Pace Awareness Using Borg’s Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Posted by Scott Christensen


Training and racing experience leads to a more sophisticated middle distance athlete.  Coaches measure this advancing experience with a concept known as training age.  Once the runner has physically matured and transitioned from middle school to high school (and beyond), training age becomes more of a conditioning factor than chronological age is in setting up both a training and a racing scheme.

The middle-distance runner’s pace awareness, especially in workouts, is a key benefit of an older training age.  If a coach tells a young runner in a workout to “just listen to your body” the athlete may look at the coach with great concern.  What does that mean?

Asking an older runner to analyze the negative feedback loop of homeostatic regulation on the fly is not so dicey, but to be useful both athlete and coach better be on the same page in regard to terminology and perceptual awareness factors.

Some middle-distance coaches have resorted to relying on heart rate monitors to gauge pace in their athletes.  Since there is a correlation between high heart rates and hard work there is some benefit in doing this.  If the training group is large, and the heart rate monitors are few, then that leads to logistical problems at practice.  Plus, there are individual heart rate variations to calculate which further muddies the waters of a work session.

Related: Using Heart Rate to Control Training

Many studies have shown that runners with a medium to high training age (3-5 years) are able to use sensory feedback to gauge training intensity and analyze running pace during training sessions of any intensity.  For many experienced runners, the use of monitored heart rate or stopwatch measured training speed every day leads to less native kinesthetic awareness than is useful.

For many experienced middle-distance runners, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) such as easy, moderate, or hard are more meaningful and easier to use.  If using heart rate or competitive speed excessively complicates your runners’ training, or if they would rather be freed from the bother of frequent heart rate checks, consider using the RPE.  The RPE scale and descriptors relating perceived effort to negative feedback sensory information (such as breathing), and relating this awareness to activity duration are shown in table 1 as the Borg Scale of RPE.

The Borg Scale was developed by Gunnar Borg in 1998 for use by athletes and their coaches.  It is a 6-20 point scale with descriptive terms that are universally understood.  In essence, the 6-20 point rating scale is used to prescribe a pace intensity that the athlete can recognize and continually relate to.  Further communication on the workout intensity will always be based on the use of the scale so the athlete can become accustomed to that pace and their sensory awareness.

Athletes with a young training age (1-2 years) are incapable of using just the Borg RPE scale effectively in analyzing their pace.  During the early stages of a runners development coaches should have athletes use all possible methods to measure pace awareness: heart rate, speed, and RPE.  Athletes will soon develop a feeling for intensity and for how to interpret their sensations.

After a couple of years, middle-distance runners will grow into the ability to judge their RPE effort, and effectively communicate it to the coach, even with changing conditions and varying terrain.

Resource: The Training Model for HS Cross Country

With an older training age, the Borg scale provides a clear line of critical communication between runner and coach.  Most importantly, the descriptive, breathing/talking, and duration scales provide your athletes clear and simple training guides.


Table 1.  The Rating of Perceived Exertion (Borg 1998)

Borg Scale
Borg scale descriptor
Speaking and thinking scale
Maximum Duration
 No exertion at all
Extremely light
Can sing full stanzas
All day
Very light
Can sing a few lines
All day with breaks
Can talk in full sentences
4 hours
2 – 4 hours
Somewhat hard
Can talk – a few sentences at a time
90-150 minutes
Can talk – a few words at a time
50-90 minutes
No desire to talk
25-50 minutes
Cannot talk – can think clearly
15-25 minutes
Very hard
Need to focus to maintain intensity
7-15 minutes
Struggle to maintain intensity
3-7 minutes
Extremely hard
Brain dead – really hurting
30 seconds to 3 minutes
Maximal exertion
No thinking, muscle memory
30 seconds



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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