Minding the Borderlands

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

How to Track Your Workouts: Become Data-Driven in Your Physical Fitness, Health and Performance

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could capture and track all of your physical fitness and workout sessions?

Having a log of your workouts is a great addition to your fitness routines. Tracking workouts helps you stay motivated, see improvements, stay organized and on target, and watch your fitness story over time. With all the wearables, smart watches, and apps out there, it’s easier and easier to track your fitness and health.

Increasingly we can use this tracking data to understand our health and optimize our fitness too. I like to call this becoming “data-driven” about your life.

There are a lot of reasons and benefits to tracking your workouts. In “Why Track Your Workouts?,” I summarized it as: accountability, honesty, purpose, measurements, a summary of progress and health data.

Whether you are a self-tracking, data freak (like me) or not, tracking your workouts is one of the most beneficial data points to collect. Like tracking your heart rate, heart rate variability and sleep, I believe that anyone serious about their health and fitness should track and log their workouts.

There are a few aspects to tracking your workouts. First, the actual tracking of the event of your workouts; second, the aggregate logs of your complete training and the cumulative results; and, third, what you do and optimize with that data.

In this post, we will look at how to track your workouts in two key ways: logging and tracking. In the first part, we will look at the key data aspects to logging your workouts. At its most basic, when you log or track a workout you should be capturing when you did it, what you did and your key achievement.

In the second part, we will look at various apps, wearables and technologies to help you track, classify, and understand your workouts. With wearables, smart phones and even dedicated sensors, we can capture an array of data that wasn’t possible before. I’ll try and sort through all the options to provide you a good starting point on tracking your fitness.

Finally, we will conclude with what tracking your fitness and workouts can do. Namely, tracking data provide the ingredients to become data-driven. Using this personal fitness data, you can optimize your fitness plan for your goals and improve your health and performance outcomes.

Data to Capture When Logging Your Workouts

Basic Workout Tracking: Logging Your Workout Type, Time, and Date

Workout logs don’t need to be complicated. In fact, a paper version in many ways can be as valuable as a sophisticated, data-driven approach, especially if done consistently.

The main aspect of workout logging hasn’t changed in the digital age. The core of tracking your workouts is gaining a simple one-liner telling you what activity you did and for how long.

This means answering three questions: What activity did I do? When did I do it? And for how?

The resulting workout log entry would like this this, for example: 2017-05-09 @ 1pm, 9km Running OR 2017-05-19: 00:44:12, Functional Strength Training.

For basic workout tracking, all you need to do is record the activity, the time and the relevant achievement (distance, reps, circuit, etc).

The Type of Workout: How Elite and Amateur Athletes Use Targeted Workouts

In the age of Strava and Social Networks, it seems like logging your workouts is a form of social validation. But historically and still today, serious workout logs were and are most common among elite athletes.

Runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and weight lifters all typically keep a record of their sessions, including their start and finish time, distance, exercises, intensity, etc. This comes from a stronger focus on improvements as well as the realization that how you train results in how you race.

Similarly athletes’ logbooks can be used with their coaches or as part of a training system. Using past workouts, coaches and training systems can tailor workouts towards a specific goal, like a faster marathon, lose weight, bigger deadlift, health improvements, etc.

For athletes and anyone serious about training for running, cycling or swimming, you don’t just run; you do a sprint session or long run; a leg day at the gym; or some other targeted workout. Good training is about specificity, and most training plans call for different types of workouts on different days.

The theories and practice behind endurance and strength training goes beyond this post. But the key idea in effective training is periodization. Periodization is the training method where you cycle through load and recovery phases in order to build up target capacities. Targeted workouts are a key aspect. In Data-Driven Run Training, I discuss how I use my tracking data and a machine learning system called TrainAsOne which provides workouts that prevent injury and are targeted for optimal training.

When it comes to your training log, that you’ll want to record not just the sport but the type of workout did.

