Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Run Smarter: Run Tracking and Personal Data Using RunKeeper

If you want to optimize your behavior and habits, then you should track. Tracking your exercise and runs contributes to both behavioral and habit changes while also providing insightful data.

This has been my year of running. You can go from a dead-beat to average to super human (relatively speaking) through progressive optimizations. Even if you aren’t a data nut like me, running statistics can be helpful to decrease your chances of injury and build up your endurance, strength, and flexibility. It’s also fascinating data too.

Developing any new habit comes with figuring out my favorite tools, preferred processes and tracking my data. For an obsessive tracker like me, running comes with one of the richest data sets to explore about yourself.

This personal data can lead to a lot of actionable lessons as you train to run farther and faster. Whether you are merely looking to make some initial health adjustments or preparing for a long distance half- or full marathon, run tracking should be a key part of it.

Like counting steps, run tracking is one of the most developed areas of self-tracking. You can go the route of an activity tracker, a wearable or leverage your smart phone. For example, you can get a dedicated wearable for running, like a GPS watch or use a strap-on heart rate tracker. For most beginners, it’s best to start with your smart phone and a run tracking app.

After nearly a year of running (and trying a lot of tech), my recommendation for any runner is RunKeeper.

There a lot of run-tracking apps and many work great like Strava, Wahoo’s RunFit and Run! Zombies. I’ve tried most of them. But after tracking over 100 runs, RunKeeper remains my favorite running app due to its strong core run tracking feature set, audio cues, rich post-run data and maps, and solid interface and user experience during runs. For data crazies, RunKeeper integrates with tons of other services (including Apple’s HealthKit), and it’s easy to get an export of all of your data to obsess over using a spreadsheet or a mashup data science tool like Zenobase.

Let’s take a look at the basics of run tracking, the key data points you get, and how you can leverage this to be a better runner.

How to Track with RunKeeper (or any other running app)

Hopefully I don’t have to convince you track. If you listen to music or a podcast during a run or exercise, there really is no excuse to not track your runs with an app like RunKeeper. Even if you prefer apps like Zombies, Run!, Strava or my favorite backup running app Wahoo’s RunFit, the most important thing is to track your runs and then get access to the underlying data.

(NOTE: We will be focused on the tracking of your runs as such. But there are other areas for running that merit thought if you are hardcore runner including diet and food tracking and blood tracking for performance athletes among others.)

This post is not a review of running apps. If you prefer, one of the others on my list of favorites. There is no reason to not use it, especially if you can get the same actionable data out of it.

To summarize, RunKeeper provides options for the types of runs you take. You can do a free run, a distance run, a time run, a pace run or using either their running plans or building your own, do a custom workout run. These are different training run modes. After you pick the kind of run, you just hit start. RunKeeper will do the rest of the work from there by tracking your distance and pace via GPS.

According a highly configurable setup, you can have the app give you various audio cues throughout the run. I really enjoy these and, since training for my first 5k, I’ve come to strongly believe in the power of these verbal cues. Training can be hard, but these small pick-me-up’s help. It works like this: as you reach each 1km segment (or whatever you set it for), one of a number of voices will tell you how you are doing. You can get your distance, time, heart rate, etc. There are even now some amusing audio cue voices that add a bit of fun. They might had a joke or a bit of encouragement. I suspect this will only get better as AI gets further integrated.

After you’ve started tracking your run, you just run. In the background you can listen to music or a podcast. It’s also good to do part of your runs with no audio at all. This lets you focus on your body movements including your stride length and foot falls. Personally this has helped me in my barefoot running adaption. You run differently when you are present.

RunKeeper makes it easy to track your runs as you are running. The interface is intuitive and easy to get the key data. You can pause your runs to take a picture, drink or break. There is also a cool option to auto-pause when you stop.

Overall, tracking with RunKeeper is super simple. Once you finish a run you get back your run summary in both verbal form and a nice display.

The Data of Running: More than Time and Distance

Whether it’s time tracking, music or meditation, I’m constantly looking for tools to improve my life and provide me with quality personal data. RunKeeper has been a nice addition since it provides such rich data. Let’s take a look at some of the data points you get.

At its most basic all run trackers provide you a post-run summary: how far, how long, and how fast.

So, what you have here is your distance, time and overall pace (time per km) during your entire run.

If you use a heart rate tracker like I do on some of my runs, then you also get your heart rate (bpm). Using Wahoo’s chest heart monitor I notice that my long runs average around 139 to 143 bpm. Once you’ve set your resting and maximum heart rate, you can know during and after your wrong how “hard” it was in terms of your heart. RunKeeper provides a nice chart of this.

