Minding the Borderlands

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

Finding My VO2 Max: Running and the Pursuit of Measuring Improvement

How fast am I right now? What is my physiological running capacity? What about my running efficiency? How am I running?

These were some of the questions I was asking myself as I stepped into the Singapore Sports Medicine Clinic. I was there for my first VO2 Max Test. I was more curious than nervous for what is essentially a maximal effort running test on a treadmill with a mask attached to your face. I looked a bit like Bane from Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the reality was that like any assessment or race, a few butterflies were in my stomach knowing that I would be pushing myself close to a physical limit.

What is VO2 Max? VO2 Max was one of the oldest measurable aspects of sport physiology yet it continues to be used today. A form of VO2 was tested and used by Edmund Hillary and his team before first climbing Mount Everest and during the lead-up to Roger Bannister’s epic four-minute mile. Nike’s Breaking2 Team used VO2 Max in the battery of tests during their attempt at breaking a sub-2-hour marathon.

In short, VO2 Max is your maximum-oxygen-processing capacity. It’s a number that varies from athlete to athlete depending on the level of cardiovascular fitness, but at its core VO2 Max represents your current fitness level.

How is VO2 Tested? While there are a few different ways to estimate your VO2 Max, the most common way to determine your VO2 Max is a sport lab test. With a mask attached over your nose and mouth, you progressively increase your running speed on a treadmill until your oxygen exchange rate no longer increases (or you can no longer go faster). You capture this data point at maximum exertion.

In this post I want to share a bit about what is VO2 Max, my lab test and results and a few conclusions and lessons learned.

The Data-Driven Weekly Review: How to Use Data and Self-Reflection for Iterative Improvements

Weekly Review 2.0: Of all my habits and routines, writing a weekly review is one of my favorite and most productively beneficial.

A “Weekly Review” is a period of time you set aside each week to pause and take a higher level look at your projects and tasks. In contrast to your doing and working mode, a weekly review is a reflective one. It’s about checking-in on how things are going, dealing with the mess, organizing it all and planning the future.

Each week I set aside about 30 minutes to take a step back. I see how things went during the previous 7 days. I pull out some key data points and write down my key takeaways. Then I set some objectives and mental visualizations for the week to come. Great weeks and shitty weeks happen, but the war is often won in finding consistency in your forward momentum. This is the power of the weekly review.

As I’ve become more and more focused on self-tracking and data collection, my weekly reviews have become increasingly data-driven.

In this post, we are going to look at the basics of what is a weekly review and using your tracking data to improve how you can do your weekly review. The goal is to make your weekly reviews data-driven. I’ll share my simple recipe using Google Form, Google Sheets, Zapier and Evernote to collect and log your data, to calculate and compare your trends and, finally, to generate a weekly review template for high-quality reflection and writing.

Export Your Apple Health Workouts to Your Calendar

DIY Workout Dashboard: Calendars can be much more than a tool for your appointments and time management. By pulling in workouts you track, your calendar can become your data-driven dashboard to health and fitness too.

As we looked at in detail in Calendar as a Self-Tracking Tool: How Visualize Your Life and Quantified Data, there are various tracking data that you can link to your calendar. We can pull in your movements, your cycling and running sessions and your tracked time. These data points let you see an overview of your goals inside one of the tools you use the most: your calendar.

Let’s add one more data point to our data-driven, tracking-aggregating calendars: your logged workouts from Apple Health.

This post is a simple recipe about how to export all of your workouts logged in iOS, import them into Google and display them in your calendar. If you are logging your workouts in iOs (and your really should be!), then it’s quite easy to bring this into your calendar.

How to Unpack

Unpacking is just as important as packing when it comes to long-term, productive travel.

There are a lot of articles that talk about how to pack when you travel. Whether you are a hardcore minimalist or pack for a combination of work and play, these guides aim to provide tips and best practices. The aim typically is to pack light for freedom and mobility, but pack enough so you have the essentials and can enjoy experiences. The emphasis is high quality, versatile gear.

But what about about unpacking? As a long-time traveler, I find that unpacking is just as important as how you pack. I regularly bounce between two or three cities and/or countries per month. That means a lot of hotels, AirBnBs, logistics and, of course, packing and unpacking.

Sure, it’s great that you have the latest luggage for minimalist travel and have this great method to get everything in the bag, but once you arrive at wherever you are staying, you want to feel right. That means unpacking right.

You can improve your travel by unpacking in a positive, organized and “homely” way. From my nearly a decade of constant travel, I want to share some my insights on the “art” of unpacking. This includes my “philosophy” around packing and unpacking as well as some actionable tips to make your stay anywhere a bit better.