For example, a better workout log would look like this: 2018-05-09 @ 3pm, 12km Threshold Run OR 2018-03-09 @ 7am, Intervals (5 x 10 min).

In essence what an athlete is trying to gain beyond just the workout numbers is a categorization of the workout. Was the workout a hard one? An easy or recovery one? Or even better was it focused on your endurance capacity or speed? These are all key ways to classify and organize your training. Knowing your workout type and intensity can help you avoid overtraining and even implement a type of training called polarization wherein you aim a particular ratio of easy and hard workouts.

Capturing Real-Time Health and Fitness Data with Apps and Wearables

While the core aspect of keeping a training log can be quite simple (sport, date, time, duration and distance), smart phones, smart watches, activity trackers and wearables have changed how we track our workouts. Basically anyone with a smart phone can record an extremely nuanced and data-rich log of their individual workouts. With a wearable or heart rate monitor you can capture even more data.

The main data that apps and wearables capture is locational data. Using GPS you are monitoring your location during a workout. This data is parsed to create a map of your workout with your pace and elevation change during different segments.

Heart rate monitors, in particular, add a valuable data point to ensure you are training in the optimal way, and, if you are serious about your health and training, I highly recommend investing in either a $50 to $100 wearable heart monitor or getting a 300-500 usd heart rate monitor watch.

Your heart rate data can be used to understand the intensity of your effort, and your workout logs can provide a report to see if you are training in a dangerous way.

With a heart rate monitor you can capture and estimate your VO2 Max or Lactate Threshold, two tests that are typically only done in an expensive lab scenario, but are extremely important health and fitness metrics. Apple Watch via Apple Health recently added VO2 Max estimate to its health logs.

The most common wearable is the activity tracker or the step counter, which logs your daily movements. Increasingly “cheap” wearables from Fitbit and Xiaomi are able to record your heart rate and sleep too.

Beyond simple wearables, there is a whole host of sport-specific wearables from the likes of Garmin and Polar. These watches use GPS and other advanced sensors to track your activities. Furthermore smart watches from Apple, Samsung and others can let you track everything from your heart rate and steps to your walking, running, swimming and more. Personally, I’m a huge fan of my Apple Watch for self-tracking.

Additionally some wearables and add-ons can be used to record your cadence while running or cycling or even record your stroke while swimming. For example, I’ve used a footpod to measure my cadence and stride length.

Overall, smart phones, wearables and other devices have significantly improved our ability to track. Even if you only have a smart phone, you can track your workouts.

These devices provide not only the end result you want for your basic training logs, but they also provide a ton of additional health and fitness metrics too. These are data you couldn’t get before without a dedicated coach or a sports lab. With a wearable or app, you can know your pace, your heart rate, your effort and even your efficiency and cadence. All combined they have made it easier for coaches, individuals and all kinds of athletes to get better fitness data.

How To Track Your Workouts by Type

In the last section we looked the basic and advanced aspects to workout logs. In this section, we are going to look at specific ways to track and log workouts according to the tool and target activity.

Before looking at individual sports tracking, let’s look at heart rate monitoring:

Workout Tracking with Heart Rate Monitoring

If you are dedicated to improved health and fitness one of the best tools you should consider buying and using is a heart rate monitor. While app-based measurements can be used to get your resting heart rate, tracking your heart rate during a workout requires a wearable like a smart watch, a Chest Heart Rate Monitor or an oximeter.

Personally I use both my chest monitor (Wahoo Tickr) and my Apple Watch to log my heart rate on nearly each and every workout.

Heart Rate Monitor Training is the idea that you train according to different heart rate zones. You do this by knowing your maximum heart rate and then determining your target zones. Typically you try to avoid overtraining by doing workouts within certain heart rate zones. This is especially true for recovery runs when you want to be in your easy and moderate zones. For threshold runs, you can use your heart rate to where you want to push hard but not at extreme, race pace. You can also use heart rate to understand how you can train yourself to run faster and more efficiently at a moderate heart rate.