As you can see from this example, the app is looking at this statistic across your run. RunKeeper has a simple table of your segment paces but also provides a great chart for seeing your pace change during your run:

Pace and developing a steady speed has been my biggest improvement through more consistent running. I can now better feel what pace I’m at and employ different paces according to the type of run I’m doing (or according to the outdoors temperature). I’m typically running on automatic, but when I’m more conscious of my runs, I enjoy doing reverse splits, i.e. starting slow and doing faster segments at the end.

RunKeeper also tracks a couple other interesting data points like elevation change. So if you are doing hills or climbing mountains, you can see this too. It’s likely an area I should develop more as I consider doing more trail runs.

One of the more useful data points I get back though is my steps per minute. Widely regarded as the key part of getting faster and decreasing injury, it’s recommended to take shorter and faster strides to improve your run. While far from ideal, my steps per minute have improved and RunKeeper gives me an interesting chart after each session:

Steps per minute is still an area I want to spend more time focusing on developing, and having this data point so transparent makes it an easy area to measure and watch.

RunKeeper also provides a way to measure your subjective mood about a run. Was it bad, ok or great? This gives you a way just look at bad runs and see what factors were at play. Training is about progressive overload and rest, so logging these sentiments about a run makes it easy later to know when problems started. Injury prevention can be much improved by extrapolating meaningful correlations between bad runs, rest and rest over your limits.

So, in summary, with each run, the key stats you get are distance, time, pace, heart rate, steps per minute, and elevation. You get back both overall run stats and breakdown over segments. It’s important to look at both to understand how you are progressing.

Getting Your Data: Exports, Integrations and Automation

One of the reasons why I think RunKeeper stands out is its integration with a lot of other services. This makes it easy to use RunKeeper to help you run and train and then feed your data into other systems to help you understand it.

At it’s most simple, RunKeeper is a free app you can use to run and track your runs. When you finish, you can export all of your key data points. You can explore this easily using a spreadsheet application.

If you use personal data aggregators and life dashboard like Gyroscope, Zenobase or Exist.io, then you probably already know that they integrate with RunKeeper. All of them pull your latest and past run data to develop different ways to explore this data across additional data points. Gyroscope in particular does a great job of mashing up this data to great visualizations for social share or personal memories. You also get a nice look at your week, day or month in terms of runs, steps and other data points.

RunKeeper also integrates with automation tools like IFT.TT and Zapier. So, you can use one or both of these tools, to get your run data wherever you want. For me, I’m a hardcore user of Evernote, so I make sure all of my run data gets posted to a note there.

I also like to have this data in spreadsheet format. I use Zapier to post each run’s data to AirTable where I can then examine and manipulate it to create various reports.

Using RunKeeper data, Zenobase provides a breakdown and chart of my monthly running mileage from April (31.34 km) through August (149.6 km):

In some of the previous posts we’ve looked at on self-tracking like on time tracking, music and meditation, I’ve lamented on how some apps make it hard or nearly impossible to get your data back. Hopefully one day all apps will be built on the assumption that the data is yours and you should be able to export it at any time. Fortunately, RunKeeper is already one of the best at this. From their website, they let you export not only your key stats from each run but all of the geo data from your runs too.

Overall, RunKeeper helps you track great data and provides it back to you in an easy to use format. Beyond that, other apps can layer this data to create an beautiful visualizations and interesting correlations.

Meaning in the Data: Real-Time Tracking to Improve Your Runs

I’m a firm believer in the mantra that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. Did your doctor want you to start running 3-4 days a week? Did you? If you don’t track it, then it probably won’t happen. All that is standing between you and tracking your run is an app download.

I’m a big believer that tracking should be a part of developing any habit but especially athletic ones. Habit tracking apps can help with this, but with focused apps like for running or meditation, using the app is a form of simple “check-in” tracking. You took a run, you tracked it and you built up your habit. It’s as simple as that.

(Running sessions per month from April to September 2016, tracked via RunKeeper)

Tracking your runs has two angles. First, there is the angle and data you can use during your run, the real-time data. Second, there is data you can use for developing your planning and training.

When it comes to running, I’ve learned a lot about different kinds of runs and how you can use them to create progressive developments. To simplify you have endurance runs (long and slow), pace or tempo runs (consistent and fast pace), speed runs (fast and typically done with short fast-slow segments) and rest or recovery runs. Each of these types of runs comes with a certain pace and, if you are using a heart rate monitor, a target heart rate. Using tech can really help you run on target and do the type of run you have scheduled for your training.

Real-time data and tracking makes it easy to know if you are running the type of run you intended. You can know if you on-pace and compare your general feelings with the distance you have to go. This real-time data is like an extra brain so you can train and run most effectively. Overall it has made it easier for me to meet my goals and, in fact, helped me develop a bodily sense of each run and its effort, pace and heart rate. It also turns run into a kind of game where you have stats as your points system.