Calendar as a Self-Tracking Tool: How to Visualize Your Life and Quantified Data

Calendars can be great self-tracking tools. While we typically use our calendars to plan things in the future and organize our day-to-day, calendars also provide a portrait of things we did in the past. Moreover, if integrated with some of our other tracking data (productivity, location, exercise, etc.), a calendar can become a comprehensive dashboard about our life.

Calendars and the time-management aspects of calendars are also a key tool for being productive and organized. Once your calendar is a dedicated tool for scheduling and planning, it also becomes a great life log too.

But appointments and meetings aren’t your only time-connected data. Essentially anything that is tracked and happens in time becomes more meaningful if visualized in the context of our calendars. This can include our health data like steps and workouts, but can also include our various computer usage data too.

In this post, we are going to look briefly at a few tracking services and how we can integrate them into your calendar. We will specifically be looking at Google Calendars, but most of these integrations work for Outlook and iCal too.

It’s time to go beyond thinking about your calendar as a planner and record of your events and appointments and to transform your calendar into a self-tracking tool, a life logging, visualization tool.

Productive Calendar Usage: Using Your Calendar for ‘Getting Things Done’

We all use our calendars to mark off meetings, events, due dates, and appointments. At its most basic, anything with a date and time should go in our calendar or agenda. Whether it’s a physical, paper calendar or its digital equivalent, a calendar is one of the important organizational, productivity tools.

Along with a dependable filing system for information and a good task manager, a calendar can help you work better. By having a process for organizing and managing your calendar, you can lower your stress, stay on task and gain more work-life zen.

For the modern, digital worker, if we exclude relationships, there are three key areas that we all struggle to manage effectively: information, tasks and time. We get stressed out dealing with information overload and distractions. We struggle to get a grip on all of our To-Do’s, priorities, projects and what’s next’s. And we all at some point feel like we don’t have enough time to get everything done. Everything is competing for our limited resources of time and energy, and we feel like we run out of time

Improving how we deal with our information, tasks and time can significantly improve our work and personal lives. While total mastery might be the goal and even if we can’t get there, we can get better. We can improve our processes and better equip ourselves to deal with these challenges.

The three cornerstones of a productivity toolkit are managing information, managing tasks and managing time.

In this post, I want to share how I manage my calendar. Specifically within the context of how things in general and specifically how I manage tasks and information already. For productive calendar usage the focus is on how I process time-dependent tasks, i.e. meetings, appointments, travel, etc. as well as how I structure and organize my time productively.

The First Quantified Self Tracker: A History of Weighing Scales From 17th Century Weighing Chair to Today’s Smart Scales

While self-tracking and the quantified self might seem like one of the most modern of practices, its origins date back to the 1500s and a group of Italian scientists. Galileo Galilei might have emerged as the most well-remembered, but it was his contemporary and friend Santorio Santorio who might best lay claim to the title as one of the world’s earliest quantified self trackers or a person who attempts measures his life to understand it.

Born in 1561, Santorio Santorio was dedicated to a quantified approach to medicine, which focused on measurement and experimentation over tradition and dogma. He was an inventor and contributor to two of the most measured areas of our daily lives: our weight and our temperature.

Personally, he was obsessed with measuring these and other areas in order to understand the process that made the human body “tick,” specifically perspiration (sweating) and metabolism (digesting food into energy). Through simple but consistent measurements, Santorio made the profound observation that the amount he ate and drank didn’t correlate with his feces and urine.

Santorio was obsessed with measuring stuff. His goal was to try and understand himself and various human systems through consistent measurements and observations.

By contrast, much of the history of weighing stuff was out of commercial necessity. Weighing scales, specifically the balance scale, date back to some of the earliest human civilizations. As trade increased, merchants needed ways to assess the value of irregular shaped objects, include precious metals like gold. If you couldn’t accurately measure things, you couldn’t do business.

In this post, I want to look at the history of weighing scales and its evolution from a mode of business and trade to a tool for scientific measurement and finally today’s smart scale. We will look at the different types and ways to measure weight as well as look at Santorio’s weighing chair as an amazing example of how to measure a life. Hopefully this story and quantified self tracker will inspire you to measure your life.

Simple Ways to Track All Your Workouts and Exercise (on iOS)

You should track or log all of your workouts and exercise. Not only does it help make a positive habit stick, it gives you a wealth of health data too.

Like tracking your heart rate and heart rate variability, a workout log is a great piece of data about your health, and there are a lot of good reasons for tracking your workouts. In “Why Track Your Workouts?,” I summarized the benefits as: accountability, honesty, purpose, measurements, a summary of progress and health data.