The topic of Heart Rate Training goes beyond this post, but the main point is that your active heart rate can be a very good data point for your workout logs. Specifically it can help you understand your effort and your aerobic efficiency.

Effort relates to how hard a workout was. Logging your heart rate along with the pace and other variables makes it possible to understand the effort (or power) involved in a workout. Certain apps and services can give you an effort or score. This can help you to understand how hard the workout was and subsequently your fatigue, your improvements and fitness fitness level.

Aerobic efficiency relates to how your effort translated into your actual performance. By logging your heart rate along with the activity like running or cycling, you can start to gauge how efficient you were at covering a certain distance at a certain speed with a certain heart rate. For example, as my fitness level has improved, I can efficiently run the same speed but with a lower heart rate.

I recently started using the app “Zones” on iOS, which aggregates and categorizes your workouts by heart rate zones and provides a tool for logging workouts on Apple Watch. Besides adding another way to log my workouts and track the heart rate, Zones makes it easy to see the distribution of my workouts in target heart rate zones. This helps me to visualize if I’m overtraining or not training hard enough in different areas.

Heart Rate Monitoring won’t improve your health by itself. That’s what good training is for. But monitoring your heart rate can help you understand your training, your health and your fitness.

Tools and Apps for Heart Rate Tracking: Chest Heart Rate Monitors (Wahoo Tickr, Polar), Smart / Exercise Watches (Garmin Watch, Apple Watch, etc.), Zones App

Tracking Your Running Sessions

When it comes to tracking your running and cycling, there are a lot of great options for tracking. Both of these sports are extremely popular, which makes for a lot of great technology. Similarly since both sports are typically outdoors, you can use GPS to get key data points on your workouts. Whether you want to use a dedicated device or wearable or your smart phone, it is easy to get an accurate log of where you went, how fast and for how long.

Personally, in the lead up to my first marathon, I tracked all of my running sessions with RunKeeper](http://www.markwk.com/2016/10/run-tracking-with-runkeeper.html) and it remains my preferred app-based run tracker. It works great on Apple Watch too. I recently switched to tracking on Strava since I was having some data syncing issues, and Strava provides a bigger social platform.

Ultimately most of the apps and devices for run tracking work great. They provide your time, map, pace and elevation. And if you use a heart rate monitor, you can track your heart rate (beats per minute) too.

Going beyond the basics, you can also leverage a power meter like Syrd or a wearable like Wahoo Tickr to track your power (i.e. calculation of running up hills or pace), your cadence (i.e. steps per minute) and form.

Tools and Apps for Run Tracking: Strava, RunKeeper, Garmin Watch, Apple Watch.

Tracking Your Cycling Workouts

Like running, there is a lot of great tech for tracking your cycling. Whether you use a smart phone app or a dedicated piece of cycling hardware, the main aspect of tracking is quite similar to running: time, distance, pace, climb, and heart rate. One of the additional data point with cycling is power which you can capture using a power meter.

Tools and Apps for Cycling Tracking: Strava, Power Meter.

Logging Your Strength Training and Gym Time

Like running and cycling there are a lot of apps for strength training. The majority of these apps focus on helping your record your exercise type, how much weight and how many reps and sets. They are loggers.

Since in the gym, unlike on a run, swim or cycle, you can carry around a notebook, there is a long history of workout logging in the strength and body building community. In fact, strength training seems to have one of the most robust and oldest communities of workout trackers!

Unlike running and cycling where the primary metrics can be gained automatically by starting and stopping your GPS-enabled app or device, strength training workout logging hasn’t been as lucky with recent technology changes. There are a couple recent wrist-based wearables for weight lifting like Atlas and Beast. Unfortunately reliability isn’t great, and adoption remains low. As such, logging your strength session workouts still requires manual input. You choose the exercise type, the weight and how many reps and sets.

Fortunately, you don’t need to carry around a notebook or paper log in the system. Various apps make it possible to log your exercise, intensity, sets and reps. Some well-known and well-usage strength workout trackers for gym work include: Strong Workout Tracker, StrongLifts, Gym Hero, and JEFIT. There are a lot of apps that fit into this category, and they are pretty simple loggers where you manage the plan, exercises, weights, etc.