Developing a Running Plan with Tracking and Data

Let’s look at running training plans, tracking and data behind them.

If you already use your iPhone while running to listen to music, there is really no reason to not track your runs using the built-in GPS. The apps provide useful statistics during and after your run. During your run it’s helpful to know your current pace and distance. It helps keep you on track and on pace with your desired speed. In general though it’s after each run where this data proves most valuable, especially as part of an overall training planing.

If you are a beginner to runner going for your first 5k, I recommend you follow the classic run-walk training method. My personal journey to 5k taught me the importance of progressive improvement and rest. I used the app “Couch to 5k,” though in retrospect I wish I had used RunKeeper and their training plan with same schedule. “Couch to 5k” doesn’t track your distance and pace, so I really don’t know how slow I was running then (it’s was slow!).

This run-walk training plan is all about building up your endurance base (especially your heart) while avoiding overloading your body. Using an app helps you “check off” each training session you do and visualize your path to completion. This particular method is focused on completing the timed runs and assumes a pretty modest pace to getting to 5k.

Training should be about improving progressively while avoiding injury. Most runners get hurt for different reasons, but the majority of injuries are for new and returnee runners and they typically come from training too hard, too earlier.

It’s not that surprising when you think about your physiology. Your engine (i.e. your heart) improves faster than your undercarriage (i.e. your legs, angles, knees, etc.). This makes it tempting to run farther and faster since your heart can handle it but your legs can’t. You rarely hear about new runners getting heart attacks but you hear a lot about sore knees and ankle sprains.

I made this mistake early in the year as started getting into running. I had made it to 5k and was improving fast. So I decided to run everyday. Unfortunately my body wasn’t strong enough and I sprained my ankle and developed knee issues. Fortunately rest, a more reasonable training plan and daily mobility exercises have removed my previous injuries and made me faster, more mobile and stronger. Lesson learned about training smart.

When it comes to training, one of most quoted principles in running training is about increasing your mileage. It’s recommended by a lot of sources (medical and anecdotal) to only increase your weekly mileage by 10% per week. This means that if last week you ran 20k, then you should limit your mileage increase this week to 22k. From my experience I’d say this is a good rule of thumb to follow. If you track your runs, it’s easy to then tell how you are doing week on week.

RunKeeper’s mobile dashboard provides a great summary of your weekly running for the current and previous week. You can pull up your weekly mileage, number of sessions, average pace, and time spent running. Typically this is all you need to know how your training is going. It makes it easy to run quick mental calculations to decide on how far or fast your want to run in your next session, especially when you are current training is based on mileage only.

Similarly, you hear that you should avoid doing any run that represents over 50% of your total weekly mileage. So if you run 20k in a week then your longest run should be limited to 10k. I’ve also found this to be a good a rule. Using RunKeeper’s activity log, it’s easy to look at your previous runs and decide how far you need to go to hit your objectives.

When you combine the 10% weekly increase and 50% one-run maximum, you reach two solid baseline principles to follow in your training.

Tracking and having your data makes it easy to know where you stand each week if you are aiming to increase your mileage and avoid over-doing it. Run training is a balance of doing just enough to improve but not too much to get injured. So, planning is important as is being realistic with how you feel and how much you’ve run recently.

Beyond these principles and baseline stats, I’ve looked at a lot of running plans. Excluding some of the most esoteric ones, all of the plans recommend doing different kinds of runs, increasing your overall mileage and progressive overload and getting rest. They set a plan on the calendar based on weeks and you check-off your sessions towards whatever distance or race goal you have in mind.

This method translates into doing different types of runs at various difficulty, distance and speed. You should do at least one long, slow endurance run, shorter endurance runs and some speed work. Warm-ups and post-run stretching or mobility exercises are also advised. Some runs also need to be run in “recovery” mode. Experts also advice you to make sure you have at least one day per week of full recovery where you don’t run. Overall, these plans lead to you increasing your mileage week on week and developing your ability to handle longer and harder runs, while hopefully avoiding getting injured.

Personally, I’ve come to think of this whole process as developing my running “base.” Your base is your ability to run certain speeds and distances and is part of your overall physiology and fitness level. It takes a long time to build these up, whether it’s running or strength. There are various timelines for how long it takes to build up a runner’s base, but I’m currently thinking in terms of one to two years for myself. So, each run is about contributing to this base, rather than checking off a one-time distance or speed achievement.

RunKeeper has an entire function dedicated to training plans. I haven’t used it much, but it’s a solid tool with smart plans that follow many of the recommended training plans out there. It’s premium feature goes more into ensuring individual runs are within the training parameters.

