You’ve increased your VO2 max, tweaked your technique, pushed your strength training…you’re at peak performance and ready for the start gun.
But race readiness—or even getting yourself in a good mental place for your next workout—boosts when you optimize your brain’s role.
Research suggests there’s a key mental aspect that matters most: Your perception of effort, a.k.a. rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
The most common way to measure RPE is called the Borg Scale and is similar to how a doctor might ask you to rate your pain: The Borg Scale matches how hard you feel you are working with a numerical value (0-10 or 6-20) and a word anchor (“very, very light/easy” and “very, very hard/hard”).
But RPE is feelings-focused, not physical, e.g. thinking if a hill climb feels uggggg to you vs. sensations of physical leg cramps.
An example: When a biathlete has been skiing hard and transitions from skiing to target shooting, they may be able to differentiate between breathlessness (the body) and how hard it feels to shoot the target accurately (RPE).
Why does RPE matter? Because we can use that awareness to nudge our brains and bodies into better performance.
How to Help Your Brain Get Race-Ready
1. Let your brain rest.
In a 2010 paper, Professor Samuele Marcora of the University of Bologna explored factors that can affect and influence RPE, and research showed that when athletes engaged in mentally fatiguing tasks before a training session, their performance was reduced, thanks to the higher perception of effort.
So don’t spend race morning on the NYT weekend crossword or frantically dodging traffic and trying to park. Set aside time for mental quiet.
2. Prime yourself positively.
A regular routine involving feel-good warmups and music you love can help you transition from daily life to your workout or race with a positive impact on energy levels and performance.
Or at least surround yourselves with cheerful company. In another study, athletes who were shown subliminal images of happy faces experienced lower RPE in a subsequent workout, resulting in improved performance.
4. Talk to yourself the way you talk to the dog.
Think about it: how many times a day do you shower your four-legged bestie with praise and endless “Good girl!” positivity, yet give yourself nothing but negative self-talk? Simply having a repeated positive word or phrase similarly affects RPE as smiling. Try a few mental “good girls” on your next grueling hill climb or interval, and see how you feel.
5. Find your why.
Lastly, having a higher purpose for racing helps. Do you want to add years to your life? Beat a personal record? Set a good example for your kids? Raise money for a cause you care deeply about? A sense of purpose is a powerful motivator—and one sure to help you cross the finish line in a way you feel good about.