Episode #43 – Judging Your Intensity by Feel

Episode #43 – Judging Your Intensity by Feel

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Feel is important on a bike, not only for skills but knowing how your body feels in different zones of intensity. Understanding how it reacts in each zone can help you more than the data from your computer, especially when you are riding outside your normal limits. Using Borg’s RPE CP-10 Scale, I break down what you might experience at each level, and offer some ways to anchor the feelings to your numbers.[buzzsprout episode=’91408′ player=’true’]

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I am a big supporter of quantifying data, but we also don’t want to lose the feel of ourselves on the bike. This covers your off the bike mental game, emotional intelligence and mood awareness. I could go on and on about those 3 elements I’ve just listed, but I have narrowed down today’s show to talk about Judging Your Intensity Level.

My heart monitor crapped out this week and wouldn’t sync which reminded me of the importance of understanding the Borg Scale. It will not only help you when you cannot ride by numbers, but also getting a feel for your body when placed against your numbers. It good to practise this with a power meter and/or HR monitor before some goes wrong with your equipment, just so you know where you stand.

It’s more than that though, it’s training your mind to recognise the state that your body’s in. To prepare you for high intense efforts under pressure. And when training over 100% of your FTP, the shift is from feeling like the intensity is controlling you, and moving to a feeling of being control it.

This is something that comes with fitness, during each season and over several seasons as you progress through the sport. It’s something that will most likely happen through regular, consistent training, but being aware of how your mind reacts under pressure, can the difference between being able to create power and intensity rather than being a slave to it.

You can take the control back when your brain recognises what your body is doing, it doesn’t turn to mush, doesn’t fold in on itself. This then has the effect of spinning your brain in an upward spiral, so even if you are under pressure, you can stay relaxed and confident that you can return to the set intensity and and power through to the finish or top of the climb etc.

You can anchor the number to your power meter, but there is a reason I wouldn’t go straight from a power meter to your brain, it’s because leaving a buffer like RPE gives you power, no pun intended, confidence is a better way to say it. Having the mental arsenal of knowing where you at physically, at any moment in a race gives you a better gauge if you find yourself outside of your training numbers. We all know that racing takes us to places we never thought we could go, but you are never going to get there if always stay within your numbers.

I am aware of the potential that you may lack confidence at certain times, if you need reassurance that your travelling well, then by all means refer to your power meter. Pushing yourself outside of your numbers is not about pushing yourself outside your limits for the sake of it, it’s following a wheel in a break, or up a climb, it’s that time in the race that is make or break where RPE allows you to push harder with the confidence that you have more left in the tank. This works inversely as well though, because it will help you make decisions about tactics, and courageous race winning moves on the fly, while your brain is mush.

Another place where you can transfer this knowledge is from training indoors with virtual power, because if you don’t have a power meter taking what it feels like at different power zones is going to help you in real world training and racing without a power meter. Again the buffer that RPE allows gives you control over your output more than matching your HR to your VP.

Ok so down to the actionable stuff. I’m going to wrap the awareness around numbers on a scale. The Borg Scale to be precise. I’ve mentioned this before, but it really is the best way to gauge what your body is doing, and estimate your mental game at intensity as well.

The Borg Scale (Borg 1982) is a simple method of rating perceived exertion (RPE) and can be used by you to gauge your level of intensity in training and competition. Perceived exertion is an individual’s rating of exercise intensity, formed by assessing their body’s physical signs such as heart rate, breathing rate and perspiration/sweating.

I was introduced to this in the early days of testing, where at the end of every wattage increase I would be asked to estimate my RPE. At the end of the test I would be asked how hard I think I went, and I would always reply 19. The only time I replied 20 was also the same time I pissed my pants during the test, if that’s not max exercersion I don’t know what is, although I’ve also blacked out during an MTB race, so I guess you can push harder than you think. A power meter or a HR monitor is never going to tell you this.

