Training Intensities using Strokes Per Minute

With so many measurable and unmeasurable intensities of exercise, it can be confusing to find a consistent scale of intensity to follow. With heart rates the biggest stake holder in the exercise science world, with so many variations of watches and gauges to give you information, which in most cases for amateur athletes, is just more confusing or worse, misleading.   So why not use the instant information we have when we start to train, “How does it feel on a scale of 1-10?” (RPE) and “How many strokes per minute am I paddling ? ” % of Functional maximum strokes per minute, (FMSPM).


Both of these measurable training intensities can be gained without any expensive devices, which sometimes just get in the way of a good training session. However, if you have the money and desire, there can be something to be gained by having these training measures of time, SPM and speed, visually displayed whilst paddling and recorded for evaluation after paddling.


So where do we start, you ask??

How many strokes does it take to feel RPE 3-4 or RPE 10? Well, since we train in the field, we need to be tested in the field. Then we need to retest in the field as our training adaptation improves, so will our Functional maximum stroke rate per minute .

So a reliable field test for Functional maximum strokes per minute, is to train for 1 minute at the highest stroke rate you can hold full stroke repetitions (FMSPM) and have the SPM noted.

Eg  – 1 minute Functional Maximum full stroke repetitions

Training Collation between RPE and % FMSPM

So after testing for FMSPM, we find we have a FMSPM of eg. 60 SPM, then we know this is our Training RPE of 9-10, or very close to it. When using the scale of RPE (Rates of Perceived Exertion), we feel that RPE 1-2 is very relaxed paddling, where you are able to carry on a conversation. Through many sports and science testing of exercise, we have come to a general consensus, that this intensity of exercise is approximately 50% of our maximum training effort. Also, through sports science testing, we have come to learn that exercising at high intensity levels in order to increase maximum aerobic capacity, we need to sustain efforts of close to 90% of our maximum effort. To improve aerobic power, we need to train at levels of maximum effort of approximately 75% and for improvements in our ability to use oxygen; we need to exercise at approximately 65%.

So for a reliable and consistent training scale, we can use 5 different intensity levels/training zones. Then monitor our level of effort by paying close attention to how we feel (RPE) at different speeds (SPM).

Now that we have a training scale to follow that is personalised to suit each individual trainer, we can set up a progressive training program. Once you have followed a progressive training program for 4-6 weeks, it is best to retest for your FMSPM and make adjustments, if needed, to your FMSPM training scale.


A successful progressive training plan should show signs of reduced RPE at high-level SPM and increases in board speed.

TZ RPE (1-10)/How you feel Purpose  


% FMSPM Physiological Adaptations Race fitness
1 1-2 Very relaxed. Able to carry on a conversation Regeneration and recovery and establish base endurance Eg.29




52% Increase blood flow to muscles to flush out waste products and provide nutrients. Improves fat metabolism, gets muscles/tendons/ligaments/nerves used to cycling. Increases economy Promotes recovery and therefore training response. More efficient use of energy. Prepares body for harder training, works on technique/skill
2 3-4 Working. Feel warmer. Heart rate and respiration up. May sweat. Improve efficiency Eg.35



64% Improves the ability to use oxygen, produce power and increases efficiency Able to produce more power with the same level of effort, works on technique/skill
3 5-6 Hard work. Heart rate and respiration up. Carbon dioxide build-up. Sweating. Breathing hard. Improve sustainable aerobic power Eg.42




76% Improves carbohydrate metabolism, changes some fast twitch muscle to slow-twitch Improved sustainable power, good for all paddling events
4 7-8 Stressed. Panting. Sweating freely -7 Very stressed. Gasping. Sweating heavily. Push threshold up, sustain a percentage of maximal aerobic power Eg.48



88% Develops cardiovascular system and VO2max, improves anaerobic energy production and speeds turnover of waste products Improved sustainable race pace, used in specific prep, pre and competition
5 9-10 heavily stressed. Gasping. Sweating heavily. Increase sprint power output Eg.55




100% Increases maximum muscle power, develops neural control of paddling at specific stroke rate Develop race-specific skills at race pace, starting power, sprint speed, and the ability to jump away from the bunch