in stunning finish

Was it a help or a hinderance? It wouldn't appear to be a hinderance, in the heat of the moment and under the most intense pressure, Pogacar relied on his RPE (rate of perceived exertion).

This isn't the first time, go back to the 2020 Tour De France stage 20 TT. Pogacar started the stage on his TT bike then switched to his road bike without a power meter and stormed the climb of La Planche-des-Belles-Filles in record time. Enough to take the overall lead and ultimately win his first Tour De France.

Could a riders over reliance on performance data during training and racing actually be holding them back?

RPE (rate of perceived exertion) is a well known quantification of exercise effort. First introduced by Gunnar Borg in 1970, RPE was determined on a 6-20 scale with 6 being ‘no effort at all’ and 20 being maximal exertion. In cycling, we have other technologies to quantify intensity. Heart rate and power meters can tell us our training zone and/or quantify the demands of our last group ride. Even so, there is a value to RPE for cycling. Specifically, we can gain insight from comparing our RPE to our other data.

RPE Basics For Cycling Although researchers and coaches still use the original 6-20 scale, Borg later introduced an easier to use 1-10 scale for exertion. For an athlete, a 1-10 scale is more approachable than the abstract 6-20. Comparing the 1-10 scale to expected training zones, we should see something like this:


10 – Zone 7 (all out sprint)

9 – Zone 6 (anaerobic capacity: 60-90 seconds full gas)

8 – Zone 5 (VO2max effort)

7 – Zone 4 (Threshold)

6 – Top of Zone 3 and sweet spot (bottom of Zone 4)

5 – Middle of Zone 3

4 – Top of Zone 2 and bottom of Zone 3

3 – Middle of Zone 2

2 – Bottom of Zone 2

1 – Recovery (Zone 1) or lighter

These correlations make sense. A 10, just like a sprint, is as hard as you can possibly go. Recovery is about as light as you can go without falling off, so that’s a 1. An endurance ride is done at 3 because you should be able to hold it for 4-5 hours. Lastly, a threshold effort is hard, but not that hard, so 7 seems like a good fit.


RPE And Power/Heart Rate

Cyclists usually ask: “why do I need RPE if I have a power meter? Don’t I know what zone I’m in?” These same cyclists tend to ask why they need a heart rate monitor if they have a power meter.

The answer to both these questions is the same: there is value in comparing the values from the variety of data acquisition platforms.

We expect our RPE to match up to our training zone as described above, but it doesn’t always. If you didn’t eat sufficiently leading up to a ride, is threshold going to feel like a 7 or is it going to feel like a 9? Same with dehydration, heat stress, caffeine deprivation, etc. Garcin et al. noted this phenomenon in a research paper on perceived effort. Specifically, they noted “RPE was a subjective estimation of the hardness of exercise rather than the intensity of exercise.”

Using RPE in Your Cycling Workouts RPE’s value to cycling is the ability to compare cold hard wattage data from your power meter to the perceived difficulty of the exercise. It’s even in the name: rate of perceived effort. As an athlete or coach, comparing the produced power to the effort experienced gives valuable information.

If the RPE was higher than expected for a given workout, maybe the athlete didn’t sleep enough the night before or their hydration was off. Furthermore, maybe check the temperature and humidity on that given day.

At the same time, if their RPE was lower than expected for a given workout, the athlete may be developing and improving. If the RPE was way lower than expected, perhaps their threshold is not set correctly, or the workout difficulty is too low.

Athletes should record their RPE after every workout for data acquisition and recording purposes. Once the athlete does a workout 3-5 times, you can go back and compare the recorded RPE. Theoretically, the RPE should be dropping slowly, maybe by 0.5 points, but enough to notice that the athlete can handle the training stress better than before. As with all data acquisition: start today! Get in the habit of recording your RPE after every ride and you’ll thank yourself in the future with the treasure trove of data you accumulated.

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