Fitness Trackers – How can I get the most out of mine?

Its Christmas time and I’m sure a lot of you will be getting or giving fitness related gifts to help you or a loved one on a fitness journey. One of the most popular options is fitness trackers, like from Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. There’s a lot of options, and more than enough buying guides out that I don’t think I need to get into that. For reference, I use a Suunto Ambit 3 Peak, and have had solid results with it. However, I chose that one for a specific reason that means it will likely not be the choice of most readers.

Lets start with choosing one. Read reviews for sure! That’s the best way to get a feel for what a fitness tracker can do well and what it can’t. Multiple sources help too – maybe Tech Radar will suggest something different than DCRainmaker. And that’s okay, because they have different audiences. DCRainmaker tends to be athlete and high-performance focused while Tech Radar is not. The fitness tracker industry has gotten so big that the option you are looking for might not be the best option for your friend, or even your husband or wife! Come up with a list of things you will use it for – does it do all of those? Does it do other things? Do I need it to do other things? If you don’t need all the features, you can save a lot of money by choosing a different model. Size is another consideration. If you want to wear it 24/7, it can’t be too big. Likewise, a bigger display may be important during a run to see your data, more so if you have trouble seeing a small screen.

One feature many have is sleep tracking. Some people really like this. I don’t see the point. I know what time I went to bed and know what time I got up, so what is this doing for me? It can tell me how restful my sleep is, sure, but I could tell you that I slept well or poorly based on how I feel. If I was going to do something with the data (like change my bed because its causing poor sleep), then this data would be useful, but at best I will look at it and not change anything. This is the same for all-day heart rate tracking. What are you doing with that information? Are you charting it and observing trends? Are those days even comparable if you do compare day-to-day heart rate charts? What are you going to change about your life if you had this data anyway?

There lies the problem – we can collect data we don’t need. Heart rate data during a workout can be incredibly useful. With heart rate data, I can set intensity levels specific to an individual, so that if I want a client to run at an easy pace, I can find that pace for someone who runs a mile in 5:00 and someone who runs a mile in 15:00. Daily heart rate tracking doesn’t really tell us anything that we can use to change our lifestyles. A better option, if you do think that you might change some day-to-day aspect of life due to heart rate data, is to carefully create the same situation multiple days in a row and track your heart rate specifically for that. It needs to be done in a scientific way if we want the data to be useful.

Why did I choose my watch? Well, in addition to it being on sale, it has high GPS accuracy, long battery life, easy to use buttons when wearing gloves and it can display everything that I needed for climbing, skiing, and hiking in the mountains of Colorado, while also being able to function well as a running and swimming watch. It uses a chest-strap for monitoring heart rate, which is more accurate than wrist-based models and it doesn’t bother me to wear it. I typically forget I have it on a minute or two after donning it. Some people do get bothered by chest-straps, so try one before deciding on chest- or wrist-based heart rate monitoring. There are also bicep straps available (such as this) that may be more comfortable than a chest strap with similar accuracy.

The best part of all these activity trackers, in my opinion, is the automatic logging of workouts. I remember carrying around a notebook everywhere, writing everything down by hand and inevitably losing it and all my workout data with it. No more! Its all online, it uploads exactly what you did and it can even push it to popular activity sites like MapMyRun, Strava, RideWithGPS, TrainingPeaks, etc. If you didn’t keep a log before, its so easy to now that there isn’t an excuse not to do it! You can easily look back at different workouts, different weeks, months, see how many workouts per week you are doing, observe trends…the power of some of this software is amazing. Its stronger for cardio activities, but the strength training side is getting there as well, with arm sleeves that will count your reps for you and upload it, though we’re not quite at full track-your-weights-and-reps-automatically integration yet.