Personally for manual tracking and managing my strength training, I use Fitbod, which has the added bonus of being a machine learning workout manager. Fitbod uses my workout logs to gauge muscle freshness and coordinates my exercises and workouts accordingly.

Tools and Apps for Strength Training Tracking: Fitbod, Strong Workout Tracker, StrongLifts

Tracking Cross-Training and Bodyweight Workouts

In a separate category from “pure” strength workout loggers, there are the workout and fitness planners. These apps, sites and video programs that attempt to create a full-on training programs, including strength, cardio and more. Most of these are focused on cross-training and bodyweight workouts.

I’d say most of these are more like digitalized coaches, rather than workout trackers. But they do provide an interesting option if you want to try something new and think this might help you get moving. They often provide clear animations of the exercises, timers, audio cues and even videos. Some notable examples include: Aaptiv, Sweat by Kayla, Daily Burn, Zova and many others provide videos and specific workouts too.

Personally I’ve used Sworkit, a body weight training app, in the past. Sworkit lets you pick a focus (upper or lower body, for example) or specific exercises and then set a timer. The app then goes through the sections one by one and you do a circuit.

One of the most popular types of body weight training are “7 Minute Workouts.” The science behind it is that you can get a full body workout in such seven minutes. There are a lot of apps in this category too.

There are almost no tools that will automatically let you track how many reps. Fortunately one exception is Wahoo’s Heart Monitor, Tickr X. Using their 7-minute workout app, you can do 14 bodyweight exercises in 7 minutes and each rep is seamless tracked and recorded. The numbers tracked are extremely accurate for all of the included exercises like pushups, squats, lunges, etc.

The main data point you want to track when doing cross training or body weight workouts is your time and intensity. Fortunately most of these apps and services will log their workouts to Apple Health when you finish.

Tools and Apps for Cross-Training and Bodyweight Workouts: Sworkit, Aaptiv

Tracking Your Pool Time and Swimming Workouts

You can’t exactly take your smart phone for a swim nor would you want to. Fortunately using a dedicated, smart sports watch or your Apple Watch, you can track your pool and swimming workouts.

The three best options I’ve found for logging your swim workouts on Apple Health are: Apple Workout App, MySwimPro and Swim.com. Each of them have a competent app for the Apple Watch, and you can pretty seamlessly record and monitor your swim sessions. Previously I preferred MySwimPro or Swim.com apps since I could sync the workouts to the web and review my workouts online. In terms of logging, Apple Workout App seemed to work best for me, and, since swim workouts provide more detailed analytics and it’s now easier to export your workout, it’s my preferred method for logging swim workouts.

I’m not training for any particular swimming race or competition, so I mostly swim on alternative recovery days. So far, I’ve found that these swimming workout apps provide an excellent way to track your strokes and lap times, two key metrics if you are a competitive swimmer.

Tools and Apps for Swim Tracking: Apple Watch Workout, My Swim Pro and Swim.com.

Checking-In Your Mobility and Stretching Sessions

If you are training hard whether it’s running, cycling, lifting or whatever sport, there is a good chance you are doing some damage to your body. In order to stay health, avoid injury and reach optimal performance, you should be doing mobility training.

Over the past several years more and more emphasis in fitness space has been placed on mobility. Like stretching, mobility is about improving our physical capacities like range of motion and soft tissues. Whether it’s rehab or “prehab,” the goal is make you more resilient to injury and ready to perform at your best at your sport.

Currently there aren’t a lot of specific apps focused on helping you track your mobility. If you are into Yoga, you can leverage apps like Sworkit to help you.

Personally I find the best way to log my mobility training session is a simple technique. I start and stop a timer on my watch while stretching and foam rolling. When I finish, I note the total time and log it to Apple Health using my watch or iPhone as “Preparation and Recovery” workout. I use Workflow app to simplify and automate the process.

