One Dirty Magazine
3 Tips to Reduce Perceived Exertion and Make Running Feel Easier Megan Roche jams out to music on an easy run in Rancho San Antonio Park outside Sunnyvale, California. Photo by David Roche.

3 Tips to Reduce Perceived Exertion and Make Running Feel Easier

Your brain plays a big role in how hard or easy a run feels. Here are some strategies to shift your mindset.

David Roche September 19th, 2017

What is the most important body part for running performance? It’s not the feet, calves, quads or butt. It’s the brain.

The brain’s importance is obvious when you think about the intrinsic motivation that makes you a lifelong runner in the first place—why you get out the door at 5 a.m. in January or keep at it after a stress fracture.

What’s less obvious is how the brain modulates performance while running. Your brain plays a large role in determining how hard you think you are working—also called Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE goes a long way in determining what you can actually do, and how much you enjoy it.

The CDC defines Perceived Exertion as a subjective measure of “how hard you feel like your body is working.” It usually correlates with actual exertion, but not always. You probably understand that offset intuitively—a day when you are miserably slogging at 12 minutes per mile and then, when a friend runs by or a great song comes on, you suddenly start running happier and more relaxed at 10 minutes per mile

From coaching experience, I’ve observed that the most consistent runners often have methods to reduce perceived exertion, or at least make sure it aligns with their actual effort. Here are three tips to make the daily grind feel like a breeze.


1. Listen to music

When I think back to my most transcendent—even spiritual—moments on the trails, most involve floating down winding singletrack as a great song plays on my headphones (most recently, “Waiting on the Summer” by the VHS Collection). At that moment, running felt effortless. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it was a 1 for effort and 10 for putting-arms-out-and-loving-life.

There is science to back up the anecdotes. As summarized in a 2017 article in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, it all comes back to the parallel processing model, which indicates that dissociative strategies (like listening to music or podcasts) can reduce perceived exertion at low-to-moderate intensities. Essentially, music provides a distraction from fatigue. Most studies show music loses its benefit at high intensities, when performance requires more active focus on the task at hand.

Reaching your running potential requires many hours of mundane running. Music can help the mundane feel magical. Consider wearing a pair of wireless headphones and listening to your favorite music or podcasts on some of your easier runs, especially on days when motivation may be waning. (Though remember not to play the music so loud that you can’t hear the other trail users or wildlife around you).


2. Run with friends

There’s a reason most elite runners train in groups, and it’s not because of the smell. Running with partners provides accountability and can reduce perceived exertion during both easy runs (by providing a dissociative tool through conversation) and hard runs (by providing an associative tool through focus on pacing).

Studies haven’t reached a consensus on the circumstances when group running reduces perceived exertion. For example, a 2016 study in the Journal of Exercise Physiology found that higher perceived social support within a running group reduced perceived exertion, but that running in a group didn’t make interval workouts faster across the study participants. Other studies are all over the place. The takeaway seems to be that group dynamics and individual personalities matter.

So, simply finding warm bodies to run with may not be enough. You must also care about the people you run with. Consider joining a local running club with the intent of not just finding running partners, but cultivating relationships. Friends can make the miles fly by.


3. Consume caffeine

On the morning of the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy in 2014, I was sitting next to Patrick Smyth at the breakfast table when he ordered an espresso. “Okay, that’s normal,” I thought. “It would make me sick, but everyone is different.”

Then, he ordered another … and another, sipping them quickly as we waited for the bus to the race start. Fueled by a hefty dose of caffeine, he went on to finish in the top 10 later that morning.

While Smyth had likely built up a tolerance, caffeine has been shown to reduce perceived exertion and improve performance across the athletic population. A 2005 meta-analysis of all studies on caffeine and exercise to that date found a 5.6-percent reduction in perceived exertion (and associated performance improvement) from caffeine ingestion.

Running is a beautiful sport. Caffeine can make it 5.6 percent more beautiful. Consider a small cup of coffee or caffeinated gel before runs, starting with a low dose of caffeine and being careful not to exceed 200 mg without consent of a doctor.

By making running feel easier, getting out the door and putting in the miles can feel less daunting. Just make sure you remember that a reduction in perceived exertion does not necessarily change actual exertion. Whether you have music, friends or dark roast motivating you, don’t fall into the overtraining trap from loving running too much and going too hard as a result.