For simple tracking, it’s quite easy to keep a log of your exercise. Smart phones and exercise wearables can help, but even a physical notebook will work. The point is to keep a record you can reference later, and ideally have data you can pull out to understand trends and set appropriate goals.

In this post, I want to share my simple and comprehensive way to track all of my workouts. In the conclusion (and in a future post), I will briefly look at how to use this data to be “data-driven” when it comes to your workouts. The point isn’t merely to track but to use tracking to transform.

NOTE: I’m an Apple User so this post focuses on iOS, but the ideas should be adaptable to Android or even paper and pencil method.

Why Track Your Workouts?

Of all the things I track, one of the most valuable are my workouts. Along with tracking your heart and your sleep, I believe tracking your workouts provides a lot of benefits.

Obviously getting to the gym or just doing your runs is better than sitting on the couch. Getting moving is the most important step, but if you want to be more efficient (or even data-driven), tracking your workouts is critical.

Personally, tracking was a big part of my journey from barely managing a 5k run to completing my first marathon. I found tracking my workouts to be helpful part of staying on the program and seeing my progress. From a data perspective I could look to my logs to see how much faster I got and how much more capable I was on longer runs.

But also in my workout log, I was keeping a journal. I recorded the high’s and low’s, the challenges and the achievements. My workout log also helped me realize my weakness and adjustment my plans accordingly. Mentally my workout journal was a way to think through the process. Overall, tracking my workouts has provided a multiplier to my fitness growth.

Before we dig into the how of workout tracking and some of the data you might use to understand your health and fitness in a later post, it’s important to first ask: Why? Why track your workouts?

Heart Rate Variability: The Amazing Biomarker to Understanding Our Body, Health and Fitness

When it comes to health and fitness tracking, one of my favorite health data points is Heart Rate Variability.

Appreciated as “HRV, “Many doctors and athletes consider heart rate variability to be one of the best biomarkers for understanding how your body, health, and fitness are affected by a whole host of factors like training load, sickness, alcohol, nutrition, sleep, and air quality to name a few. Psychologists have even used HRV through activities like meditation and guided breathing to treat psychological issues. While it’s mostly been used by elite and Olympic athletes to gauge their training stimulus, load and recovery, it’s increasingly become a useful data point for the recreational athlete too.

In short, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a great biomarker to understand your life.

What can HRV data be used for? HRV can be used to help you look at how certain lifestyle changes affect you. For example, by measuring HRV, you can see correlations in how a previous day of hard training, a night of poor sleep or excessive drinking among a few notable factors affects your HRV value the next day. Over longer periods you can use HRV readings to see other chronic trends in your health, wellness and fitness.

For self-tracker and quantified self enthusiasts, HRV data provides a reference point for understanding aspects of your life and your self-experiments. The challenge is that you can’t run a controlled experiment when your sample size is only you. Fortunately, with HRV it becomes possible to measure the effect of life changes in terms of your HRV. For example, HRV data can be a good data point to measure the effect of different training or nutrition regimes.

One of the other great features of Heart Rate Variability is that it is a particularly easy biomarker to measure. Using either your phone or a chest strap heart rate monitor, there are several services that can enable you to log your reading to your smart phone and then help you track changes over time. In about a minute, you can log your HRV biomarker. There are also several running watches and wearables that provide an estimation of your HRV too.

As a slightly obsessive self-tracker, I measure many aspects of my life, including my productivity time, my workouts, my tasks, my weight and many others. Personally, I measure my HRV each morning and have seen connections and correlations between several aspects of life and my HRV scores. For example, during my recent marathon training and 42k run, I saw noticeable changes in my HRV readings, and, as a regular traveler, it is easy to spot how long and short travel affects us physiologically.

So, what is HRV? What are you measuring with HRV? What does this particular measurement signal when it comes to your health and fitness? What are a some things that affect your HRV and how can you see this in your data? And finally why should HRV matter in general and for you personally?

In this long post, we are going to explain what is HRV and how it is measured (both practically as a user and scientifically as a biomarker). We will look at why it is important to log the context with your HRV and some of the factors that can affect your HRV day to day and chronically over time.

This post is intended as a beginner’s intro to HRV, so we’ve left out the deeper science behind HRV, including the automatic nervous system. I plan to provide more on this and demographic HRV comparisons in a later post.

Obviously the body and its interaction are complicated. Yet HRV remains an incredibly interesting data point to better understanding yourself. Let’s dig in!