Running in Harmony: What Data Matters?
GPS watches and other wearable tech deliver loads of metrics. Here’s what to pay attention to, especially for young runners.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Splits, cadence, power—oh my!
With a proliferation of running data available at our fingertips, it’s easy to dive in deep. How fast was my first mile and my last? How does my stride length stack up to last week? How do I rank on that hilly segment?
This data may come from a GPS watch, a smartphone tracking app, or other wearable tech—heart rate monitors, shoe pods (or shoes with built-in chips), posture prompts, and power meters. The data is fascinating, really, especially when displayed in colorful graphs or promising injury prevention.
Demand for tracking and data appears to be high. By some estimates, the majority of runners track at least some of their run stats. Strava, an exercise-tracking app with a social component, has 49 million users around the world. But do these trackers and the data they produce really help runners and, if so, how?
Caveats and Concerns
First, know that many factors affect the accuracy of global positioning system (GPS) data, which running watches use to track distance and pace. Atmospheric conditions and tall buildings, for example, can make for messy, inaccurate tracks and splits. Other factors—like where you wear a monitor or how much you sweat—affect the accuracy of heart rate monitoring. So take that data with a grain of salt; focus on larger trends revealed by the data, not real-time numbers.
Second, some research suggests that health and fitness tech—in particular those aimed at weight loss, body composition, or lifestyle changes—may cause issues for runners, especially young ones. These issues may include guilt, reduced self-motivation, and feeling controlled by apps. It’s best that youth and adolescent runners focus on fueling and hydrating to support their bodies through both the extreme development they are undergoing and their exercise and other activities. That means first disregarding calorie counters and specific diets. To dial in specifics, work with a registered dietician who specializes in sports and/or eating disorders, and ideally uses an Intuitive Eating approach.
Third, when it comes to form feedback and preventing injuries with wearable tech, research suggests that there’s no “perfect” form that guarantees you’ll avoid injury. As Jonathan Beverly writes in Your Best Stride, your body finds its own best way to run. Sure, there are factors you can and should work on to become more efficient, but within the context of your own unique biomechanics, mobility and fitness. Something beeping at you because your cadence is 160 steps per minute (instead of the oft-glorified 180 steps per minute) may not be helpful. Trying to bounce less because your watch says you have a high vertical oscillation is an exercise in frustration and likely to cause more hurt than harm.
Comparison to yourself (“Fastest time on this route!”) or peers (“Oh, look, Suzy ran 7-minute pace for 8 miles!”) can suck the joy out of running. Equally unenjoyable, an addiction to tech can kill motivation, and even derail a training session. For rigid or type-A types, it can become impossible to take an easy day with a blinking, beeping, talking device on your wrist or belt urging: “It’s time to move!” or to call a run “done” when your watch reads “3.87 miles.” If you have run laps around a parking lot or up and down a block until the total ticked over to a round number, you know what I mean!
Such intense focus on data: distance, speed, and frequency, neglects an important part of the equation necessary for improved fitness and performance: rest. It’s in the negative space—recovery—that our bodies adapt and improve.
Harnessing the Tools
All that said, running stats allow athletes and coaches to analyze work completed. If you see patterns, you and your coach can adjust training accordingly. Zoom out and see a drastic increase in mileage logged over the past few months? Schedule a down week. Zoom in and see positive splits in every track workout? Practice starting harder sessions more conservatively.
Running tech then, is best used as a tool—just one of many in a runner’s arsenal. The importance and helpfulness of metrics increases for older, more experienced runners and those who run longer distances, as a tool to monitor their training load. For younger athletes, it’s essential to learn how to connect with the body. Consider your body’s feedback before connecting to a satellite in the sky.
Here’s what to tune into and how:
Take your resting heart rate in the morning. After waking, lie in bed and take a few deep breaths. Find the pulse on the left side of your neck, next to your throat and adam’s apple. Count the beats for 60 seconds, or for 15 seconds and then multiply by 4. Record it for a week or two. If it spikes, be curious why: Are you sleeping well or enough? Are you stressed or feeling strong emotions? Are you overtraining? Are you in a specific phase in your menstrual cycle? If it’s unusually low, be curious why: Are you fueling and hydrating enough? Are you breathing?
You can also take your heart rate after intervals. Stand and count your pulse. (Or use a chest HR strap that connects to your watch or coach’s tech.) You might notice it starting to slow more quickly after hard bouts; this indicates you’re gaining fitness and may be able to shorten recovery time.
TIME ON FEET
Track time on feet. When I started running in elementary school, I glanced at the grandfather clock at home, before darting out the door and up the canyon. Once finished, I’d race inside to see how far the minute and second hands had moved. A simple, non-GPS watch—or a coach with a stopwatch—works just fine. GPS smart watches make it easy to add up weekly and monthly totals, but take care not to get too focussed on the pace.
For runners with experience, monitoring pace helps avoid straining and over-training, especially on tempos and long runs. But, wait! It’s far too easy to try to PR every mile, or decide you have to run at least a certain pace every time out, even when your body is telling you it wants to go slower today.
There are other elephants in this room: Countless online running calculators and books with impeccable pace charts! If you can’t resist Googling “How fast should I run my track workout?” take what you find with another giant grain of salt.
Formulaic training is just that. It’s not that formulas are necessarily incorrect. The issue is that they’re standard calculations based on one or two inputs, like a time trial or race or lactate test—just a snapshot in time.
Information, Not Judgment
From day to day, so many factors affect the stats we rack up. Sleep, stress, emotions, mental input and output—they all influence not only how we feel but the metrics we “produce” based on imperfect—even if potentially insightful—tech. Data should inform and affirm, not control and judge. It’s best to not get too attached but, rather, practice an intuitive, non-judgmental approach for assessing what’s what.
Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of The Melody Fairchild Girls Running Camp, and master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), co-authored with Elizabeth Carey, is forthcoming. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.