How to Apply an “RPE” Scale to Life

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On the wall of my local gym, where the coaches program training based on how athletes feel, hangs this chart:

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is commonly used in high-performance sport to balance effort and recovery. More time in upper zones means more time in lower ones. Stress plus rest equals growth, and not just in sport, but in pretty much everything.

This chart is on my mind because I’ve been feeling a bit fatigued and blah lately. Taking stock of my situation over the last six or seven weeks, I realized I never really went above RPE eight, and I’m not just talking about in the gym, but globally in my work and life. I also haven’t spent much, if any, time in the RPE one to three zone either.

Now, I’ve actually been quite productive, making good headway on three big writing projects, finally starting my Instagram and getting some good content up there, coaching clients through a handful of challenging situations, being consistent in my physical practice, and bringing my best to a few speaking engagements. But at no point in the past few weeks have I touched RPE nine, let alone ten. I’d say I’ve spent about every day in the seven or eight range.

In my first book with Steve, Peak Performance, we wrote extensively about polarizing work: keep your hard days HARD and your easy days EASY. There is a ton of wisdom in that approach. But there is an equally good approach, which I explored in depth in The Practice of Groundedness, which says don’t worry about super HARD days; if anything, avoid them! This allows you to stay consistent and string together big blocks of work in which no one day is heroic, but over-time the result is big progress. As we age, the second approach tends to be more sustainable and effective, and not just in the gym, but in all of life.

But here’s the thing, and it’s the piece of the puzzle I’ve forgotten in my own life. (Even though I literally wrote about it verbatim in my book!) If you string together enough RPE six, seven, and eight days, eventually the fatigue compounds and you need to spend time in the RPE one through three range.

For me, and I suspect for many others, too, it is easier to spend time in RPE one through three after a heroic, nine or ten effort. Why? Because you feel cashed. There is no avoiding the fact you need rest. If you try to keep pushing, you’ll immediately feel like crap, or worse, become ill or injured.

But when you string together a big consistent block of work, avoiding heroic efforts but still showing up and pounding the stone every day, the fatigue creeps up on you. It is not a feeling of oh my goodness I’m toast but rather I just kind of feel blah today. But it’s still a sign that you need to balance your stress and rest budget.

I am going to take one day this weekend completely off, no devices or anything. And then, in a few weeks, I am taking a Thursday through Tuesday stretch completely off, for my best friend’s visit from Oakland, CA, here to Asheville. I won’t know if it’s the right amount of rest to balance the chronic work of the last six weeks, but I’ll find out!

What’s the point here, other than my soap box?

  • It is helpful to apply an RPE chart not just to sport but to all the endeavors toward which we work in life.
  • If you go the completely polarized route, then it can be easier to balance stress and rest. (But the costs of messing it up are higher.)
  • If you go the consistent small steps lead to big gains route, be careful not to fall for the same trap I did: even if you never go above RPE eight, enough efforts at or just below it eventually necessitate time in RPE one thru three.

Work hard (or hard enough). Rest easy (or easy enough).

Brad

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