The technology in our GPS running watches can track our sleep, heart rate, elevation gain, cadence, distance run, vo2 max, and total number of black toes accrued. Ok, that last one was just to make sure you’re reading because I know run data can get overwhelming.
The point is, they can tell us a lot of information about our runs.
What exactly are we supposed to do with all of this data and what does it all mean?
- We can tell our watches to alert us at every mile or ping us if we’re running too fast or too slow.
- Our watches can also tell us if we’re not working hard enough or need to take a breather.
- It’s like having a coach on our wrist.
Except a coach that isn’t actually giving you any insight to what all the metrics mean.
Does all this information actually help or hinder our performance?
The answer really depends on how much you rely on your watch to tell you how you should be running. First, understanding what the data mean and understanding which metrics matter will guide you to making better running choices.
Run Data Analysis: What Each Piece Means
Depending on the type of watch you use, your GPS watch can provide simple metrics such as how fast and far you’ve run while others can provide very detailed information about your workout.
Understanding what each metric actually measures can help you understand patterns in your running and serve as a guide to analyze your performance.
- Learn below what each of the main features are, then decide how useful it is to you.
- Pick a few pieces of information to focus on consistently. Jumping around can mean you’re comparing things that aren’t telling you the same thing.
- Working with an online running coach to spend more of your time running and less worrying about what’s important.
What is a Running Cadence Sensor?
The number of times your foot strikes the ground within one minute is your running cadence.
Your running speed is a result of your cadence and your stride length.
- 180 steps per minute (SPM) is the optimal cadence for maximum running efficiency
- Easy runs could be closer to 170
- 5K or sprints could be closer to 200
If you want to increase your SPM, then download a metronome app or look for a playlist on Spotify designed for runners that include songs with 90 or 180 BPM. Time each footstrike with the beat to train yourself to run at a faster cadence.
How do You Read Elevation Gain?
Elevation gain tells an important story of your run. It may explain why a 10-mile run took 20 minutes longer than you might have expected. Check the elevation to see if you spent a lot of time heading up compared to your other runs. You’d be surprised at how much elevation even a seemingly flat hill can add on to a run.
Elevation gain is key for runners looking to train for hillier races or ultra marathons.
The information will indicate whether you need to incorporate more hills, find steeper ones, or hold off. You can also use the data as an indicator of your strength over time.
- Run the same hilly route once a week
- After a few months, you should find that you’re able to run more of the hills while keeping your HR down
- After another few months, you should find your leg strength has improved as well and you might be running fast
- Utilize not only the strength from the uphills, but learn how to run downhill without hurting your knees
Altimeter Watch Information
Similar to elevation gain, altitude may tell you why you felt so breathless during your most recent run. It’s not that you were physically tired or out of shape necessarily, but rather you were running at 6,000 feet above sea level!
Similarly, if you live in a high elevation, like I do, your last run may have left you feeling like you were flying because you enjoyed coming down to sea level.
Oxygen levels decrease the higher in altitude you go, making it harder to breathe. Runners not used to training in high elevation will notice slower results until they acclimate to the altitude.
- Altimeter information is largely more valuable to those who will be training in the mountains or those who travel frequently to different terrain.
- That means it’s often a feature on more rugged or high end GPS running watches.
Measuring Average Heart Rate
Those who wear their running watches throughout the day and night will benefit from understanding their resting heart rates and maximum heart rates. Knowing your beats per minute (BPM) for each will tell you how to train and stay within your heart rate zone to optimize training.
- Trends in your resting HR can tell you how well you’re recovering (it shouldn’t be getting higher)
- Seeing your HR get lower during the same easy runs can indicate you’re building efficiency
- Avg HR is a good way to see the full stress your body is under from training, life and nutrition
Some watches will take the knowledge of your resting and maximum heart rates and automatically calculate your heart rate zones. The watch will alert you if you are working too hard on an easy day or not hard enough during a speed workout.
Most GPS running watches now use wrist-based technology to record BPM, but a chest strap is the most accurate HR measurement outside of an EKG.
- Wrist based relies on blood flow and reading through your skin, which is harder in cold weather
- Polar has some new technology which is making their watches even more accurate
How accurate is Vo2 Max on Garmin?
While the most accurate reading for Vo2 Max will always come from a lab setting, many GPS running watches today can calculate an estimated Vo2 Max. The number is based on your resting heart rate, age, gender, weight, and other personal information in conjunction with your pace to heart rate ratio during runs.
The Vo2 Max is an important metric for runners because the number indicates how much oxygen you can consume in one minute per kilogram of body weight at maximum performance. The higher your Vo2 Max, the more efficiently your body can perform during athletic events. As you become more fit, your Vo2 Max should increase.
- HOWEVER, the predicted race times are often much faster than many can run.
- The VO2 MAX trend will also tell you that some days of training are undproductive, when they are in fact the exact easy day of training you need. That’s because it’s only looking for an upward trend.
- VO2 MAX is almost always higher on these watches than from a lab test, which could lead you to overtrain if relying on this piece of data more than others.
