3 Reasons to Use RPE for Swimmers

3 Reasons to Use RPE for Swimmers

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Take Home Points on 3 Reasons to Use RPE for Swimmers

1) Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is an inexpensive way to monitor swimmers’ response to training
2) Few methods are quicker to track than RPE
3) Though high tech methods purport to be more accurate, evidence has shown RPE is reliable to estimate workout effort

Athlete monitoring is a popular topic in modern sports, and swimming is no exception. Yet as monitoring becomes more complex and more expensive, there is a tendency to relegate “old fashioned” methods such as Ratings of Perceived Exertion to the lost-and-found bin. In this post, we’ll review some benefits of RPE for swimmers.

Before discussing the benefits, let’s review what we mean by RPE. In a formal setting, RPE is commonly tracked on the Borg scale, with a rating of 6-20, though other number systems are also in use (ie, 1-10). However, RPE need not be numerical, as a simple “How do you feel today?” can gather valuable information. Coaches are free to use this information to gauge today’s workout or wait for trends to develop before taking action.

3 Reasons to Use RPE for Swimmers

1. RPE for Swimmers is Inexpensive

Unlike high tech computer software and measuring devices, RPE can be done for FREE. RPE for swimmers is as cheap as it gets. Now, there is a time cost to gather the data along with a time cost to analyze data, but neither is significant in overall context of managing a team and neither requires an additional financial commitment.

2. RPE for Swimmers is Quick

How long does it take to ask the swimmer how he or she feels today? Maybe a couple seconds? Though most quantitative measures also quickly provide data, running through an entire team may be cumbersome, and compliance may be an issue if swimmers are instructed to gather data away from the pool. A coach can gather pre or post workout data during a dryland session or during breaks in a pool workout.

3. RPE for Swimmers is Reliable

We have covered the literature on RPE in a previous installment, noting consistent findings. (Wallace 2009, Psycharakis 2011, Ueda 1995) One concern with using subjective measures such as RPE is that swimmers may try to “game the system.” This concern is very legitimate, can often be alleviated in two ways. First, gathering data for a long period will usually expose trends. While a swimmer may try to game the system to get out of hard work in the short term, trends will usually emerge in long term tracking that make it difficult to hide.

Additionally, any concern with “gaming the system” can also be handled by knowing your swimmer. Some will try to game the system by hiding fatigue, while others will overstate fatigue. Again, no one proposes that you apply RPE in a vacuum; instead, use it as one metric to gauge the effectiveness of training and to be nimble in adapting to whatever the swimmer brings to the pool that day.

To experienced coaches, the idea of measuring RPE is nothing more than “communicate with your athlete.” In fact, many coaches can likely estimate RPE through body language. Though imperfect, as any measurement strategy is, it is important to remember that one of the most reliable methods of measuring exertion is free and fast. Yes, advanced metrics may have benefits beyond RPE, but many coaches unfortunately take an “all or none” attitude (“Why bother with it if I can’t afford the fancy technology?”). Know that you can enhance your ability to track your athletes with a simple number scale and a minimal time investment to gather key information.

1) Wallace LK, Slattery KM, Coutts AJ. The ecological validity and application of the session-RPE method for quantifying training loads in swimming. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):33-8.

2) Psycharakis SG. A longitudinal analysis on the validity and reliability of ratings of perceived exertion for elite swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Feb;25(2):420-6.

3) Ueda T, Kurokawa T. Relationships between perceived exertion and physiological variables during swimming. Int J Sports Med. 1995 Aug;16(6):385-9.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

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