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The simple answer is to train by feel. Many triathletes have all the toys of the trade—watches, heart rate monitors, power meters—but need to learn how to use them properly to enhance their body knowledge rather than mask it.
To successfully race by feel, we need to define “feel.” With my athletes I define feel by RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, also known as the Borg Scale. We use the modified Borg Scale of 0–10 (at right). I assign an RPE for each workout so each athlete knows what that workout should feel like.
If you’re using tech, then you can align your RPE with your heart rate and power numbers. You’ll see as you improve your fitness that you may have the same RPE for a given workout, but your power numbers increase on the bike, or your run speed is faster.
Swim by feel
Swimming with a Finis Tempo Trainer, a small metronome that clips onto your goggles, is a great way to pace and learn to race by feel/RPE. Set the trainer to race pace and pay attention to what that feels like so you know how your swim should feel on race day.
Bike by feel
Do ladders. Ride 3 minutes (or 1 mile) at RPE 5, then try to make that a little harder and bump to RPE 6 for a mile, RPE 7 for a mile back to RPE 6 for a mile, then up to RPE 8 for a mile. The point of the workout is not to go super hard but to both feel the small differences in and define your RPE. If using watts and/or heart rate, briefly look at your devices to dial in what the RPE of different efforts are.
Run by feel
Ladders also work for running. Run two telephone poles at RPE 5, two poles at RPE 6, two poles at RPE 5, two poles at RPE 6 and then two poles at RPE 8. Small adjustments in RPE will help you define how each level should feel. Using heart rate and a GPS watch you could go by time instead of telephone poles—pick a short time like a minute or so max. Glance at your HR to see what it is at a given RPE. Once you’ve done a few intervals while glancing at your watch, try to guess your HR based on your RPE before you look at the watch again. You’ll know you’ve gotten the hang of it when you can guess your HR within a few beats.
RPE 10 = All out
RPE 9 = Sprint tri pace
RPE 8 = Olympic tri pace
RPE 7 = 70.3 pace
RPE 6 = 140.6 pace
RPE 4-5 = Easy conversational
RPE 3-4 = Super recovery
Peter Russo, based in Rhode Island, has been racing for more than 30 years and coaching for 15-plus years with all levels of athletes. He is a USAT, USMS, TrainingPeaks, Ironman and Swim-
Smooth-certified coach. You can find him at R2tri.com.