TrainerRoad Outside Workouts are the best way to bring your structured workouts outdoors. For riders without a power meter, these workouts are all offered in an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) version, allowing you to complete your workout by feel. How accurate and effective are they?


Key Takeaways:

  • RPE-Based workouts are a great way for any athlete to train outside, without a power meter
  • RPE is inherently subjective and is affected by fatigue, hunger, temperature, and terrain
  • Perfectly following a workout’s structure is less important than the overall time spent at intensity
  • Simpler workouts are easier to complete by RPE

Riding Outside By Feel

Power is the only objective measurement of cycling intensity, and all TrainerRoad plans and workouts are power-based. For riders without a power meter, VirtualPower uses speed and resistance to estimate power when riding an indoor trainer, but this isn’t an option when riding outdoors. Additionally, even athletes who do have a power meter may sometimes find themselves without one when training on the road or trail. 

TrainerRoad’s RPE-Based Outside Workouts help solve this problem. These workouts mimic power-based intervals with a perceived-effort scale and displayed intensity targets. Let’s examine data from several RPE-based rides to see how effective they are and learn how you can make these workouts a part of your training routine.

Hunter

TrainerRoad workout: Hunter

Hunter is a 2 hour sweet spot workout, consisting of 3 x 20 minute intervals at 88%-92% of FTP with 15 minute recoveries in between. I used RPE to ride Hunter on the flat stretch of road I use for most structured workouts. I gradually ramped up my effort for the warmup, and rolled right into my first interval. 

For the 3 Sweet Spot efforts, I looked only at the interval timer and target wattage. I’ve been training with power for a long time and I have a good sense of what sweet spot intensity feels like, but in the back of my mind I still worried I was pushing too hard or too easy. At any rate, I focused on riding steadily, with the knowledge that Sweet Spot should be slightly uncomfortable but very sustainable. 

Power and Cadence data from Hunter, ridden outside by RPE.

I overshot each interval a bit, a clear sign that I was feeling good. My power targets for the 3 intervals were 242, 253, and 245 watts. I averaged 255, 253, and 258 watts, respectively. I did stay firmly within my Sweet Spot zone, so even though I rode a little harder than needed I still achieved exactly the training stimulus the workout was designed for. Most surprisingly, Normalized Power and Average Power were within 1 watt of each other on each interval, meaning I rode extremely smoothly. The little micro-corrections I normally make multiple times a minute as I see my power move up and down were replaced by a more relaxed, stable effort as I focused on smoothness. This workout made me want to do more RPE-based intervals in the future, especially for long, steady efforts.

Kaweah

TrainerRoad workout: Kaweah

Kaweah is a 90 minute threshold workout, featuring 5 x 10minute intervals at 96-99% FTP. My TrainerRoad colleague James rode Kaweah outside, using RPE for the first 3 intervals and switching to displayed power for the last 2 to compare his efforts.

James started a bit stronger than needed, with a notably high wattage for the beginning of his first interval. This effort averaged 295 watts, well above his threshold and 19 watts over target! This pace is tough to sustain and unsurprisingly, each successive interval got a bit less intense than the previous. The second effort was 12 watts above target, and by the third interval he was within 3 watts – impressive accuracy, especially by feel.

Power and Heart Rate data from Kaweah, ridden outside by RPE.

James wore a heart rate monitor for this workout, as indicated by the red line on the workout graph. Note that even during the first two intervals, his heart rate stayed consistent, offering no indication that he was overdoing it. This is a great demonstration of why heart rate is unreliable as a training metric, often less indicative of actual effort than of other subjective factors.

Also interesting is that James’ final power-based intervals appear slightly steadier than his first three RPE-based efforts. James rode this workout on the undulating roads of Eastern Massachusetts, and it’s very difficult to maintain steady effort on rolling terrain. Watching his live power reading helped James hold a smoother power as he encountered small hills.

