Essential Actionable Training Data

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The endurance world has become so technical. You can almost measure anything. Training devices worn on your wrist or attached to your bike can open a whole new world of confusion or suck you into analyzing everything. You, gadget geeks, are euphoric and the non-gadget geeks get so frustrated. Eventually, the non-gadget geeks’ Garmin devices or other brand devices sit on their dressers. Furthermore, it is even questionable if some of the data is even important. So, what data is critical, and what does it mean?

For the sake of naming, I’m going to use “Garmin” in place of the training device. I have been a fan of Garmin so that I will give them some kudos. With that said, Garmin devices are not perfect. I’m going to break down the data that I analyze. I’m a data geek by nature but often only look at just a few pieces of data. Just like you, I’m busy. I’m a recreational athlete that has a life outside of training.

The Basics

Distance for Swimming, Biking, and Running

This may sound obvious, but I monitor my distance. My goal is to reach the end of the race, so I better know if I can actually achieve the distance.

Speed/Pace for Swimming, Biking, and Running

My second goal is getting faster. I know that there is variability in measuring speed and pace. Say I chose an outside bike route in my area that is similar to my race. On one day, my bike speed was awesome. It was a beautiful day. The wind didn’t even exist. Four weeks later, the wind was crazy. Needless to say, my speed was not stellar. Regardless, I still analyze my speed, especially in conjunction with power. I’ll talk about power in just a bit. I often set a goal speed and compare it to similar training activities I have done in the past. I want to be as fast as possible.

Heart Rate for Biking and Running

I frequently use heart rate data. If you are experienced with training, then zone training may sound familiar to you. By doing some simple tests, you can calculate specific ranges or zones. The zones help you with monitoring your intensity. When training, the key is not to get out there and push yourself until you puke. The goal is to pace yourself, train specifically for your race, and train in the safest ranges for your body. Just like speed and pace, heart rate data is not perfect.

During a stressful day, your heart rate may be higher. An extra cup of coffee can also get your ticker pumping a little harder. Regardless, heart rate is a tool to provide actionable and usable data. It is much better than the puke test.

Rate of Perceived Exertion for Swimming, Biking, and Running

I cannot overstate the importance of listening to your body. The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is very helpful to guide you when training. Just like heart rate zones, RPE scores can guide you with your intensity. Some studies show a strong correlation between RPE reports and heart rate. Now I may sound like a broken record, but RPE is not perfect. After all, we are humans. We are not perfect. Our rating may be skewed based on the kind of day you are having or your personality. You could be Mr. Tough Guy, and every ride is a piece of cake. You could be Wimpy William and think that every ride is hard. Even though RPE reports can be inaccurate, it is a useful data point to measure in conjunction with your other data.

A Little More Advanced

The data described in this section is a little more complicated, but don’t worry. It’s not that bad. If you are not a data geek, then you can proceed safely.

Power for Biking

Recording your biking power is the most objective data achievable by most recreational athletes. The only problem with measuring power is that you will need a power meter. Power meters are a bit pricey. The good news is that the prices are reducing and more meters are available.

Power is torque multiplied by speed and expressed in watts. So, the harder you push your pedals, the higher the power. The faster you spin your pedals, the higher the power. Stress, caffeine, and other things that cause heightened physiological reactions of the body will not change your power reading. I’m a big fan of power. Power can be used in many ways to measure changes in fitness. The most common use of power that I use is to measure my intensity.

Just like heart rate, you can perform a few simple tests and create power zones or ranges of intensity. These ranges are a great way to keep your intensity in control during each bike ride. Training zones help you train smarter. For instance, you may want to improve your anaerobic endurance so you can climb better. Since Power Zone 6 is a typical range to improve your anaerobic endurance, then you generally know that you should bike some intervals in this zone to get better at climbing and sprinting on the bike.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability (HRV) measurements have been used for years. It was first used in clinical studies and cardiac rehabilitation. Now it is widely available. HRV is a great way to gauge your readiness to train. Let me explain.

You wake up and monitor your HRV using your iPhone and Bluetooth heart rate monitor. Lately, I have been using the Sweetbeat app and loving it. According to your HRV, you are well recovered and ready to exercise as usual. Your HRV confirms your readiness. In some cases, you may wake up thinking that I feel pretty good today. A little fatigued from some tough training, but I can still walk. You monitor your morning HRV, learning that your body is stressed. This measurement confirms that you are a little too fatigued for that scheduled all-out training ride. Instead, it is best for you to take the day off or do an easy ride to permit recovery and prevent overtraining.

