Tracking your progress

There are many reasons, and several ways, to track your running or walking progress.

I suppose you could track your runs/walks with pen and paper. You could write date, time, distance on a calendar or in a ledger book. I’m not sure why you would, but you could.

Of all the new technologies we have seen in the past 20 or so years, GPS, or Global Positioning System, is one of the really cool ones. The US government put those 30-or-so satellites up there for their own use, but has made the system freely available to anyone with a GPS receiver. (Interesting fact: Did you know they can selectively turn it off?)

Our civilian use is accurate within a few meters, and helps us to navigate our streets, trails, and oceans. All you need is a GPS receiver with an unobstructed line of sight to four or more satellites for the system to triangulate your position.

Did you also know there is also a Russian system, called Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS, that is also accessible? GPS receivers that combine these two systems have more satellites to choose from, which results in getting a quicker position fix.

There are purpose-built GPSes for marine navigation, street navigation, and trail navigation … but most casual users just use the one in our smartphones. That GPS, combined with any navigation app, can track your car trips, boat excursions, runs, walks, bikes, hikes, just about anywhere.

There are reasons to get purpose-built GPSes. Some are more rugged and more waterproof that your phone, like this one. Some have a larger antenna, like this one. Some are smaller and easier to use on the move, like this one. Some use the GLONASS satellites, like this one. Some have longer battery life, like this one. It is important to note that most purpose-built GPSes are more accurate than the one on your phone.

One question you may have is: Does GPS use data on my phone? The answer is: It depends on the app, and sometimes, how you use it. My wife and I travelled all over New Zealand in November, and I tracked most of it using a free app on an old phone without a cell plan. We had wifi on the bus we were on, so it just collected data and posted it when it had access to wifi. Incidentally, I paid about $3 for the app (GreenAlp Real-Time GPS Tracker) to store that data for 30 days so my family could track us, AND so I could download it all when I got home. IF you use an app like Google Maps, it will use quite a bit of data to load the maps as you move.

As I have mentioned, you can use your phone, or a purpose-built device like this or this, to collect your tracks. A track is a set of times and positions that are stored in a file. Your GPS will collect a position and time-stamp it every so many seconds, or every time you change direction or speed. In order to make the data these devices collect into information that we can use, you need an app or a service that will present it in a useful form.

Most purpose-built devices have their own apps and services that work well with their devices. Garmin, for example, has apps for loading maps onto the device, transferring the collected data to a computer or web-based service, displaying the data on a map, displaying the data in graphs, sharing the data online, and stuff like that.

Phones have a huge assortment of apps for doing the same sorts of things. Just look in the App Store for your iPhone, or Google Play for your Android phone, and you will find hundreds of apps. A few of the most popular ones are MapMyRun, RunKeeper, and Strava. These are great tools for storing, viewing, and analyzing your tracks to see just how far, fast, or high you went. The bonus with these apps are the social and competitive aspects: you can connect with others, see what they are doing, and even compete with them.

Here’s where I can tell you about my watch: Garmin VivoActive HR. I think this is currently the best watch out there, and here are my 10 reasons why:

  1. It is affordable. Some watches are $600 or more, but this one is currently around $300, although on Boxing Day sales last month, they were selling it for $199!
  2. It isn’t huge!
  3. It is waterproof to 50m!
  4. Its battery lasts me all week!
  5. It can track more than a dozen sports! (Ask me later “which sports?”)
  6. It has a heartrate sensor, step counter, stair counter, sleep recorder, and silent alarm!
  7. It can connect to my phone to show me calls, emails, texts, weather, and start/stop music!
  8. It can connect to a Garmin camera to tell it to take pictures or start/stop video!
  9. There are apps available to customize what it can do!
  10. It is really easy to use!

How easy?! Here’s how easy:

I’m going for a run. I press this button to see the list of sports. I press “Run”. I wait a few seconds for the GPS to connect. I press “Go”. While I run, I can view my distance/time/pace, swipe to view lap distance/time/pace, swipe again to view heart rate/HR zone/HR Avg, and swipe again to go back. I usually just leave it on the basic distance/time/pace. When I stop, I press “Stop”. At that point, I can choose to save or delete (or continue). I can review the track right then, or not. The next time I am within 10m of my phone, and my phone is online, it will upload my tracks to my free Garmin account, and I have set it up to also send it to my free Strava account.

That easy!

I have made my Strava account public. Anyone can see the routes I have tracked. If you are interested to see, maybe not what I have done, but what Strava can do … check out the post I put up on the SL TC10K Clinic page a week ago … it shows every run we did during the clinic last year.

Here’s another feature of GPS tracking that you may not have thought of or known about. If you want, you can download someone else’s tracks and follow them yourself. (Fact: the standard format for tracks is called GPX.) I have done this to go on a set of trails I’m not very familiar with: download someone else’s tracks and follow them. There are even sites setup specifically for this, like WikiLoc.com

What the world needs is a good GPX editor. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t found the one for me yet. What do you do when you forgot to start your GPS? You’ll want to add some points! What do you do when you forgot to stop your GPS? You’ll want to lop off some points! What do you do when your GPS lost signal or went off-course. You’ll want to edit those points. All doable, it just needs to be easier than it is now.

When I find time, I go to my Garmin or Strava account to bask in my stats. I like to see the routes I have collected, and what’s near them for next time. I like to see the elevations and speeds I have reached. I like to see the total time I have been active, and the kilometers I have put on my shoes or bikes (yes, you can track your equipment too). I like to see what others are doing when they are active, or see who else is tracking their activities nearby.

Here’s a question you may have about technology like this: Does it motivate you to walk or run more? The answer is: For some of us, DEFINITELY!

Jeff has enjoyed running for more than 20 years, but hasn’t missed a TC10K for the past 20 years. He also does a half-marathon or two every year. He has been helping with this clinic for the past 7 years. He is often seen running around this area with his wife, Kate, and/or his dog, Tiggin. He owns and operates his own local business called Teky Technical Services.