On a side note, there are other ways to do this like the Talk Test and Counting Talk Test, and while you could do these on your own. It was mostly vanity that kept me from exploring them further. I mean out loud talking, slightly more manageable when you are on your own, but in a race or bunch ride where muttering under your breath does not count; for the talk test to be effective, you must speak aloud, it’s a bit daft.

Back to the Borg Scale, you can use it to rate a training ride as a whole. This would be a fairly accurate log of intensity, but I’m only going to focus on what your body is going through, and what indicators you can relate to when selecting your RPE Scale numbers.

Let’s have a think about what’s actually happening to your body in relation to the scale. There are two types of common scales, the original 15 Point Scale (6-20), and the 11 point scale (0-10). I lean more towards using the 15 point scale only because that’s what I’m used too. I think the 11 point scale has more merit though, it’s also easier to get up to speed with. My recommendation is start with the 11 point scale, if this is too simple or not working make the switch, by then you should be familiar with the numbers by then.

15 Point Scale

  • 6 – 20% effort

  • 7 – 30% effort – Very, very light (Rest)

  • 8 – 40% effort

  • 9 – 50% effort – Very light – gentle walking

  • 10 – 55% effort

  • 11 – 60% effort – Fairly light

  • 12 – 65% effort

  • 13 – 70% effort – Somewhat hard – steady pace

  • 14 – 75% effort

  • 15 – 80% effort – Hard

  • 16 – 85% effort

  • 17 – 90% effort – Very hard

  • 18 – 95% effort

  • 19 – 100% effort – Very, very hard

  • 20 – Exhaustion

Like I mentioned earlier, the scale can be anchored to your HR or power zones, but feeling the what the number means to you is where you will get most value from understanding your RPE. So I will reference the zones here, but let’s also talk about the feelings that your body is going through.

10 Point Scale

  • 0 – Nothing at all

  • 1 – Very light

  • 2 – Fairly light

  • 3 – Moderate

  • 4 – Somewhat hard

  • 5 – Hard

  • 6

  • 7 – Very hard

  • 8

  • 9

  • 10 – Very, very hard

Staying on the topic of feel, but in the way of knowing how your body reacts during and after a big training block. I had a great article sent my way, h/t to Craig. It’s published in this months Velonews Magazine and written by Trevor Connor.

It references the hormones the body produces over stressful situations. Calling them natural painkillers that the body produces under fight or flight situations. Which for training cyclists is intense workouts. The article points out the release of the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) from the adrenal medulla of the adrenal glands and cortisol into your system as part of the fight-or-flight response. this is partly what we are trying to manage in training and recovery. But understanding how your body reacts is important especially because, like the article says; “you aren’t that much stronger, you just can’t feel how much it really hurts.” So it’s tricking you thinking that you’re flying, when you may just be doped up on natural hormones.

Here’s a breakdown of the hormones produced:


What It Is: Commonly known as the fight or flight hormone, it is produced by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has presented itself.

What It Does: Adrenaline, along with norepinephrine (more on that below), is largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car, says Amit Sood, M.D., director of research at the Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at Mayo Clinic. Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour. You return to your original lane and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense, you’re breathing faster, you may start sweating. That’s adrenaline.

Along with the increase in heart rate, adrenaline also gives you a surge of energy — which you might need to run away from a dangerous situation — and also focuses your attention.


What It Is: A hormone similar to adrenaline, released from the adrenal glands and also from the brain, says Sood.

What It Does: The primary role of norepinephrine, like adrenaline, is arousal, says Sood. “When you are stressed, you become more aware, awake, focused,” he says. “You are just generally more responsive.” It also helps to shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the skin, and toward more essential areas at the time, like the muscles, so you can flee the stressful scene.

Although norepinephrine might seem redundant given adrenaline (which is also sometimes called epinephrine), Sood imagines we have both hormones as a type of backup system. “Say your adrenal glands are not working well,” he says. “I still want something to save me from acute catastrophe.”