Now, I probably don’t have to say this, but HRV is not perfect. It has its errors, but it is a great guide to confirm what your body is trying to tell you. Some of us need a number to make it more real.

Garmin’s Training Status for Running and Biking

On some Garmin training devices, training status is displayed. Training status is a beneficial measurement to confirm that your training is on par. Training Status is taking your estimated VO2 max and your training load (i.e., intensity and volume of each training activity) and comparing them to the last seven days of training. Your device may display one of the following:

Overreaching – Your load (i.e., volume and intensity) is increasing, and your fitness is decreasing. In other words, your training is counterproductive, and your body needs a rest. If you see this on your Garmin, then consider an easy active recovery training session next time or take a day off.

Peaking – If peaking is displayed, you are at your ideal race fitness. Most likely, you recently reduced your training load so that your body is recovered. If you are one week from your race and see this on your Garmin, you should have comfort that you are ready. It is a tricky balance of training and life to peak for a race properly.

Productive – If you continue to see productive on your Garmin, then your training load is improving your fitness. This indicator is a good thing, especially as you are building the distance and intensity before the race. Be sure to plan recovery weeks after two to three weeks after progressive training. A recovery week doesn’t mean sit on the couch all week. Instead, stay active and do low volume and low-intensity activities. Enjoy the week.

Maintaining – This expression is giving you a heads up that you are keeping your fitness level the same. If you want to bump up your fitness, then consider adding more intensity and/or volume to the following training session. A good training plan typically has this characteristic.

Recovery – Recovery time is the most important time in your training plan. Your body needs rest. Your Garmin may display recovery during a recovery week on your training plan.

Unproductive – Unproductive training means that your training load is good, but your fitness level is decreasing. For some reason, your body is having difficulty keeping up with the plan. Consider paying attention to your overall health. Are work and life stressing you out? Are you getting proper nutrition? Are you getting enough sleep? Consider your life outside of training. Most likely, your HRV is also showing you that your body is stressed.

Detraining – If you are not pushing yourself enough, you may be losing fitness. If you see this on your Garmin, consider increasing the training load to improve your fitness level.

You can use Garmin’s Training Status to tweak your training activities for the week. This data could also be combined with your HRV. The HRV report will tell you if your body is ready for the scheduled training. If necessary, Training Status will guide you on how to change your scheduled training activities for the week. But, most importantly, listen to your body.


Warning, Warning! If you are not a data geek, then proceed cautiously.

Strava’s Fitness and Freshness for Running and Biking

A premium account on Strava gives you access to the Fitness and Freshness curve. At first, this curve can be quite confusing. It looks like a bunch of squiggles on the screen. As you get familiar with the graph, it can speak to you in very cool ways.

I’m all for making it simple. I want you to focus on one number. Keep an eye on your form. A positive number indicates freshness, and a negative number indicates fatigue. As your training advances, your fitness will increase, but you will fatigue in the process. You will have to recover at times to prevent overtraining, but you may lose some fitness to permit recovery. When it’s race time, you want to time your training so that your fitness and recovery are at its peak. If you have been using all of the above metrics in combination with a plan, then you are setting yourself up for success. Many of the above metrics can help you adjust your plan on the fly. The Fitness and Freshness graph further guides you in adjusting your plan. Below are some guidelines for Form numbers to help you stay on track:

  • Productive Training (Base and Build weeks) = -10 to -30
  • Transitional Phase = -10 to 10
  • Tapering and peaking for an A-Race = 15 to 25
  • B-Race and C-Race Weeks = 0 to -10

So, if you are in the beginning weeks of a training plan, you are building your base. Your Form number should be between -10 to -30. Keep in mind that a good plan will include recovery weeks between the base weeks to prevent injuries and prepare you for the next phase. Often, there are two or three base weeks that include increasing volume and intensity followed by an easier week. If your Form is ever less than -30 (a bigger negative number), then you are overdoing it and need to reduce the intensity and/or volume of your next training session. In some cases, you may be slacking and not training as much. If your Form is greater than 25, then you are losing fitness.

Disclaimer: Now, I know that there are so many other data points that you can collect and analyze. This post is just a glimpse into what I use most often. As I’m training, I want quick information to know if I’m reaching my goals. These metrics have been invaluable in my personal experience.

Training can be so technical, but if you pay attention to a few numbers, life can be easier, and you will feel more prepared for your race. If you are using a training program, you can easily switch out the training session based on the numbers and how your body feels. Below, you can download a handout that quickly breaks down all of the metrics mentioned above and acts as a cheat sheet to help you with training.

If you have any other metrics that you use to help with your training, feel free to talk about it in the comments below. I would love to know what you feel is important when training.