Want to get more from your run-tracking wearable tech? Here's the data that really matters, and how to use it to shave minutes off your PB...
You’ve completed a ‘Couch to 5k’ plan, you’ve bought yourself a run-tracking wearable (like the brand new Apple Watch Series 4), and now you want to take things up a gear. It’s time to go faster. But how do you actually use all the data now available on your wrist?
We recently caught up with Kieran Alger, veteran ultra-runner, marathon speedster, and editor of ManVMiles to learn what you need to pay attention to, what you don’t, and how to get really speedy…
Follow your heart
First thing’s first: make sure you’re paying attention to the right metrics. Because, as Kieran explains, it’s all too tempting for new runners with new wearables to get caught up with the wrong kind of data:
“The one thing that everybody focusses on to when they first get going with running wearables is pace. But pace is actually quite a blunt instrument when it comes to measuring the intensity of your runs,” he tells us, “particularly when you think about variables like going up or down hills, on different terrain, or in different conditions.
“Pace only really shows you the effect – or the impact – of the work that you’re doing. It’s the outcome of the effort you’re putting in, rather than a way to monitor and encourage improvement.”
In other words? Save your pace-watching for race day. So what exactly is the most important thing to track for runners wanting to go faster? According to Kieran, you just need to follow your heart…
“The big metric for me is heart rate, which is a fantastic way to manage the intensity of different runs. People are often guilty of trying to run as hard as they can – or at the point where they’re going just beyond their limits – most of the time. But if you do too many of those types of runs at that intensity, you won’t really improve.
“If you always run based on pace it’s quite easy to get disheartened, too. Week to week, if you run the same route and your pace is slower one day, it doesn’t mean that you’re not having a positive training effect; it’s just that you might be tired, or the weather might be worse. So pace isn’t really a great judge of things, whereas heart rate really shows the body’s response to the work that you’re doing.”
The secret, he says, is to get to grips with your heart rate ‘zones’ and use those to mix things up. “Heart rate is key for helping you manage the intensity of your runs, and to help make sure you’re getting a good mix or runs at different levels of exertion.
“Most of the mid-level watches that offer heart rate tracking will automatically show you your heart rate zones [with colour coding] based on your recent runs,” he adds, “and you can then use those to ensure that you’re staying within the right level of intensity.”
jiggy scientific with it
Of course, peppering different runs throughout your week is all for naught if you can’t then test yourself to see how you’ve improved, right?
Kieran’s advice for race day is to “get a bit scientific with it,” to ensure you don’t give yourself a false reading when it comes your progress.
“You should aim to go out once a month and do a benchmark run,” he says. “It can be laps of a local track, or your usual 5k loop, or even a ParkRun, but you need to compare the same terrain and the same route to how you did the last time. And when you do that, not only will you see if you’re faster, but you’ll also see if your heart rate is lower when you run.
“Or, if you do a benchmark that’s based on intervals, you can compare how quickly your heart rate drops back down after each sprint. That’s really how you can tell that your fitness is progressing.”
Mobile personal trainers
If you really want to speed up and shave minutes off your PBs, you’ll need to follow a training plan laid out by the experts: “A good running programme will have you doing longer, slower runs alongside shorter, high-intensity runs and medium length ones at about 75% of your max heart rate.
“In combination over a given week,” Kieran says, “you’ll then be doing workouts that support your improvement in a far better way than just running as hard as you can for as long as you can.”
He’s not wrong; from a scientific standpoint, mixing those slow, long jogs with high intensity intervals is a surefire way to increase your V02 Max (Maximal Oxygen Uptake) – the measurement for much usable oxygen you take in during exercise.
Thankfully, accessing those kinds of training regimes no longer means shelling out for an expensive personal trainer. All you need instead is the right app. Kieran recommends two – both of which are Apple Watch-compatible:
Nike+ Running | iOS and Android, FREE
“The Nike+ Running app has brilliant, audio-coached running sessions that introduce you to the world of interval sessions. Pair up your headphones and it’ll guide you minute-by-minute, taking you through a whole range of different running session styles that you might not have experienced before.
“It’s a great aid for anyone who hasn’t yet delved into organised, structured runs. The audio’s fantastic, too; sometimes they have elite runners doing the coaching, and it really feels like you’ve got someone there with you.”
Strava | iOS and Android, FREE
“Strava is generally excellent as far as tracking goes,” Kieran says, “but it’s also really awesome for finding running routes near you, or for when you need info on a certain race that you’ve signed up to.
“With its community features you can dive into other people’s races, look at their data, and learn how many hills are on the course, or how people similar to your level ran, mile by mile. There’s a world of information there that can help you outside of pure training or tracking.
“But remember,” Kieran says in closing, “it’s really all about you versus you, rather than you versus other people. That’s the most important thing.”
Kieran’s next big run is a monster: he’s taking on the river Thames, from sea to source. That’s a whopping 184 miles in just three days! You can follow all his running exploits over at manvmiles.co.uk, or on Twitter @KieranAlger.