Are Sleep Trackers Useful?
The quality of sleep you get each night is a huge indicator of your running performance.
Some watches like the Garmin Fenix get super detailed and provide insights like deep, light and REM sleep, based on your heart rate and movements. Knowing this information will give you hints as to why you may be feeling sluggish during your runs and remind you that you need to implement some tools for better sleep.
- Sleep is one of the BIGGEST recovery tools we have.
- I’s powerful to know exactly what your quality of sleep is
That being said, I often don’t need a watch to tell me this. I know if I slept or tossed and turned.
How to use Power Meter for Running
As if your watch alone didn’t provide enough data, some runners have started to look at Power Meter data. It’s been used by cyclists for many years and is now crossing over to running.
Heart rate can be slow to respond to conditions like weather, hills, and wind, and the belief is a power meter can provide immediate data, helping us run at a consistent effort, even if we’re running uphill. This real-time data can help you stay on pace to achieve a PR or your time goal for an upcoming race.
Power meter data is measured through a small pod that you attach to your shore, sort of like a race timing chip. The idea is that it’s more accurate at telling you total effort than just your HR or Pace. It’s taking all variables in to account and helping you to regulate your energy.
It will help measure:
- vertical, lateral, and horizontal acceleration of your foot as you run
- factors like wind, temperature and humidity
- terrain, elevation gain and altitude
The algorithm takes these data and calculates your running power in watts, in real time, on your watch. The running power quantifies how hard you’re running, regardless of the terrain.
What do you need to measure power?
Meanwhile, Polar has updated many of it’s watches to have the Power Meter in the wrist! I’m still in the process of testing the Polar Vantage and can give you more of an update in a few weeks.
NOTE: As a coach right now, I think this data is more than many runners need. But we’re all learning more about it and could find over time it’s easier…but I think that’s a process and not an immediate shift.
Using Your Running Watch Data to Improve Performance
All right, now that we have a better understanding of the run data our watches record for us, how can we use that information to improve our running?
The real trick is to use all that data in conjunction with your internal data. Too many runners fall into the trap of listening to everything their watch tells them to do, rather than relying on how your body feels in relation to the effort.
Feeling stressed about the numbers will only lead to stress, taking away the fun in running and potentially leading to injuries and decreased performance. Follow the tips below to use your watch to boost your running.
- Don’t look at your watch every minute to check your pace
- Do consider external factors that your watch can’t calculate: the weather, stress at work, dehydration, the extra beer you had last night.
- Don’t panic when your usual easy loop took you five minutes longer this week versus two weeks ago.
- Do pay attention to your internal running data like respiration, muscle fatigue, how fast you felt
- Don’t become a slave to your GPS watch.
- Do set your watch face to display elapsed time, rather than pace
- Don’t get overwhelmed by all the data
- Do pick a few key elements to track overtime for progress
Remember Perceived Effort Matters Just as Much
Run to the Finish coach Alexis Fairbanks stresses the importance of using the data to look for consistencies throughout a particular run.
“The watch can be a great tool for runners, but if not used appropriately, it can be detrimental to progress…effort and pace will not always coincide and it’s more important to focus on effort!
So many factors go into the way we feel on the run, [like] stress, weather, hydration, nutrition etc. and all these things influence how fast we run at a certain effort! Instead of comparing every run and dwelling on runs that aren’t as fast as we expect them to be, look at the data after the run and aim to see consistency throughout the run rather than going out too hard at a pace you think you should be running and then having to slow down.”
Learning how to run by feel can take some time, especially if you’ve become accustomed to using your watch all the time.
Also think about what might happen if you step up to the starting line only to realize that your watch battery was dead. You need to be able to rely on your internal knowledge in order to stay calm and run a good race. A watch won’t help you run your best, but knowing how to tap into your body will.
Should You Ditch the GPS Watch?
Unless you’re finding that you’ve become obsessed with hitting the numbers prescribed by your watch or beating yourself up when you don’t hit a time goal, you probably don’t need to lose your watch. However, I’m a huge proponent of “running naked” on occasion.
Try leaving your watch behind on an easy run and rather than constantly checking your pace, running around in your driveway to reach exactly 7.0 miles, or maintaining an exact consistent pace, pay attention to the rhythm of your feet hitting the ground, your breath, and the scenery around you.
Coach Kaitlyn Faist prescribes “hard” efforts for her runners as the inability to talk in full sentences, whereas “easy” runs mean being able to hold a conversation without feeling out of breath.
“As runners, we get so accustomed to constantly checking our watches and relying on numbers/data for the validation that we’re truly running hard or easy. But there is something to be said about removing that pace pressure and relying on feel for those hard and easy efforts. In doing so, their paces and heart rates regulate and there is a clear range of each that they hit for the “hard” and the “easy” without needing to constantly check for the watch’s validation.”
Relying on watch data to tell you how fast or slow to go during a recovery run could affect your training by pushing you too hard. Recovery plays a huge role in training and will improve, not thwart, your efforts.
Have you become too reliant on your watch data?
How do you use your watch data to complement your internal data?
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