You go a couple of weeks through your training, but something seems missing. You're starting to notice some kind of results, but you don't have any true measure of what they are. Sure, the scale numbers might be coming down (or taunting you, if they're not), but you haven't any idea if what you're doing is really, truly, working.
You don't know what's going on with your body.
So what are you to do?
This post, along with the next one, is going to look into the broad categories of products that are designed to help you track your training results. Today's Part I will talk about products that help generate data, whereas Part II will talk about products that help you to analyze that data. In all, everything described here is designed to help you generate metrics that will help you figure out what it is your body is doing during the course of workout, and watch the results of that training throughout your program.
The Old Reliable: Pedometers
Price Range: $18-$60
Pros: Relatively inexpensive, pedometers are a good way to track the distance of your running or walking workouts. There are two kinds of pedometers: the Timex Simple Pedometers are based upon the movement of the hip joint, which is why they must be attached to the waistband of your bottoms; the Nike+ system instead relies on a footpod, with a sensor that will click each time it detects an impact, such as a footstrike. These devices are also relatively simple to use and set-up.
Cons: Unfortunately, pedometers can be awfully tricky to calibrate correctly. No matter the type, they are going to be based upon the stride length that you input into them. It is necessary to determine how long of a stride you take, and then it will be dependent on you using that stride length consistently in order to get an accurate measurement. Also, these devices are one-dimensional: they only give you one metric for training, and they also can only be used for one sport.
Who it's for: People just getting into running or walking activity, who are interested in simply knowing how far they went on a particular day.
The Track Star: Sport Watch
Product Example: Timex Ironman 50-Lap Full
Price Range: $20-$90
Pros: Being able to time your workouts are great. Knowing that you just cranked out a good workout for 30, 45, 60, 90, 120 minutes...you get the idea. There's also the ability to provide what are called "splits:" say on a particular session, you are going to run 4 laps at the track. You can hit the split button on each lap, and then be able to review later how you did. Did you go faster in the second-half? Slow down somewhere? It provides great feedback for you to review, to know which part of your workout you may need to improve upon. Particularly with Timex watches, these tend to be intuitive, simple devices that make reviewing your workout simple.
Cons: Unfortunately, time alone does not tell you how hard you went during the course of your workout. Only you will be able to do so. Could you have dug a little deeper? Psychologically, perhaps not, but physiologically? You may have been able to. The next range of devices may provide that for you. Also, if you are looking to compare splits, you may need to pre-measure your distance to track specific improvements.
Who it's for: The former track star, looking to improve upon those split times. Or, alternatively, the athlete looking to know how long they were out there for, and not much else.
The Cardiologists Best Friend: Heart-Rate Monitor
Product Example: Polar RS100
Price Range: $65-$250
Pros: Without getting into an entire rambling about how good heart-rate is for training purposes, just know this: it is the most effective measure of telling how hard your body is working on a particular day. Not all workouts are created equally. A slog through sloppy conditions may not cover the same distance in the same amount of time, but be a tougher overall workout, than other days. It can also help guide your nutrition strategy, as you will know where your body was burning fuel from, depending on how high the heart-rate was. Most monitors also typically give you the same features as traditional stopwatches, too, with lap-splits, countdown timers, and regular watch functions included. They may also include footpods to act like pedometers as described above. These also are incredibly accurate, so long as you pick the right device.
Cons: And that's the rub, isn't it? Forget about any device that does not measure the heart-rate off of a chest-strap. The strap is noticeable for the first few runs, but in my experience, it simply becomes another piece of your regular training routine at one point or another. Also, cheaper devices may not have coded transmitters, meaning if you are standing next to another user, you may wind up drawing off of their data. Look to spend at least $100 for a good monitor, and above $200 to combine a monitor with a footpod to get distance numbers.
Who it's for: The savvy athlete looking to generate simple, easily interpretable data without maxing out his or her credit card.
The Standard of the World: GPS Devices
Product Example: Garmin Forerunner 310XT
Price Range: $200-$400
Pros: The tagline above is stolen from Cadillac's ad campaign, and for good reason: these devices have all of the data available above at your fingertips. Want to know how far you went? Check. Want the device to tell you how fast you went over the course of the workout? Check. If you bought it with heart-rate, you get that measurement too. Elevation. Time in specific workout zones. If there is a data metric available, here it is.
Cons: You can wind up with number overload. So many different measurements, so little time! And which ones to choose from? (Note: each device will allow you to review ALL of the numbers when you upload them...it's just the numbers you will actually see during the course of your workout that may be difficult to choose.) They can be very tricky to navigate, so the technologically challenged may wish to avoid...or have somebody set them up for you. Also note: unless you are spending money on the top of the line models, these tend NOT to be fully waterproof. Sweat/moderate rain OK, trip to the local hot-tub...not so much. I also find people tend to wind up becoming too attached to the numbers, and not knowing what it's like to pace yourself on feel, which can result in increased injury risk. (That's a topic for another day.)
Who it's for: The athlete who wants to know everything about their improvement in a single package.
Now, get out there and generate some numbers! We'll talk about how to analyze them next time.