While not universal, a lot of the running plans out there also recommend cross-training. In order to avoid overdoing and abusing your knees, ankles and other parts, cross-training by cycling, swimming and other methods allows you to continue to develop your overall endurance but also decreases the impact on joints and tendons. I don’t strictly adhere to this, but I do feel like it’s good to take an extra recovery day when I can by exchanging a running session with cycling or swimming.

Personally my running goals are a bit more flexible as I’m building up my endurance and capacity to run (i.e. building up my “base”), rather than training for a particular race or to hit a certain Personal Best (PB). I mostly use a simple weekly list of objective runs and a calendar to plan my current training. The tracking I’m doing does have the added benefit of providing me with realistic understanding of how fast and far I can run. Depending on weather conditions, I can pretty reasonably estimate my capacity to handle certain distances and speeds.

My weekly stats helps me avoid overdoing it and helps me manage to fit distance goals with my total weekly sessions limit.

As I develop and train for specific runs, it’s become clear to me the importance of tracking. Specifically a lot training recommends running at different tempos like hard, moderately hard or easy. These might appear to be highly subjective, but real-time tracking via RunKeeper in combination with a Heart Rate Monitor makes it a lot more transparent. You also start to feel out what paces mean too.

Tracking helps you start to quantify each run session in two important ways. First you can know if your run actually was within the training parameters of how far and hard. For example, if you set a target pace, you can aim to do a pace run that hits it (or not).

Second, as you aim to increase speed and distance, quantifying your running sessions can be combined with the science of run training to help you get there. You’ve got black-and-white stats to know if you are running right. For example, progressive overload comes at a cost. Harder running will make you more tired and slower in some ways. But once you scale back and rest, you’ll suddenly see your improvements. Having your stats can make you more confident in hitting your goals.

Run training is a huge area. Hopefully this section covered a few of the basics and showed the benefits of tracking. For me tracking my runs has helped me train towards getting higher mileage and avoiding injuries. It’s also a good motivator to see overall numbers improve.

Conclusion: Data and The Runner’s Log

Whether you are an experienced runner or a newbie like me, then tracking your runs can be beneficial. Feature for feature, RunKeeper is a great tech choice due to its great real-time run tracking and post-run data. At its most basic all running apps can give your time, distance, and pace. Most apps and some wearables use GPS which gives you a map of your run. RunKeeper goes a bit deeper and provides segmented tracking and charts to show your pace, heart rate and other data points across your running sessions.

These statistics can be combined in interesting ways to tell the story of your runs or, if you are data nut, to have information to quantify your fitness and workouts.

The biggest benefit to tracking comes with training and planning. There is no ambiguity if you are training and improving. Your runner’s log has the facts to show it. Using smart training tools and adapting your runs with different training plans can help you leverage this data to train to become faster and run farther while also avoiding injuries.

There are obvious limits to all the gear and tech in any activity. Running is particularly bursting with gadgets. From shoes to hydration, it’s a never ending discussion of techniques to self-improvement. Many parts of the running gear craze are overdone. But a few merit thought.

Shoes (or no shoes) are without a doubt critical to running in a good way. I mix my sessions between minimal shoes (Nike Free) and barefoot (Vibram) but am still open to exploration. I have a chest heart rate monitor from Wahoo which I use on one or two sessions per week.

Heart Rate data is worthy of a whole separate post but when it comes to running, I’ve found heart rate monitor works best to understand if I’m running within the parameters of my training goal. Over time, it has been interesting to see my heart rate improve too. I look forward to my next wearable with a heart rate monitor.

Hydration is also much discussed but tough to quantify. Weather conditions are important when you think about running and water intake. Distance and intensity matters a lot too. I’m a believer in drinking before your run and trying to take one or two water breaks during. Hydration is also area worth of tracking and better devices to quantify.

Overall, I’ve come to think of my running less and less in terms of gadgets and tech. After training to get to 5k, I’ve slowly built up to running schedule to around 4 or 5 times each week for around 30-40km (18-25mi) total. I’ve tried a lot of different tools, devices and techniques. There are so many amazing apps, devices, communities, books events, and gear for runners. It’s easy to get obsessed in the minute of knowledge and “hacks.” You start to forget about the experience.

Running is about being. The bigger lessons are about learning about yourself. Being a runner is a slow growth towards improved capacities as a human, both physical and mental. I enjoy tracking and will continue to track but sometimes I simple turn on my tracker and go for a run. I feel out the distance and intensity. I run and enjoy the natural world around. Afterwards I’ve got the data and pictures to put the story together. Part of tracking is just combining all of it into a life story.

Good luck running and happy tracking.