How RPE can help you dominate WODs

rpe in crossfit

How can I go harder in my CrossFit workouts? How do the best CrossFit athletes push through the pain?

There’s a fine line between training at high intensity and red-lining, and Crossfit athletes love to live right on the border.

Ask anyone who does Crossfit, and they will tell you that intensity is that sudden boost of energy that you only get during the final sprint of the WOD. The lactic build-up that you feel in your muscles. It's what makes you grunt or even curse loudly in between reps.

Oddly enough, as CrossFitters we all want to get to that point at the end of the WOD when you throw yourself to the ground in a squirming, sweaty mess, but we also know the dangers of “coming out hot”.

If you push yourself too hard too soon, you might hit a wall, making the rest of the workout extremely uncomfortable or even impossible to complete.

Knowing when to push is a skill that CrossFit athletes develop through trial and error, but even the most experienced athletes get it wrong sometimes. In this post we're going to answer the following questions:

How much intensity is too much when training?
How do you know if you are overexerting yourself?
Most importantly, how do you get better at dosing intensity without hitting the wall?

Luckily, there’s an easy, (often overlooked) solution that the best athletes from all different sports have been using for years…

What is RPE?

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a scale used by athletes to self-determine the intensity they're putting into their training. The scale ranges from 1-10 with 1 being minimal physical effort and 10 representing max effort.

You’ve probably seen RPE before if you follow a training program:
Row 800 m RPE 3-4

Or another:

Every minute for 5 minutes:

10” Air Assault Bike RPE 9 (spicy!).

The RPE indications suggest the intensity that the athlete should try to maintain while completing the work.

In other words, how hard executing the exercise should feel.

This is something that will differ from person to person depending on their fitness level.

Why is RPE important for athletes?

When we exert ourselves, we can gauge the intensity by determining our heart rate, which is measured in beats per minute, or bpm.

Another indicator that's interesting for athletes is measuring lactate, which can show how long an athlete can exert themselves before reaching fatigue.

While these two biological markers give us concrete, accurate numbers, measuring them requires time and equipment, whereas using the RPE scale is quick and equipment-free.

Even though determining your RPE seems subjective, many studies show a positive relationship between heart rate, lactate, and RPE, making the scale a useful tool to measure and guide athletes to pace correctly.

If we can use RPE to manage the way we pace, we can perform more effectively in workouts.

Benefits of using RPE

One advantage of using the RPE scale in your training is that it’s based on how we feel at the moment of performing an exercise.

Taking into account how your body feels as you train is key in developing focus, body awareness and improving your technique.

Using the RPE scale is also useful to gauge your intensity and train safely even when you don't feel like you're at the top of your game.

Lastly, it serves as a useful reference point for how you should follow your program or in cases when you don't have another reference such as an RM.

rate of perceived exertion

Using RPE and Pacing

Pacing is the regulation of the speed in which we complete an activity.

Learning how to pace is a crucial skill when training at high intensity because it helps us to maintain a safe, efficient balance between high intensity and overexertion.

If we consider heart rate, high intensity training should be performed within 75 to 85% of maximum heart rate.

There are many resources online that will show you how to calculate your Max HR, but in general, high intensity activity gets your heart rate up to around 140-160 bpm.

When we consider the RPE scale we can equate our effort to a number rating:

1         Extremely easy, barely noticeable effort.

2         Very easy activity that doesn't increase your heart rate or raise body temperature.

3         Deeper breathing, but can hold a conversation.

4         Moderate effort. Notable increase in body temperature and talking becomes uncomfortable

5         Breathing becomes uncomfortable. Can speak using a few words.

6         Moderately hard. Breathing is audibly faster and harder. Talking is avoided.

7         Hard effort. Vigorous, forced breathing.

8         Very hard, unable to speak.

9         Very, very hard effort that cannot be maintained for more than a few seconds.

10      Extremely hard effort, gasping for air.

10+    Max effort triggered by a flight or fight response.

If you follow a program, you may also notice, but there are parts of the cycle that demand more intensity than others.

For example, in the weeks leading up to the CrossFit Open you may notice more work at 7+ RPE whereas during a deload week, the intensity demand is five or lower.

Exertion rate also changes throughout the training session. With practice, you'll figure out what kind of effort you need to give before each block of training, but here is a general guide:

Warm-ups, cool downs, and mobility work usually take place at a rating between two and four, just enough to increase blood flow and body temperature, preparing your body for the work ahead.

Ratings of 5-6 correlate with longer aerobic pieces.

This can mean monostructural work (like rowing, running or biking) or even some light barbell cycling.

This level of intensity allows speed, and accuracy to coexist, but also allows skilled development.

The majority of your training will happen in this zone especially if you are an intermediate level CrossFit athlete.

7 and 8 is where we begin to see shorter bouts of power.

Shorter aerobic sprints, heavier weights, and harder gymnastics that require us to be especially particular with execution.

At RPE 9, things really heat up. The athlete must be very careful to avoid breakdown in technique.

RPE 10 is absolute beast mode. While this level of exertion is important to develop for competition, not much is to be gained by training too often in this zone since it doesn't permit any fine-tuning or correction.

Depending how you feel going into the session, you may be on the higher or lower side of these ranges.

Some training days are easier than others and recovery, stress, nutrition, and focus all play a part.

Rowing 500 meters in under a minute and a half may feel like RPE 6 one day and RPE 8 on another so you have to listen to your body.

Conclusion

CrossFit is well-known for being a high-intensity training method, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not about exercising at full force all the time.

There’s only so much that an athlete can exert themselves, so knowing how to pace and dosing your aerobic and anaerobic capacity is essential to perform well.

RPE training is a useful, low maintenance tool that can teach athletes how to manage exertion and fatigue. It also helps to maintain perspective by keeping effort relative to how your body feels when training. 

Apply the RPE scale to your training, and you’re bound to learn more about what your limits are and how to push past them.