David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

Leave A Comment

28 Comments on "3 Tips to Reduce Perceived Exertion and Make Running Feel Easier"

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Tessa Lucero

I’ll go along with 2 and 3. I am not sold on music during trail running — however that may be because I live and run in rattlesnake country and I want to hear any venomous viper that’s warning me away. In parts of the country where the dangerous native fauna don’t make “go away!” noises, being able to hear one’s surroundings may not be as critical.

John N.

I will second the music thought. It’s not safe on trails and roads. The only concession I might make is in using one ear bud. A person needs to be aware of one’s surroundings and listening is important part of being safe.

David Roche

Thanks so much for awesome comments Tessa and John! The music v. no music debate is like a lot of things–it probably doesn’t have a universal right answer, but depends on the person, time, place, and type of run. You both are wonderful!

keith petersen

No on the music. I like the quietude of the trails. Run in areas with mountain lions and coyotes, too. Not interested in close encounters.

I enjoy the solitude of running. About the only time I get to be by myself thru out the entire day (and night). And, at the risk of being called a misogynist, it’s mainly groups of women I encounter on the trail.

Not sure about the coffee either. Isn’t coffee a diuretic?

Anyway… enjoyed the article even if I won’t use the suggestions!

David Roche

Thanks so much for comment Keith! Everyone is different with different motivations and personalities, so your perspective is wonderful to hear. You rock!


I just want to know what song Megan was listening to when you snapped that pic 🙂
Great article as usual, David!

David Roche

In my head, it’s Bossy by Kelis 🙂

Skye Wikjord

TRUE! Running is ALWAYS easier with friends and music!

David Roche

Friends and coffee = the recipe for a great time. You rock Skye!

Mark MacAskill

Good tips!

David, I used to see you out running with giant yellow headphones. I can only assume you were rocking out to some serious tunes.

David Roche


Seth Parrish

Tips 1 and 2 are great for the sub-elite runner, but studies also show that elite endurance athletes must be closely in touch with body systems and be adjusting to every minor alteration. Part of being elite is feeling the pain, knowing what to do with it and how to handle it.

David Roche

Thank you for comment Seth! Most top pro runners have groups, partially for that reason.

Brad H.

Headphones in the woods… New low for TRM content! How can you all even post this?


Headphones are like running shoes. You don’t really need them but for some it makes a run more enjoyable.

Keep up the great work David!


I agree again – highly counter intuitive for this type of website!

Sir Thrusty

Heres a challenge Gabe. Now, it requires reading comprehension so it may be difficult for you…but play along. The title of the article is “3 Tips to Reduce Perceived Exertion and Make Running Feel Easier.” In this article he cites a study that states that “dissociative strategies (like listening to music or podcasts) can reduce perceived exertion at low-to-moderate intensities.” Do you see where I am going with this? I really believe in you and feel like you can get this if you try hard enough.


Not all trails are in the woods. The only trail near me is a dirt loop around a park. No cars, no wildlife (other than birds), and no cyclists. It’s the easiest trail for me to do regular training on, and occasional music helps with monotony. Try not to be so judgmental and presumptuous. All trails are not the same and don’t have the same safety concerns. Just because something does not apply to you does not mean it is a bad idea for someone else.


This is “Trail Runner Mag” not “Urban Gravel Path Mag” and also not “David Roche’s forum to sell silver bullets and unicorn crap” smh btw urban paths have their own danger when you’re unaware of your surroundings.

David Roche

Thanks so much for the discussion everyone! It is great to have robust debate on things that matter. You all are awesome!


I LOVE how you encourage this debate with so much positivity and then put PhysioFella’s comment up on your personal twitter for all of your athletes to make fun of! Not something I’d expect of an experienced coach, but still super hilarious! Thanks for the entertainment @MountainRoche

Ray Siegrist

Very rarely do I listen to music on the trails, when I do it’s only one ear bud in and the volume on low. One reason I run the trails is to get away from noise. Nothing like the sound of nature…

Mark Purl

The biggest think that helps me is when I have someone else running with me, but it’s hard to pull it off very often because of varying schedules. Good article by the way.


Some training runs should feel difficult to reduce future perceived exertion. I never listen to music while running, but I will start singing to myself as the hours pass.