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Train like an athlete, track like an expert


Ready to run? Not before pressing start on your running app or tracking device. Most of us runners track information about our runs in order to tell us how we’re doing with our fitness and training. From calories burned to kilometres ran, sleep quality to hydration, heart rate to everything in between–there’s no shortage of information available to help improve your running. But what do you need to track and why?

In order to best make sense of the many options for health and fitness trackers, we bridged two worlds–fitness and tech–by talking to an expert from each field.

Chantal Hunter is a TELUS Learning Centre Expert in Vancouver. She’s specially trained to provide knowledgeable, one-to-one counsel on wearable health tech to help her customers maximize their investment in their mobile health and fitness devices.

Ming-Chang Tsai has a PhD in exercise physiology from the University of Toronto and is a former Chinese Taipei national team rower, triathlete and runner who has coached athletes for the past 15 years (he currently is a sport scientist and data analyzer for the Canadian Women’s Rugby Sevens team). He offered some advice on how best to approach goals from either end of the fitness spectrum–whether you’re interested in losing weight or are just getting into (or back into) running, or have been running for a while but wish to take your performance to the next level.

GOAL: To lose weight or start building up your level of fitness

TRACK: Steps, calories, total time spent running

1. Steps: “A step counter is good for the general public or for people who have not been exercising,” says Tsai. It encourages people to get up and walk around and track their progress.

Hunter’s advice to those just starting out? Start walking! For walkers, step counting is a sure way to keep motivation from fading. Fitness trackers that count steps will have users set a goal which the user can refer to and ensure they’re walking (or running) enough to reach it. “It allows you to see normal day-to-day activity,” she says.

If you think you might need some extra motivation in these early stages of your fitness game, try the Fitbit Charge HR. Its monthly exercise calendar feature will help keep you on track among many of its other features.

2. Calories: For anyone looking to lose weight, tracking calories is key. The purpose is to look at calories burned versus taken in. It’s best to expend more calories than you intake, but it’s also important to monitor the kind of calories your taking in.

As Hunter explains, fitness trackers not only give users a robust set of data on their own, many also integrate with other nutrition and weight loss apps to make tracking your information even simpler. Apps like MyFitnessPal are fantastic as they allow you to see the breakdown of your diet in terms of how much fat, proteins, carbs and sugars you’re consuming – provided you use the app to track your meals. Recording this information is a great way to remember to eat healthy.

In terms of complementary tech, try the Fitbit Aria WiFi Smart Scale. This little gadget has a mode that will tell runners their BMI and body fat percentage. It pairs up with your Fitbit or works wonderfully on its own.

3. Total Time: Setting the timer on your app or watch is important to track so that those easing into running can slowly begin to increase the time they spend exercising each day. It’s not about speed, it’s about gradually increasing how long you can run.

Ignore: Speed, cadence, heart rate. If the goal is to just get out there and get active, speed and heart rate can come into focus later– they aren’t top priority at this point. For now, just get moving!

GOAL: To improve performance and get faster

TRACK: Heart rate, GPS/speed, sleep, cadence, distance

1. Heart Rate: Want to get faster? Your body has to get used to working at a higher intensity and your heart rate (measured right after a hard set, recovery and at rest) indicates when that’s happening. “The recovery heart rate is a good indicator of fitness. As you get fitter, your heart rate goes down,” says Tsai. “It’s a good indicator of how hard you’re going.”

Hunter suggests the Moto 360 2nd Gen smart watch is one of the best heart rate trackers out there. The screen’s brightness automatically adjusts to the surrounding environment, which is great for night time runs.

2. GPS/speed: “If you’re getting serious about performance, you want to be tracking it,” says Tsai. This one is a no-brainer for seasoned runners. Runners who want to get faster need to know how far and fast they’re going.

The Fitbit Surge Small pairs with your smartphone, so if your phone is adding too much bulk or weight, take this slick tracker instead and stay sleek. Get text notifications, track your pace, distance, GPS and elevation. Into cross-training? It even has a cycling mode.

3. Sleep: If a runner works hard, they need to allow their body to recover before doing it again. That’s why Tsai tracks the hours his athletes sleep for–he says it’s one of the most important things to track. Having that log allows athletes to adjust their sleep routine to find the perfect number of hours for their specific needs.

The amount and quality of sleep a runner gets can have a significant impact on their performance and recovery. Trackers like the Fitbit Flex will track your hours and quality of sleep. “The Fitbit Flex is comfortable and small,” adds Hunter. It even has a silent alarm so you can say goodbye to that annoying clock. A bonus is that it’ll last for five days without a charge.

4. Cadence: Several trackers enable runners to track steps per minute or let them run to a metronome. Why does this matter? If a runner’s cadence is off, they may be taking fewer steps per minute, limiting their natural bounce and wasting energy in the process. “If you’re outside of your range, you’re slowing that spring. It’s not efficient and you’re putting in more energy,” says Tsai.

5. Distance: Training for that upcoming marathon? Use these apps to make sure you’re building enough of a base as well as adding distance to your runs over time. And if you’re training in a new area or if you simply want to keep track of your routes, MapMyRun is a great app and it’s available for iOS and Android, free!

Ignore: Steps taken or calories burned. As Tsai points out, calories burned says nothing about how close a runner is to achieving his/her speed goals. It’s next to irrelevant. As for steps, distance runners exceed most pre-set step goals anyway. “Any time you go for a 20-minute run, you’re over that count already,” says Tsai.

By defining your running goal – whether it’s to lose weight or to raise your performance level – you’ll be able to select the right fitness tracker for the job and know which metrics to pay attention to and which to tune out.

Our thanks to both Chantal Hunter and Ming-Chang Tsai for their advice.

To learn more about how to track your fitness with wearable tech, visit a TELUS store or browse available fitness trackers online.