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Your cheapest and most effective training tool

Advice for every kind of runner from coach and Olympian Nicole Sifuentes on perceived exertion and getting the most out of your training

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Runners love tech, and for good reason. It can provide important insights into training. But what if one of your most important training tools was a run stripped of all the constant reminders of pace, heartrate and mileage accrued? Two-time Olympian and coach Nicole Sifuentes suggests that this might be the case.

RELATED: What is RPE and how can you use it in training?

Sifuentes’ definition of RPE is, “Rate of perceived exertion (or effort) basically means understanding how hard you are working. Many runners do not understand perceived effort because they rely so heavily on data to guide their pace, and because they do not practise running at a variety of effort levels and speeds.” You don’t have to ditch the data entirely, but runners should be able to function without it.

What RPE teaches you

Sifuentes wrote in her most recent coaching blog post that by using perceived effort to guide your training a runner will learn:

  1. How to measure your effort so you can finish a given distance without needing to stop or walk.

  2. How to adjust a generic training plan workout to suit your individual needs.

  3. What it feels like to blow past people at the end of a race, because you didn’t start out too fast.

  4. How to trust your body and take advantage of those days where you feel awesome, and nail a massive PB (instead of worrying about your pacing when you see really fast splits).

  5. How to trust your body and slow down when you know you’re working too hard (even if you’re hitting splits that usually are manageable).

Start of the 2019 SeaWheeze Half-Marathon. Photo: lululemon

How to implement it into your training

Sifuentes suggests working on RPE with something she calls the cycle run. “Understand that right now you have three levels of perceived effort: walk, jog and run. Everyone already has this range–perceived effort is being able to distinguish between efforts.”

The cycle run has athletes move at three very distinct paces. “You will walk for one minute, jog for one minute, and then run for one minute. Immediately start the cycle again with a one minute walk.”

She continues, “In order to distinguish between hard and easy, you have to visit hard more often. I encourage people to try the cycle run because it encourages you to run at a harder pace for one minute. If you can’t run hard for the entire minute, adjust your pace.”

RPE is an art form

Even for elite athletes, RPE is a huge aspect of training. Sifuentes says that it was a big focus in her training as a 1,500m runner. “Before you head out that door, think about the purpose of your run. If I was running so slowly and still felt tired, I would slow down or cut my run short. If I felt amazing and it was a hard workout day, I would push my limits.”

She continues, “This takes a ton of practice and I believe that this is something elites work on to the very last day in their career. Getting the most out of yourself on race day involves understanding where your red line is. Measuring that effort to that level of precision is so hard.”

Trevor Hofbauer wins 2019 Canadian Marathon Championships. Photo: Maxine Gravina

What about race day?

We’re not all Trevor Hofbauer (who qualified for the Olympic marathon without a watch). Sifuentes says that come race day, especially for beginners, a GPS watch is an asset. “Especially in a longer race. I tell all of my runners their maximum pace for the first mile. There’s so much adrenaline in the start corral that they’re going to be passed at first, but at the end they’re going to do the passing. If they stick to the pace, that is. The beginning of a big race is all about discipline.”

It’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to leaving that watch at home on race day, but it’s a very pro move that even the pros mess up sometimes.

RELATED: Why Trevor Hofbauer races without a watch