With the latest advances in technology, runners, cyclists and swimmers have it better than ever. With a decent fitness tracker you can look down at your wrist and see exactly how far you've run, how fast you're running, your cadence, and your heart rate!
Years ago runners would have only dreamed of technology that would give them that kind of advantage in real time!
I mean it seems weird to think that I used to run without knowing my pace...that actually happened!
Now the problem that many runners have is what do all these numbers mean, how do I use them, and should I even care?
The reality is, there are a few numbers that will be helpful, but many of these numbers should be ignored, especially by beginners.
Before we talk about which numbers you should focus on, let's talk about what all these numbers mean...
Simply put, this is how fast you are running. The way it is expressed may change depending on where you live, but it is almost always expressed as minutes/mile or minutes/kilometer. For example, you might be running an 8:40 min/mile pace.
People generally do not use MPH or KPH like you would with a car because it just too small of a number for runners...it's harder to extrapolate something like 5.6 miles per hour.
At the end of a multi-mile run you are generally going to be looking at your Average Pace. For example, if you run 5 miles each mile will be at a different pace, so you average them together to get a 9:30 minute/mile Average Pace. If you want to see exactly how fast you ran each mile, you'll look at your splits or laps...we'll get to that later.
Gap stands for Grade Adjusted Pace. Essentially it takes into account if you're running uphill or downhill and adjusts your pace to show you what it would've been if you were running on flat ground.
For example, if you were running up a fairly steep hill and your pace was 10:00 min/mile, your GAP might be 9:20 min/mile, because if you were running on flat ground that would have been your pace. Likewise, if you were running down a steep hill and your pace was 7:30 min/mile than your GAP might be 8:15 min/mile.
Splits (some people/software call them "laps") are what you call each interval of running that you're doing. Most of the time these intervals are broken up by mile, but if you're doing a track workout or other interval session, it can be broken up into whatever interval you are running.
For example, if you run 7 miles, your splits (or Laps) would be each mile that you ran. Like this...
But, if you were doing a track workout like 8 x 400m, then each split would represent 400 meters.
Cadence is how often your foot strikes the ground. This is expressed by Steps Per Minute (SPM). This is a very simple equation of how many times your feet hit the ground in a minute.
Again, at the end of a run you will see Average Cadence, like this...
Elevation gain is the total amount of elevation you gained over the course of your run. This is not the same as the elevation of where you are running, rather it is how much elevation you actually ran up or down throughout your run.
These elevations readings are actually fairly complicated things to measure, that's why they are not always accurate. Look at the reading below; I started and ended this run at my house, but my Garmin thought that I gained 39 feet of total elevation from beginning to end.
The total elevation gain should have been 0 since the amount of elevation I ascended was the same as the elevation I descended (since I started and ended my run in the same location!).
Heart Rate (HR)
Most people should be aware of what your heart rate is, but for the sake of consistency I'll explain. Your heart rate is how fast your heart is pumping! This is usually expressed by Beats Per Minute (BPM), and again at the end of a run you'll be looking at an average of your whole run and maybe your maximum and minimum from the run.
Be aware that the maximum heart rate from this specific exercise is not the same as the Max HR you can achieve (as in, the fastest your heart could pump before it explodes!).
While getting a heart rate is very easy, understanding the implications of heart rate during exercise is actually pretty complex.
The harder you are working the faster your heart has to pump in order to get blood to all the essential places, so with that basic understanding you can say the higher your heart rate the harder you're working...that's true. But what is a high heart rate...130? 160? 190? Well, it depends...
Your heart rate depends on a bunch of things; weight, age and fitness level being a few. So giving an example of my heart rate doesn't do you much good because yours could be very different!
For example, I'm 5'11" and 200 pounds...when I run an 8 minute/mile pace for 2 miles my heart rate might be 165 BPM. However a 5'6" 140 pound runner running the same pace and distance might have a heart rate of 135 BPM. You can't compare heart rate between individuals, it just doesn't make sense.
One other heart rate metric you are likely to see and hear about is the HR Zones. These are ranges of heart rates that indicate "zones" of effort. This is what my last run looked like...
I spent the majority of my run (21:49, or 65%) in heart rate Zone 4. That means I wasn't working my hardest (Zone 5), but I was definitely working hard. You can roughly say this was a "hard" workout. If the majority of my run was in Zone 2 or 3, you could say this was an "easy" workout.
Some workout plans rely heavily on these heart rate zones. A workout might be written like this: "Run for 20 minutes in zone 3". Now it's your responsibility to become familiar with your heart rate zones and be able to manage and track your heart rate during your run.
Some modern and high end fitness trackers will try to calculate your V02Max based on metrics that they gather from your exercises.