Leconte

TrainerRoad workout: Leconte

While the last two workouts we’ve examined have been steady efforts, Leconte features a 3 sets of 10 minute efforts at a constantly varying near-Threshold pace, with 30 second surges above FTP. This is a hard workout to perfectly replicate outside, as variations in outdoor riding make the short surges challenging. However, it’s important to remember the intention of this type of workout is not exact compliance. Instead, the goal is to spend time at Threshold, with efforts above FTP added to challenge your endurance.

TrainerRoad copywriter Jesse rode Leconte outside by RPE. He considers himself poor at judging intensity by feel and chose this workout knowing it would be especially difficult.

Power and Cadence data from Leconte, ridden outside by RPE.

Viewing the graph of the ride, we can detect a gradual decline in power, with the first two intervals stronger than those coming later in the workout. It’s also apparent that Jesse got tired and took a few mid-ride breaks, with his adherence to structure declining as the ride went on. His workout resulted in 108 TSS and an Intensity Factor of .85, somewhat less than the intended value of 123 TSS and .90 IF but not a failure, by any means. 

Let’s look closely at Jesse’s first interval, and compare it to the same effort done “perfectly” indoors.

Power data from the first interval of Leconte, ridden outside (above) and indoors (below).

At this closer resolution, the constant variations in power that occur riding outside are obvious, compared to the steadier effort of the indoor trainer. However, the general rhythm of the workout is preserved. Jesse’s outdoor RPE-based effort included more time spent at Tempo and VO2 max zones, reflecting greater variability. But notably, both indoors and outdoors this interval resulted in 16 TSS and .98 Intensity Factor. Intervals later in the workout showed a greater disparity as fatigue increased.

Conclusion

All of these RPE-based workouts came impressively close to their planned intensities and structures. They also all show some inconsistencies, especially in more complicated intervals and at higher levels of fatigue. Clearly, RPE-based Outside Workouts are not always as accurate as power-based rides. However, perfect adherence is never the main goal in training, and all of the rides we examined here were effective and productive training. 

Notably, simpler workouts are easier to do by feel. If your planned RPE workout is complicated, consider swapping it with a workout of similar intensity with a more straightforward structure. If you do attempt a ride with lots of variation and short intervals, don’t get too hung up on perfect compliance. Do your best to follow the plan, but riding outside is always less consistent than riding indoors and the quality of your work won’t suffer too much as a result. 

External factors such as fatigue also introduce variables to RPE-based rides. Perceived effort rises as you get tired, so ride a bit harder later in the workout to actually maintain a steady effort. Variations in terrain can also be challenging; a good rule of thumb to hold steady power is to ease up a bit while riding uphill and push harder than you think you should on downhills. Finally, don’t forget about hydration, temperature, and fueling. All can make your perceived exertion feel harder than what your legs are actually pushing into the pedals.

Other useful info:
Riding by Feel: TrainerRoad Outside Workouts With RPE
Riding Indoors Vs. Riding Outside: A Comparison
Take Your Training Outside: Introducing Outside Workouts
Tips for Safe Outside Workouts
Outside Workouts: Choosing the Best Routes


For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast— the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.



Getting Faster with TrainerRoad

Ready to get faster? Driven by science and data, TrainerRoad provides the training, planning, and analysis tools you need to become a faster cyclist with a focused and straightforward system. Create a custom training plan with Plan Builder, complete workouts indoors, outside, or with friends, and prove that your training is working with post-ride analysis tools. You can be confident that you will become a faster cyclist, and over 1,500 stories from TrainerRoad athletes prove it. Try TrainerRoad with a 30-day, money-back guarantee.

Check Out TrainerRoad


Share this Post


Sean Hurley

Sean Hurley is a bike racer, baker of sourdough bread, and former art professor. He is a connoisseur of cycling socks, and a deep believer in the power of periodized, science-based training. Rumor has it he also runs a famous cycling instagram account, but don't tell anyone about that.