Perceived exertion.

Two simple, yet very important words in your running arsenal. Master them, and you can have a fantastic relationship with your body and improve your running immensely.

For a majority of our runners, we focus on using heart rate with our athletes. Monitoring heart rate allows us to understand exactly how hard an athlete is working during any given moment.

However, as much as I love heart rate training, frankly, heart rate monitors suck. They malfunction, a lot. Even the best ones (Garmin 305 **cough cough**) can have a bad day.

Garmins, Polar and other HR tracking devices are notoriously fickle. Just today, Jess and I were running and during the last few minutes of our run, we picked up the pace. Her HR monitor showed her running at 160, when she was at least around 180 or very close to her Max HR.

Also, heart rate assumes everything is working perfectly. If there is an increase in humidity or heat, your body will begin to experience cardiac creep, and your HR rises, even though you are not working any harder…

So, what to do?

Enter, perceived exertion.

Perceived exertion is understanding how your body feels during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. It is the missing link in using heart rate effectively and turns a broken GPS or heart rate monitor into a non-issue.

You may have heard perceived exertion measured viaThe Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). However, for this article, I’m talking specifically about heart rate based training for runners/triathletes.

When you dial in your heart rate zones, most coaches use four or five separate zones. These zones are important to follow when training as they allow you to focus on how hard you should be working, allowing you to work hard AND smart.

It means your easy runs should be easy. And your hard runs should be hard.

I use five different heart rate zones with my athletes. Zone 1-5. Simple. Here is how those Zones correlate to how you should feel.

Zone 1: Very, very easy. This is the speed of a successful recovery run.

Zone 2: Conversation Pace. While running in Zone 2, you should be able to easily carry on a conversation with the person next to you, or sing your favorite song. Breathing should be steady and not labored. This is your endurance training pace.

Zone 3: Marathon Pace: Your conversation will begin to be choppy, but will not be excessively labored. You can tell you are working hard, but it is not terribly difficult. You should be able to carry this pace for quite a while.

Zone 4: Threshold Pace: This pace it will be difficult to carry on a conversation. You will begin to take deep breaths and your breathing will become shallow. At this pace, you feel as if you are putting in a very hard effort.

Zone 5: All out: Zone 5 is the maximum you can go, and in most athletes, it is the maximum output you can sustain for about a minute before you must back down. In Zone 5, you will not be thinking about holding a conversation at all, you will be focused on when you want to stop!

Okay, let’s use an exact example.

My Zone 2 is is 154-161 BPM.

Within that zone, I should be working at a conversational pace. Nice and easy, not a ton of effort. Over the years of HR training, I know exactly how this feels. I can tell exactly when I cross over to 162 BPM and out of Zone 2.

How to practice: After you have dialed in your heart rate Zones, hop on a treadmill and start off at Zone 1, then move through your zones, feeling your breath, your form, and your overall effort. As you begin to train, you’ll know what Zone you fall in, even if your Garmin or Polar malfunctions and you want to throw it in the street.

As much as we want to rely on technology, understanding how we feel and combining that with the gadgets on our wrist will lead to better running, all around. Ideally, if our heart rate monitors were fool proof, this problem wouldn’t exist. However, until that day, perceived exertion can help you maintain that heart rate focused effort without the gadget.

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