This is a direct quote from the Garmin website:
"VO₂ Max is an indication of your cardiovascular fitness and should increase as your fitness improves. VO₂ Max is the maximum volume of oxygen (in milliliters) you can consume per minute per kilogram of body weight at your maximum performance. Your compatible Garmin device uses heart rate and exercise data to estimate your VO₂ Max."
The reality is that I just don't understand all of the science behind V02Max so take this with a grain of salt. Essentially the higher your V02Max, the better shape you're in.
The massive caveat here is that this number is an estimate and shouldn't be taken as your true V02Max, which can only be tested in special facilities.
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Alright, so now we've covered most of the numbers you'll see when you track your runs using a fitness tracker or an app on your phone like Strava.
Now comes the important part...what really matters?
Personally I think there are two main numbers you should be paying attention to even as a beginner. Pace and Heart Rate. If you can look at these numbers and analyze them over time it will give you a strong understanding of how you are progressing as a runner.
Unfortunately, many fitness trackers don't have a heart rate monitor built in, and the cheap ones are usually not super accurate. The Garmin VivoActive 3 is the watch I wear everyday, and totally love. It's around $120-130 which might seem like a lot until you check watches in the same ballpark as the Garmin Fenix, which runs up to $1,000. There is also the Garmin Forerunner 35 which is a great running watch with on-board HR monitoring, it's only about $99.
There are also chest straps which are probably more accurate than most fitness watches, but they only do one thing as opposed to the watches which are useful for lots of other things as well. This Garmin chest band is a reasonably priced heart rate monitor that will pair with your phone.
You are probably already keeping track of your pace because that's just what runners do. You want to know how fast you're running because it's fun to post on Strava and get those Kudo's!!
But the reality is that pace alone is not the biggest indicator of how much you are progressing.
The way that I use pace and heart rate to analyze my progress is by keeping track of the amount of effort (heart rate) I need to maintain a certain pace.
For example, if I kept an 8:10 min/mile pace at 165 BPM two months ago, and now I'm able to maintain that same pace at 155 BPM, I know that I'm becoming a more efficient runner. It's taking less effort to run the same pace.
Obviously this method is not foolproof. You have to keep an eye on distances (you can't compare a 2 mile run to a 10 mile run) as well as weekly volume and your environment (hot, cold, trail, road). But in general, tracking these two numbers should give you a sense of how hard you're having to work and how efficient you're becoming.
Heart rate is also a great metric to track because it's important to make sure we aren't pushing ourselves too hard. I'm notoriously bad at keeping my "easy days" easy! I often go out for an easy run and end up pushing the pace or running farther than I had planned. But because I'm tracking my heart rate I can go back and look at that data to see that I pushed too hard and that I'll need to take it down a notch next time!
Try this. Instead of setting a distance or pace goal on your next run, try setting a time and heart rate goal. You can do it with heart rate zones, or you can just set an upper limit for yourself. You could try to run 30 minutes under 140 BPM. It's surprisingly tricky to run based on your heart rate and often times you have to run much slower than you think.
For you trail runners out there, elevation gain and GAP can be important numbers in your training. Unlike road running, running on trails can cause huge fluctuations in your pace because of the number and sheer grade of the hills. Reviewing your GAP can help you get a better understanding of your true pace. However, you need to be careful here because this is an estimate, so it won't always be the accurate.
Elevation gain is important for trail runners because it causes a different type of stimulus on your muscles. Many serious trail runners set elevation goals instead of mileage goals every week. Paying close attention to your elevation gain is also a great way to prepare for an especially steep race!
Cadence will become an increasingly important number as you progress as a runner, especially if you're an overweight runner. Cadence tells you a lot about your form but it can also determine how much force you are striking the ground with.
Obviously, if you take longer or higher steps you're more likely to hit the ground with more force. If you are already carrying excess weight, this added force can be detrimental on your joints and feet.
As a new runner I don't think you should focus too much on cadence right away. Yes, you should always be working to improve your form, but I think there are more important things to spend your time focusing on. As you continue to progress and get more comfortable logging miles you can begin putting an emphasis on increasing your cadence.
The only number on this list I think you should totally ignore is V02Max. There is just no reason to keep track of it. It's an obscure number that is really only relevant to elite athletes looking to perfect every last aspect of their training...for you and me, it's just not worth paying attention to. Plus, it's an estimated value so it's not likely to be accurate anyways.
Well I know that was a rather technical article, but I think it's important to talk about the boring stuff every once in a while!!
Are there any other running numbers that give you headaches?
Anything on my list that you disagree with?
What do you think the most important running number is? Leave a comment below!
As always, thanks for reading!