RPE vs. Heart Rate Monitors

Posted on May 20, 2013 by


Would you walk into a gym for the first time ever and dead lift 300 pounds without injury?  Would a triathlete train only for swimming and biking and figure he’s in good enough shape to just wing the 26 mile run?  Would you hop on a bike for a 100 mile ride if you haven’t trained your lower body in years?  Probably not.   So why would we think it’s beneficial to jump on a treadmill and run for as long and hard as we can without first training our heart?  I know…weight loss, I’ve been there too.

Prior to Sheri coaching me through the use of a heart rate monitor, I used old-fashioned methods to get into “fat burning zone”.   In reality, my only thought was “burn calories” and I thought that meant high-speed, gasping for air, drenched in sweat, red face and ready to pass out.  I figured I was doing my heart a solid, just by exercising.

With the use of a heart rate monitor and aerobic base building, I shaved off over TWO MINUTES per mile, with a significantly lower heart rate throughout my entire race last year.

Let’s take a look at the difference between guessing our HR vs. reading it electronically.

Pulse Reading:  20+ years ago, I will admit, I went to Gold’s Gym with tights and a leotard, big hair and I happily jumped around in classes that ended with Jane Fonda leg raises.  The method we used to check our heart rate at that time was placing our fingers on our carotid artery, watching a clock, do some math to get beats per minute and then multiply to get a percentage of max HR.  I’m sure a few of those numbers were faulty.  Luckily, the teacher would give us a 5 point range to be in, even though the class’s age range was 15-55 years old. The problems here is that we all have different requirements for heart rates per age and cardiovascular health, doing quick math leaves room for error and we only checked it once in an entire hour, that leaves 59 minutes of uncertainty.

RPE: Trainers I worked with went at it a little differently.  They would give me a number to hit, they called it RPE (rate of perceived exertion), using the Borg scale of 6-20 or 0-10.  If they wanted me working at 75% of my max heart rate, they would tell me to keep my workload at a 7.5, others would guess where my heart rate should be and tell me to stick to 14-16.  If I talked to them, they would crank up my speed…I guess at 75% you should not be able to talk effortlessly.  The problem with this method is we really do not know how to “feel” 75% or whatever percent we’re working with.  Cardio Queens might want to push this and talk themselves into thinking they’re at 75 but really their heart is about to explode!  The description says it best – Rate of PERCEIVED exertion.  Not rate of monitored exertion. This method has the potential to significantly hinder your goals.

Side note: When I did finally purchase a monitor, I was WAY off from my RPE.  This is true even to this day – I’m not always great at guessing my HR.  Some days, spot on, others – my system is adapting to something else I have going on, whether that be healing from previous days weight lifting or perhaps I ate at a restaurant a few days prior…these both with throw off my “norm”.

Heart Rate Monitor:  I finally had the opportunity to be coached by Sheri Lynn.  She told me to get a heart rate monitor and we began aerobic base building with a monitored heart rate (training my heart to pump more blood with less work), then on to steady state and eventually high intensity interval training.   She calculated my heart rate to begin base building using MY age, athletic background, addiction to cardio, and lack of medical risks.  From there I was able to start a FOUNDATION for my cardiovascular endurance to build upon, resulting in increased speed and endurance.

Sheri’s method enabled me to shave over TWO minutes off of my mile in just one year, without even aiming towards that. My goal was fat loss but to my surprise, I strengthened my heart so much that I was able to run much faster with much less work.   A HR monitor made it  easy to obtain a healthy aerobic base.  For the first time ever, I wasn’t over exerting myself, which raised my fitness level exponentially!  I was able to train my heart to pump more oxygen filled blood throughout my body with less work.

Read below, I’ll let you be the judge of RPE vs. HR monitor.

 Dangers of training without a heart rate monitor:

  • Susceptible to colds/illness
  • Susceptible to injury
  • Decrease in focus
  • Hormonal Imbalance
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Cardiovascular Damage
  • Lack of required oxygen throughout our body/muscles
  • Burning muscle rather than fat
  • Decreased endurance/Speed
  • Longer recovery time, resulting in zero fat loss

Benefits of Using a heart rate monitor:

  • Higher level of Fitness
  • REDUCE risk for Cardiac Arrest
  • Indicate when our immune system is low
  • Burn Fat rather than Muscle
  • Increased Cardiovascular health
  • Increased Speed
  • Increased Endurance
  • Takes the guess work out of aerobic base building
  • Increased Lactate Threshold

My conclusion:  Let’s lock RPE and carotid artery pulse reading up with the tights & leotards.  To obtain true cardiovascular health we need to start with a foundation of base building.  In order to properly do this, we must use a monitor.  With a monitor we know exactly what’s going on in our bodies at all times.  We know when our health is increasing and we know when our body is stressed or fighting something off.   Our coaches have trained us on how to read and monitor our hearts so let’s utilize this valuable information towards optimal health and fitness!

Now, we don’t have to get crazy….Just a simple heart rate monitor will do the trick.

HR Monitor Article

Rock On,

Katie Surjan

Genesis Transformation Coach