Why I Train by RPE Instead of Heart Rate or Pace

Why I train by RPE Instead of Heart Rate or Pace - an example

This is my first running blog. Let’s see how it goes. I wanted to do a quick discussion about my experience using different training methodologies (specifically running by feel) while training for long distance races. Just so we’re clear, this is all anecdotal. If you’re for real interested in training methods, you should read some books like Daniels’ Running Formula, etc. And, you know, experiment.

Defining Terms

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s set some terms:

RPE (rate of perceived exertion) – This is where I’m at now. Essentially, you set your running pace by feel. Some people use indicators like how hard they’re breathing, or how many words they can say while running to decide how much effort they’re putting in.

Heart Rate Training – In this method, you run with a heart rate monitor. You set alerts and heart rate thresholds to dictate how fast you’re running. So if you’re on an endurance run, you might be shooting for having your heart rate in the 150s.  Zone 2 training and the Maffetone Method are probably the biggest players here.

Pace – This is the Jack Daniels’s method. Using a recent race time, you literally set pace ranges that dictate each running type. For example, your threshold run would be done between a 7:00 and 7:15 minutes per mile pace.

My Experiences with Heart Rate and Pace

Last year, I decided to give the MAP method a try, developed by Maffetone. In this method, you run below a really low heart rate, with the idea that over time your actual pace will improve while your heart rate stays below the range. There’s talk about how this helps you become fat adapted, which is a different discussion. For me, the heart rate cap was 148 bpm, which had me running real damn slow. 

I stuck with the MAP for about 3 months, and sure, I saw a little improvement. But, there were 2 things I really didn’t like.

  1. OMG, you’re running slow as fuck. Talk about walking up hills.
  2. You’re not supped to vary paces until you max out your slow gains, and I got realllly burnt out running so slow. I just felt stale.

To be fair to MAP supports, I probably didn’t give this a fair shake. But I just didn’t have what it takes to keep up with it.

Now for pace. For the majority of my running experience, I’ve relied on some form of pace training. I probably didn’t put a lot of thought into it. It just seemed like the easiest thing to do. My problem is that sometimes pace and effort don’t fit. For example, it gets real hard keeping that threshold pace going up pills. If I had a track or lived in Nebraska, maybe it’d be fine. But I don’t.

Why I RPE

I read Jason Koop’s book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning: How to Train Smarter, Race Faster, and Maximize Your Ultramarathon Performance a few months back. 

With this method, you still vary your pace with intervals, steady states, threshold runs, etc. But instead of being prescriptive about pace or heart rate, you base it on running by feel.

When I first saw that, I thought it was dumb. It seemed, I don’t know, not scientific enough. But as I got into it, I found it profoundly liberating.

I know the purpose of my runs, and my time spent at each pace. For example, I know that after a warm-up I’ll do two 12 minute reps at threshold pace with a 6 active minute rest in between. So when my watch beeps that the 12 minutes start, I take off at a pace that I feel I could keep up with for 12 minutes.

Through some explained phenom, my brain knows how to do this!

Because I’m not locked into a pre-determined pace, I don’t blow myself up. I don’t die on hills, etc. I also don’t feel like I’m going unnecessarily slow.

And the funny thing, typically when all is said and done, my pace and heart rate fall almost exactly inside the predictable ranges. 

I think the biggest reason I like it, though, is that I’m not beholden to the watch. I just go out and run. And there’s a joy in that.

So for now, that’s what I’m sticking to.

How do you run?

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Why I Train by RPE Instead of Heart Rate or Pace