Identifying Perceived Effort: Choosing the Right Words & Thoughts to Improve Performance

Identifying Perceived Effort: Choosing the Right Words & Thoughts to Improve Performance

A jumble of words that a cyclist may think about while racingHow you talk to yourself about your training and racing performance, especially with regard to exercise intensity, matters more than you might think. There’s a number for everything these days: ride time, cadence, distance, heart rate, power, you name it. It’s easy to fall into a habit of thinking of your rides just in terms of the numerical data, but there are at least two problems with that approach.

First, our brains work mostly with images, feelings and concepts, not numbers. A cyclist out for an endurance ride can’t feel an average heart rate of 110 bpm and a power of 160W. If you go strictly by numbers, you have to watch the monitor to stay on target. On the other hand, if you learn the feel of an endurance ride and aim for that, you can stay in zone consistently with only occasional peeks at the screen. Attaching words to the perceptions of effort makes it easier to identify the correct intensity. Use your words carefully. You’ll only know what ‘endurance ride’ means if you use that phrase to describe only one specific kind of ride. If by ‘endurance ride’ you also mean ‘ride until you drop,’ the phrase won’t help define the effort.

Another problem with numbers: they’re not always available. If you’re burying yourself at the end of a time trial or negotiating some tricky corners in a hot criterium, trying to snatch a look at your bike computer can be counterproductive or downright dangerous. You need a different way to think about your effort. You need feelings tied to words.

The role of self-talk in sport

The mind can be quiet or can fill with voices during an effort. Self-talk can be galvanizing or demoralizing, accurate or misleading – useful or an interference. It can be helpful when the words match your goals.

When you can’t consult the numbers, you can think about your effort in terms of your perceived exertion. The Rating of Perceived Exertion or RPE is a number between 2 and 20 or 1 and 10 that corresponds to your perception of effort. The perceived exertion is the perception of effort and words the that describe it. What were are talking about here is perceived exertion. The more fit you are, the more consistently it matches up with the numbers you’re trying to hit. Less fit people fatigue quickly so the feeling of effort for a particular power output rises quickly during an effort. For fitter people, the perceived effort is more stable.

The more precisely you can describe your effort level with words, the more successfully the words and images can guide your riding. Very successful athletes excel at describing, in their own head, the effort they’re making and whether it is right for the endeavor. Riders such as Greg Lemond, Molly Shaffer Van Houwelling, and Bradley Wiggins know exactly how they’re riding, the level of intensity, and how long they can sustain it. If they intend to ride at a specific power or heart rate, they’ll know both how it will feel and precisely how they describe it.

How to identify perceived effort

The best way to start your own effort vocabulary is to break your efforts up into general categories. Start by thinking about your endurance rides as ‘mellow’ or ‘base ride’ or ‘easy,’ something that will always mean only that one kind of ride. For a lactate threshold ride, you might consider the phrase ‘sweet spot’ or ‘hold it steady.’ When you’re giving it everything you have, you could call it ‘all in’ or ‘nothing left.’

For fun, you could read through some old race coverage to find some unique words. There was a time not too long ago when perceived effort and words were all cyclists had to train by, before Questioning thoughts - Question mark inside of thought bubble graphicpower meters, before heart monitors. Some of these phrases are still used. For example, pro riders are often quoted as saying they have ‘good sensations.’ This phrase makes no sense in English but we all know what it means. Finding more phrases like this would give you unique terms for your cycling and link you back to the history of the sport you love.

As you develop your vocabulary, your words or phrases should become more and more precise. The range of efforts you start out thinking of as “endurance rides” might end up being subdivided into “noodling”, “cruising” and “powering” endurance rides, or some other titles that make sense to you.

Use these guidelines to refine your dictionary:

  1. Keep the word or phrase brief so you can easily check your effort. “Am I still cruising?
  2. Make it specific, don’t let your verbal categories overlap any more than your training zones.
  3. Make it your own. It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone but you.
  4. Make the term feel like the work you want to do.
  5. Find terms that make you want to do the training you have in mind. For example, it won’t help to describe an all-out sprint as ‘lazy.’
  6. At the start of your ride, rehearse it in terms of your dictionary as a way to remind yourself of the kind of ride you want have once you’re on the road.
  7. Use your dictionary over and over. Get used to thinking about the words even when you can consult the numbers. Find the numeric target for a term and stick it in your mind when you hit those numbers.

You’ll really appreciate your well-developed vocabulary when you are racing hard, say in a time trial or riding a breakaway. In those situations, you may be so excited that your heart rate is higher than normal for the effort, but the feel of the effort still ties closely to how long you can sustain it. By building your awareness of what it feels like to do an effort that you can sustain for the needed time, you can effectively control race effort for optimal results. By associating those feelings with particular descriptive words and phrases, you increase your ability to actually stick to the ideal levels of effort rather than getting too excited and burying yourself early, or being too conservative and missing a chance for an outstanding result.

Utilizing your self-talk

There’s one more situation where it really pays to have your own training dictionary: When your words and your numbers tell you different things. Say you want to go for one of your easy rides but, lo and behold, your heart rate is nearly at lactate threshold, or you feel like you are hammering but your heart rate says you are resting! Either of these could be evidence that you’re tired, or maybe coming down with a an illness. By helping you to be alert to these anomalies, describing your effort in words can help you find figure out when you need to adjust the training schedule for some extra recovery.

Over time, the more repetitively you use the same words to describe the same kinds of efforts, the less time you’ll need to think about what those words mean and the easier it becomes to sustain the appropriate effort whether that the all-day effort needed for a long endurance ride, or the almost but not quite all-out effort needed to sustain a breakaway all the way to the finish line.

Head Coach Paul Page-Hanson, M.A. practiced as a psychotherapist in London for over 10 years. Now in San Francisco, he is a licensed cycling coach, massage therapist and body work specialist working with all levels of abilities on the dirt and road. Paul is available for mental skills training and coaching as well as bike fitting and riding skills clinics.

Article contributions by Andrew Osborn.