Tuning into Your Rate of Perceived Exertion, and Why

Tuning into Your Rate of Perceived Exertion, and Why

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
May 12, 2024

There are people who love numbers. Data. Tracking their heart rate, and training in “zones.” While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, relying on data - especially when you’re first starting to run - has its challenges.

First of all, you’re dependent on either a smartwatch enabled with GPS, a heart rate monitor, or both. You’re also dependent on knowing what heartrate relates to what kind effort, and when you “should be” doing what in order to “maximize” training and improving. Also, aiming for a specific heart rate or pace can make you ignore what’s really important: your body and what your body is telling you.

The good news is that there’s a much simpler way to figure out how hard or easy you’re running, and how that relates to if you should speed up or slow down to maximize improvement, whatever your goal may be.

The Borg Scale/Rate of Perceived Exertion

The Centers for Disease Control published a piece that explains the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion. What’s often referred to by coaches as “the Borg Scale” (because it was created by a Swedish researcher named Gunnar Borg) is basically a range of numbers - technically, from 6 to 20 - that individuals can assign to their effort level during any part of any workout.

The key piece of the rating scale is that it’s all about perceived exertion. It’s a subjective measurement that requires you to be perceptive of how you feel.

The CDC explains how there is a high correlation between a person’s perceived exertion rating times 10 and the actual heart rate during physical activity. The example given is that if a person rates themselves at a 12 on the Borg scale of physical exertion, they can assume that their heartrate is roughly 120 beats per minute during that effort.

To go into the weeds a little bit with numbers, so that we can then ignore most of these numbers but know they’re there, the CDC’s information states that for “moderate-intensity physical activity,” your target heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate. You can estimate your max heart rate based on your age. For example, it states, “for a 50-year-old person, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 50 years = 170 beats per minute (bpm). The 64% and 76% levels would be:

  • 64% level: 170 x 0.64 = 109 bpm, and
  • 76% level: 170 x 0.76 = 129 bpm

If you’re feeling like that’s a lot of numbers and math to do when all you’re trying to do is go for a run, you’re right. It’s too many.

Going back to the key portion of this whole Rate of Perceived Exertion being about perception, here’s basically what you need to know:

Working at a moderate intensity for the running portions of your run/walks will help you get better at running. You don’t want to push so hard that you’re maxing out, because you likely won’t be able to complete the workout and the goal is building endurance, not running for two minutes as fast as you can and blowing up.

Equally important is walking slowly enough between effort to lower your heart rate and recover before starting up a run segment again.

For the running segments:

  • If you can’t talk while you’re running, slow down.
  • If your muscles are screaming at you while you’re running, slow down.
  • If your muscles are talking loudly to you, you’re good.
  • If your heart feels like it’s going to jump out of your mouth, slow down.
  • If your heart feels like it’s beating hard in your chest, you’re good. You’re alive.
  • If you can carry on a conversation, great.
  • If you feel like you could recite a Sophoclean monologue, speed up.

For the walking segments:

  • If you can’t sing, slow down.
  • If your heart rate isn’t slowing down, slow down your body.
  • If your muscles are pulsating and begging you to walk slower, walk slower.

All of this perceived exertion-level guidance requires you to tune into your body, and that’s always a good thing.

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