What does Perceived Effort even Mean?

Should you train by your heart rate, your speed or by calories burned? I even start getting overwhelmed just thinking about how that all works. Honestly looking into the options and all the rules for those options is really overwhelming. Heart rate training is popular but it keeps you really tied to your tech. Checking your watch all the time takes the fun out of your run. Speed training sounds simple but it usually comes with complex formulas like: training runs should be done at 80% of your 5k pace. Long runs 45 seconds per km slower than that. Intervals should build to your 10k pace minus 15 seconds per mile. But it also comes with pretty basic questions like my current 5k pace or the one I’m working towards? If you’re looking to burn a set number of calories is it better to go for longer or to cover the same ground faster? Personally I think the way to go for most of us regular runners and athletes is to pace yourself by perceived effort but what does that even mean? Let’s talk about what it is, why it might be best for you and exactly how you might go about achieving that. At least this is how I approach it.

What does perceived effort mean

On the surface it’s pretty basic perceived effort is really just running by feel. The danger of making it that simple though is that if you always run at basically the same pace you’ll never progress and meet your goals. If your goal is just to keep running than that’s great too. Then you can just use the idea of perceived effort to go as far and as fast as you want. Maybe also giving you permission to take it easy on those tough run days too.

Percieved effort is a way of recognizing that there is a lot going on with our physiology on any given day. In many ways we can’t really know all the things that might be affecting our running but we can know how we’re feeling on a given run. If you’re training by percieved effort and you’re flexible with your training schedule you could be giving your best on speed days and getting the most out of your recovery runs all while enjoying running more and avoiding overuse injuries. I would argue though that you need to do some thinking about how to define the different points on the effort scale for yourself. But don’t worry I have some suggestions for this too!

Not feeling’ it!

Why it’s best for many runners

In a sentence here’s why I extoll the virtues of perceived effort. It allows every level of runner to proceed safely and progress. Now even though I’m going to knock down the other methods of pacing a bit I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of them. If that’s what you use and love than carry on.

Heart rate training suggestions neglect two groups of runners on opposite ends of the scale. First for new runners with underlying health conditions standard suggestions can be too high which could be dangerous and getting your heart rate might feel uncomfortable at first. I would argue that going by what feels okay serves new athletes better because we don’t want you to hate it and give up! For very well trained athletes you can push beyond that on a great day without concern. Training by speed alone has the same draw backs for overdoing it as above. The other issue is that when you can’t hit those targets it makes you feel crappy. Plus all those uncertainties I listed in the intro. If you’re working out primarily to lose weight there are less issues with setting up workouts by calories burned, as long as that number is realistic. However I think those looking to lose weight would be better served by doing their best to make a point of enjoying those sessions as much as possible. If you don’t develop a love of exercise you won’t continue with it forever and probably gain back a lot of that weight.

But training by perceived effort negates a lot of those drawbacks. For those that are unfit and at the start of their journey going by feel alone prevents you from going out too hard. Of course as your level of fitness increases ever further what you were doing before seems easier. In that case training by perceived effort let’s you push harder as your conditioning improves, maybe even indefinitely. Training by perceived effort also allows you to capitalize on days where you feel great and gives you permission to take it easy on those inexplicable tough days. This helps with minimizing the effects and avoiding overtraining maybe even injury. You can even incorporate training by feel into other strategies. 

feeling’ it!

A framework for defining perceived effort

I’ll bet you’ve heard two sentences that hint at perceived effort if you’re a runner at least. One is “go at a pace where you could hold a conversation but you don’t want to” and “at about 70% of what you are capable of.” Umm, okay while that’s a start I guess. Initially I pushed the idea of training by perceived effort aside because that seemed a lot more vague than pace based advice. I still have the same goals, to go further and beat my previous times but I also realized that running isn’t my job and other factors regularly come into play.

After a few thousand kilometers I realized that while my race goals are really important to me I needed my training goals to work better for me day to day. In other words I needed more flexibility than a set pace of intervals on Tuesday nights was giving me. I developed a little system for myself that has really worked well for me since then and it does largely relate to the music I run to. Yours doesn’t have to, I have some alternatives as well but this gives you an idea of how to create your own.

Music as a tool in perceived effort

What worked really well for me was tieing my effort measurement to the music I was listening to. First off I have three playlists a long run one full of ‘slower’ running songs, regular for the mid tempo songs and race day songs that really propel me forward. But it’s more than just selecting the right one on the right day. For regular training runs those classic sentences do inform my intensely but so does only wanting to sing along in my head. For a basic (we’ll call it medium) run I try to keep going at a pace where I’m focused enough that I’m bopping along in my head to that regular playlist. For long (slow) runs I aim to actually want to sing along to that slightly slower playlist. If I ‘catch’ myself actually adding to the noise pollution in that area I have it just right. For speed work (fast) I either use that mid time playlist or the race day one I aim to almost have no moment to moment awareness of the song that’s playing at the time. If I go out with that goal for the day and I just can’t make it happen in that guideline I make this run the next regular run and try for the speed again the next day.

“Other” ideas

Here are some other other starting points that might help you define your levels of effort:

  • Always slow down if you get a side stitch
  • One sign you’re going hard is your clothing and gear starts to REALLY irritate you
  • You can use the feel of your breath as a guide in much the same way as music
  • On really tough days give yourself permission to take walks
  • On that note it’s hard to slow down your run if you need too. It’s much easier to start up slower from a longish walk break
  • Especially if you are new to speedwork consider starting with the fartlek, which means speed play. Basically pick a point and run as fast as you want to it, then take it easy.
  • If you’re out to get a slow long run in dress a bit warmer than you normally would. Then let getting hot remind you to slow down a hair.

As regular runners we sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are not elites. I don’t mean that means we should be less serious about our goals. Just that training isn’t our main job, we can’t do it at the perfect time, we don’t have a trainer and we are regular humans with lives after all. That means that following super intense training plans to the letter might not always work for us. Percieved effort can be a great way for us to bridge that gap. Do you incorporate perceived effort into your training or do you primarily use a different method to pace your workouts? Leave it in the comments below!

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