Data geekery and fitness

A confession: I’m a data geek.

I love numbers, graphs, and analysis. I also like gadgets that supply me with the numbers. I don’t love them as much as my partner loves gadgets and numbers but then he’s professional data geek. For me, it’s just a hobby.

Currently I’m lusting after a new bike computer but I suppose it all started with a simple heart rate monitor for running. I bought my first heart rate monitor about ten years ago and I enjoyed playing with the zone training functions, speeding up when my heart rate dropped, slowing down when it got going too fast. For running it was useful in race situations when I wanted to run at a fast steady rate and not bump myself up into a zone where I’d need to slow down in order to recover.

It was a basic model and I couldn’t get the numbers off the wrist watch and onto my laptop for further inspection. But I recorded distance, time, speed and average heart rate. The numbers had me hooked.

Later it was my first bike computer, linked to heart rate monitor, that continued the romance. All the data–speed, altitude, heart rate, cadence–there for downloading and staring at. I found it strangely reassuring to watch familiar patterns. Time at the front of the pack when group riding, heart rate high, and then when my turn was over, recovering at the back. Until I started not to recover, and then I was toast. I knew what that felt like, crap. But nice somehow to see I wasn’t making it up. There it was, crap quantified.

Over the season, with increased fitness, I could work harder and recovered faster. Riding a bike in almost all settings is interval training. Sprinting up hills, recovering on the way down. In races, attack, pursue, and then cling to the back and recover.

Four years ago I even had lactate threshold testing done along with V02 max testing so I could accurately chart my heart rate training zones. It was all done on my bike and I even have gripping video footage to prove it.

The results: V02 max starting 13.2, lactate threshold 35.5, peak 39.7; heart rate starting 120, lactate threshold 162, peak 177; calories per hour starting 329, max 983; METS starting 3.8, max 11.3; Recovery: max 177, 1 min 158 (34%), 2 min 124 (93%); Fitness level: superior.

I liked that, fitness level: superior. Not elite. But that’s fine. I have a day job.

And I confess that part of what I love about these sorts of numbers is that they make it clear that the one number we all tend to focus on, the number on the scale, is part of much more complex story.

In Five Things Every Gym Should Already be Doing, Ragen Chastain writes:

Instead of selling people a cardio room and a bag of magic weight loss beans, your gym should be educating people about the actual possible benefits of exercise.  I would suggest starting by offering to measure things other than weight.  Offering tests like VO2 Max scores, blood panel, strength, stamina, flexibility etc.  People could choose the baseline tests they want at the beginning and then take them again three. six months in etc. to see if there are any changes.  That way people wouldn’t think that exercise is “failing” just because they aren’t losing weight.

I still love my bike computer though I want a newer, snazzier one, one with a GPS.  Recommendations welcome! If I won the lottery I’d buy a power meter. It measures power output on the bike. I’ve used one before in a bike fit session where it was really instructive to see how different seating positions and bike geometry play out in terms of power output. I don’t need that kind of information on a regular basis but it’s fun to have.

These days I also love some of the smart phone apps for training rides and runs. I use Endomondo which draws nice maps of our routes and publishes avg speed, total distance and the route to Facebook.

I like to track how far I’ve ridden each week and what my speed is on familiar routes. How fast up Heartbreak Hill this time? What was my max speed down River Road?

How about you? Are you a fitness gadget geek? If you can’t track it or measure it, does it count? I know some friends who never track or measure exercise at all and I find that baffling. I want measurable progress complete with graphs to prove it! To what use do you put the numbers? Which apps do you use to track your workouts?

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