Why tracking is important

The first step to becoming a runner is to run consistently. Tracking, by far, is the easiest way to keep yourself on course. It provides structure and a means for measuring progress over time. More importantly, tracking is as much about seeing the results as it is about understanding them. It helps you uncover all sorts of things such as:

  • Are you better at long distances or short?
  • Do you perform better in the morning, afternoon, or evening?
  • Which performance factors have the most detrimental effect on your training?
  • When was the last time you set a personal best?

Tracking provides consistency, structure, and a means for quantifying progress.

Start with a plan

It's important to note what matters most when you're just beginning. Many runners start training by time and then move on to training by distance. For example you might decide to 'run 15 minutes every other day' vs. 'run a mile every other day'. Where you're starting dictates what information you care most about while you create your plan.

Remember to keep it real. Aim for small realistic milestones. Make short plans, but do it frequently. Change is good! Always be prepared to adjust your plans and adapt with caution.

Here are a few sites that help you create a training plan for free:

Start with a plan, but set realistic goals.

Ways to track your running

The simplest way to start tracking is to use a stopwatch. Start it when you begin walking, jogging, or running and stop it when you finish. That gives you your time. To get distance you just need to remember where you ran and use either G-Map Pedometer or GPS Visualizer.

You can also use a mobile app which, not only tracks your time and distance, but also calculates additional metrics like calories burned, elevation gain, speed, and average pace. Some apps are also Bluetooth-compatible so you can track heart rate (HR) and cadence if you buy a HR monitor and a footpod. In fact, some footpods, such as the Nike+ sensor and Adidas' miCoach pacer can work independent of a mobile app and are still more cost-effective than buying a GPS watch.

Another option is to wear a GPS watch. Watches like Garmin's Forerunners, Nike's GPS SportWatch, and Polar's R-series are all specifically designed for running. Their GPS accuracy makes them ideal for varied terrains, speed training and trail running, which are frequent culprits of bad GPS data in mobile apps. These devices also come with features that often allow runners to easily 'graduate' from casual running to performance training.

Log your runs manually or use an app/device that can record your distance, pace, and speed.

Apps vs. GPS watches: what you should know

Running apps are at the forefront of fitness tracking technology and some have evolved to mimic features that were once limited to GPS watches. Most apps are free, but several offer 'pro' features that extend your ability to track and evaluate your fitness data.

We've put together a handy App Finder to help you find the right app for yourself.

Notable pro's and con's of mobile apps:
Advantage Disadvantage
Cost-effective (free - $7.99 USD) Reduced GPS accuracy - fewer trackpoints collected
Not much setup, quick-start High variability of pause/auto-pause calculations
Lots of options: 'gamified' apps vs. performance-based Difficult to track progress while running
Designed for social sharing Exercise duration is limited by your phone's battery life

Devices, on the other hand, tend to cater to a different demographic. If your primary focus is on performance and long-term analysis, you should strongly consider running with a GPS watch. A good place to start is DC Rainmaker's comparison chart of GPS watches, which show a detailed breakdown of features and cost.

As a general rule, high price does not always translate to a better watch. It really depends entirely on what features you care about the most.

Notable pro's and con's of GPS watches:
Advantages Disadvantages
Higher GPS accuracy Expensive ($90 - $500 USD)
Configurable to different types of runs Requires extensive setup
Zone training by pace, HR, speed and/or cadence Time until GPS lock varies greatly
Configurable display(s) for easy tracking while running Watch size tends to run large/ can be bulky

How to decide between an app and a GPS watch

Deciding between an app and device is actually pretty simple. First, let's rule out the possibility that your decision is based entirely on cost since we know apps are usually free. There are three things you should consider before committing to an app or device:

  1. The purpose of your training
  2. What you intend to do with your data
  3. How you would prefer to access it

For casual runners, anyone seeking motivation, getting started, or just trying it out, mobile apps for the win! There's no quicker way to get started with running than taking out your phone and downloading an app. It's great for sharing, there's usually some type of community support, and you can access your data on your phone! Some apps also provide a web platform for better accessibility in reviewing your historical data.

If, on the other hand, you've been running for a while, training for a race, looking to improve performance, or want to create custom workouts, a GPS watch is a better choice. It's inherently designed for data analysis and its GPS accuracy makes it a more reliable training partner. Additionally, your runs are still shareable and it's often easier to move your data around. Some GPS watches come with third-party software that allow you to edit your raw data and export it in different formats. All GPS watches have a dedicated web platform for viewing and analyzing your runs.

Before you commit to an app/device, consider the purpose of your training, what you'll do with your data, and how you intend to view it.

And that's it!

Remember that the toughest part about running is consistency. You miss a day and you tell yourself you'll do it tomorrow. You miss tomorrow, you might push it to next week. If you're off long enough, it literally feels like you're starting all over again. Much like any other routine that's part of your life, running has to fit somewhere. Start with a plan. Be prepared to adapt. Track it.

See you on Smashrun!