RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) is a subjective assessment of how hard you feel like you’re riding. It’s a great way to maintain structure during outside rides when a power meter is not available, and a useful way for riders who do have power meters to get accustomed to riding by feel. TrainerRoad offers all of our Outside Workouts in an RPE-based version.

Key Takeaways:

  • RPE based outside workouts allow structured training outside without a power meter.
  • RPE is easy to understand and offers the same benefits as power-based workouts.
  • The same metrics used to guide indoor workouts on the trainer are used outside.
  • Maintaining structured training all year is the best way to get faster.

Power-Based Training And RPE

TrainerRoad workouts and plans are all power-based. Unlike traditional metrics like speed or heart rate, power is an objective measurement unaffected by external factors, and is the gold standard in cycling. For athletes riding indoors who don’t have access to a power meter or smart trainer, TrainerRoad uses VirtualPower, a calculation of power output based on measured speed and resistance. 

Many cyclists prefer to ride outdoors in the warmer months, and athletes who maintain structured training even when riding outside consistently see bigger improvements than those who don’t. Unfortunately, headwinds, hills, and varied surfaces make it impossible to calculate power based on speed outside. Instead, the best option for training outside without a power meter is RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion. RPE-based workouts make it easy to follow structured TrainerRoad workouts outdoors.

How RPE is Measured

RPE LevelEffort IntensityPower Zone
2RecoveryActive Recovery (<55% FTP)
4EasyWarmup/ Cooldown
6Easy-ModerateEndurance (55% – 75% FTP)
7ModerateTempo/ Sweet Spot (76% – 94% FTP)
8Moderate-HardThreshold (95% – 105% FTP)
9HardVO2 Max (106% – 120% FTP)
10All-OutAnaerobic Capacity (>120% FTP)

RPE uses a self-assessed 1 to 10 scale to characterize cycling effort intensity. Our chart abbreviates the lowest (easiest) RPE ratings, as it’s hard to actually notice the difference between these easy exertion levels when riding.

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RPE-Based Outside Workouts in 3 Steps

Before the Ride

Before your ride begins, you’ll need to switch your scheduled workout to the outside version and push it to your head unit. Detailed instructions to do this on Garmin devices can be found here, and details for Wahoo ELEMNT devices can be found here.  Next, view the workout’s RPE-based instructions.

Viewing RPE based workout instructions on TrainerRoad
Viewing RPE-Based workout instructions on desktop calendar (left) and on mobile (right).

On the TrainerRoad desktop calendar, the option to choose “Power Based” or “RPE Based” should appear in the workout’s description after choosing the outside option. Clicking “RPE Based” replaces the workout’s power-based instructions with easy to follow RPE instructions. On the TrainerRoad mobile app’s calendar, these instructions appear in the workout’s description after the power-based instructions and you can simply scroll down the text to see them.

During the Ride

On your Garmin or Wahoo device, RPE-based workouts display exactly as a power-based workout would, with power targets displayed for each interval.

TrainerRoad Outside Workouts as seen on a Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM

Use your familiarity with how these power outputs feel during TrainerRoad indoor workouts as a guideline for your equivalent efforts outside. For instance, knowing how 300 watts feels on the trainer, aim for that same level of exertion during a 300 watt RPE effort outdoors. Don’t stress too much over variability- power targets are not exact goals, and the benefits of a workout will still be achieved if your intervals are not perfectly accurate. Try to be as steady and consistent as you can, within reason.

After the Ride

Since RPE-based workouts do not include recorded power data, they will not automatically calculate Training Stress (TSS). This is an important measure of your training load, and you can manually enter this information after your ride.

Manually adding Training Stress to a TrainerRoad RPE based Outside Workout

At the top of your workout details, you’ll see a reminder that your ride lacks power data, with a link to estimate training stress. You can do this based on workout intensity, or you can refer to the expected TSS for the scheduled workout you’ve completed and enter this value. (Note: the workout intensity estimator is based on the overall intensity of the workout, and not the RPE value of specific intervals.)

Manually adding Training Stress to a TrainerRoad RPE-based Outside Workout
Adding estimated training stress.

How to Get the Most Out of RPE-Based Workouts

The same general recommendations apply to RPE workouts as any other outdoor workout. Ride as safely as possible, staying attentive to your surroundings and being sure to follow all applicable traffic laws or trail etiquette. Not all roads are suitable for all workouts- for instance, constantly rolling roads can make steady efforts challenging, and steep climbs are not a great place for easy endurance work. For tips on finding good routes for outside workouts, click here.

Pacing and Effort Advice

RPE is very subjective, so listen to your body and recognize how your perception can vary depending on circumstance. Steady power often doesn’t feel steady, and the beginning of each interval should feel easier than the end. Also, your first few intervals should usually feel a little easier than you might expect, while your last few should feel harder. If every effort during your workout feels exactly the same, it’s likely you’re not actually working as hard towards the end. Remember also how external factors like fatigue, hunger, and headwinds can affect your perception. The same power output feels much harder at the end of a long week of training than it does when you’re well-rested. Likewise, poor fueling can dramatically increase the RPE associated with even an easy ride.

Check the Instructions

Device manufacturers currently don’t allow RPE-based instructions to be displayed on head units during your workout. However, RPE-based instructions are available for any scheduled outdoor workout through the calendar on the TrainerRoad mobile app, in addition to the desktop calendar. Give them a read before you head out for your ride, and if you get confused, take a quick break from your workout and check the instructions on your phone. TrainerRoad workouts are quite straightforward and seldom have multiple intervals at widely varied intensities to memorize.

Write it Down

It used to be standard procedure to write workout instructions on a piece of tape and attach it to your stem or top tube. Don’t be afraid to go old school and write yourself some reminders. Masking tape leaves little residue and can easily be written on with a felt-tipped pen.

Useful Workouts for Everyone

Even if you are a power meter user, RPE-based workouts can be a good way to help you better learn to ride by feel, a valuable skill for any racer. It’s often difficult to ride to a power target during an event, and knowing how your legs feel and respond at different perceived intensities is a great skill to have. Also, some athletes may only have a power meter on a certain bike, but wish to train or race on other bikes. RPE-based workouts open up the possibility of maintaining structure and better gauging effort across all bikes and disciplines.

In Conclusion

It’s true that RPE-based rides aren’t as objectively accurate as workouts recorded on a power meter. But, perception is a better indicator of your exertion than you might think, and riding by feel is an essential skill for every cyclist. Best of all, TrainerRoad Outside Workouts aid in maintaining structured training when riding outside, and even just a few structured workouts a week go a long way towards maintaining your hard-earned fitness and helping you get faster.

Other useful Outside Workouts hints:
Outside Workouts: Hammerhead Setup
Outside Workouts: Wahoo ELEMNT Setup
Outside Workouts: Garmin Setup
Tips for safe Outside Workouts
Riding Indoors Vs. Riding Outside: A Comparison

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