Depending on the long-term impact of whatever’s stressing you out — and how you personally handle stress — it could take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days to return to your normal resting state, says Sood.


What It Is: A steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands.

What It Does: It takes a little more time — minutes, rather than seconds — for you to feel the effects of cortisol in the face of stress, says Sood, because the release of this hormone takes a multi-step process involving two additional minor hormones.

First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to recognize a threat. It then sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Whew!

In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, says Sood, while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth.

But when you stew on a problem, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more.

The bad part about this is though, your body is not repairing itself while these hormones are floating around. So once you take time off for recovery, you get the full effect and then some of the punishment you have just put your body through in the last training block. Your body has to shut down to recover, or it could move into an overtrained state, which we all know is bad news.

How does this relate to feel, and what are the takeaways. Firstly awareness. If you are fatigued and can’t hit your numbers, then think back to your last or current training block. Did it have the potential to take more out of you than usual? If so, understand your body is in shutdown mode while it repairs the damage you have done during training. Like discussed in the overtraining episode, being aware of things like mood can help you here.

Metrics like Stress Balance go a long way to help you, but this only accounts for on the bike activities. I have a tentative solution though, but let’s move to the…

Tech, Hacks & Products

It’s called http://myithlete.com/, an iPhone app that measures a heart rate metric called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Consumer grade HRV monitoring has been around for a while in the form of firstbeat athlete software and Sunnoto, also in certain Polar models. Even this iPhone app ithlete has been around since 2010.

Heart rate varies with every heartbeat. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation of beat to beat intervals, also known as R-R intervals.

HRV is affected by aerobic fitness. HRV of a well-conditioned heart is generally large at rest. Other factors that affect HRV are age, genetics, body position, time of day, and health status. During exercise, HRV decreases as heart rate and exercise intensity increase. HRV also decreases during periods of mental stress.

HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. Parasympathetic activity decreases heart rate and increases HRV, whereas sympathetic activity increases heart rate and decreases HRV.

It’s serving the purpose of monitoring recovery, aiming to provide a metric which to base your training off. I’ve spoken about the SAAS app restwise in the past, but the interesting thing about using HRV as lone indicator, is the studies that link mental and social aspects like stress and emotional arousal to decreased HRV. So as a single metric it seems to be more useful than just taking your heart rate in the morning. For me, it’s early days yet, but my number shot down after a crappy nights sleep, which I know reduced sleep under heavy load is not going to help my body recover. It recommended a light training day, which I didn’t adhere to, and this morning, my number had return to normal.

So I will report back in a month or so and let you know my thoughts. I’m in the middle of a tough block, so I am curious to see how it helps me avoid getting sick.

The research conducted around the metric for this use includes the presence of the fight or flight hormones mentioned which is exactly what we are trying to manage in overtraining and recovery. Ensuring they have disappeared and the body is recovered enough to continue a new block of training. Here’s the link between HRV and your natural painkillers.

From the iathlete training guide:

“Q: What are symptoms or red flags associated with overtraining?

A: Most coaches regard a drop or plateau in the athlete’s performance, despite continued training being a reliable indicator of overtraining. In addition, fatigue, mood disturbances and abnormal food cravings are all signs that overtraining syndrome may be developing. Overtraining is caused by too much physical stress combined with too little recovery over a period of time (usually a few weeks). It progresses from functional overreaching (the overload principle of training), through non-functional overreaching (when the body is unable to repair itself fast enough) to what’s called sympathetic overtraining. This is the state that can sometimes be detected by looking for an elevated pulse during the traditional morning pulse check.

The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ branch since its purpose is to prepare us to fight or run away. It also involves production of stimulant hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. We were never designed to have these hormones flowing around us for long, extended periods, and they are known to lead to problems including heart disease if they remain present for too long. Unfortunately, athletes will still keep on pushing and progress their overtraining to a state known as parasympathetic overtraining, when the fight or flight hormones become exhausted and extreme fatigue follows.”




Photo Credit: Coda2 on Flickr


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