For a full and detailed write up on mobility training and tracking, I recommend reading How to Track Your Mobility: Training for Performance and Injury Prevention.

Miscellaneous Tracking and Logging Your Team Sports

When it comes to tracking team sports, you are mostly limited to tracking your workout type and sport type. This is generally due to the fact that during most sports, you can’t wear your tracker while playing. Depending on the sport, there are specific game stats you can use apps to capture, but largely when it comes to thinking about health and fitness, options are more limited.

A few exceptions are tracking in golf and baseball. Friend and fellow self-tracker, Fabian Gruber has a nice writeup on a boxing tracking sensor he uses for training.

The easiest method for tracking your sports workouts in my opinion is to manually log them to Apple Health or your fitness dashboard. This may not get you the full data you might have from tracking a run or gym session, but it will capture the essential: what you did, for how long and when.

BONUS: How to Manually Log Workouts with Workflow App on iOS and Apple Watch

I definitely have a bias towards dedicated tracking apps. I love the apps and wearables I use to log my running, swimming and gym sessions. There are still many sports and fitness activities that I doubt merit building or having a full app to track and manage. That’s where Workflow App can fill a tracking gap.

Workflow is an iOS app that lets you create custom automation and workflows. It extends your ability to use multiple services together in unique processes. For example, you can use it to run a custom process on photo, log information from one app to another or hundreds of other configurations.

Personally, I use Workflow to create custom buttons to improve how I manually log several health metrics. I use a manual scale still. But with a quick tap on my Apple Watch or on my iPhone Dashboard, I can log my weight to Apple Health. I can also log my Oxygen Saturation, Blood Pressure or my temperature.

One of the most common actions I use Workflow to do is to manually log certain workouts. In particular I use it to log my Mobility Training Sessions. These are short stretching, strength, and movement patterns I use to take care of my body. While I probably don’t need to log them, I decided I wanted to have a way to remember how much time I was putting into my mobility work each week. That’s why I log them into Apple Health where I can then check my aggregate stats.

With Workflow you can easily create a simple workflow to log any kind of fitness activity. Creating a Custom Workflow in Workflow on iOS is quite simple. The easiest way is to clone an existing one for workouts and modify the text and workout type logged. So if you wanted to create a way to log your pilates or yoga, just clone an existing workout logger workflow and modify the target sport or activity.

The end result is a simple three tap method to log your custom workout sessions: tap the button, enter your duration and save. Your workout is saved with the start and finish time and activity.

Checkout this post for more on Workflow and Workout Tracking on iOS.

Conclusion: Don’t Just Track, Be Data-Driven in Your Health and Fitness

To put things in perspective, here are the tools I currently use to track and manage my fitness: HRV4Training, Apple Watch + Strava, TrainAsOne, and Fitbod. Each morning I use HRV4Training to check my Heart Rate Variability, a metric to gauge my stress level and how I’m responding to my workouts and life in general. I wear an Apple Watch 2, and I track my runs with the Strava App. I’m mostly a runner, but I also manage and log my strength exercises with Fitbod. Finally I share all of my workout data (GPS, pace, distance, heart rate, etc.) to TrainAsOne, which provides personalized run training.

In this post we took a deep dive in how to track your workouts. Since I’m an Apple user, the examples I provided were biased towards that platform. Fortunately, most, if not all, of these apps are also available on Android too.

There are two main approaches to tracking and logging your workouts: 1. basic workout log with general info (what, when, how long), and 2. specific fitness tracking with targeted metrics (heart rate, locational data, cadence, etc).

To the question, “How to Track My Workouts?”, the short answer is use the best-in-class app or wearable for your target sport. I shared examples from several major fitness activities.

When you start tracking, whether it’s fitness or productivity, my advice is to keep things simple and be consistent. The primary goal is to do your workouts, stay active, and build a habit out of physical fitness.

Your secondary goal should be to create a habit out of logging and tracking your workouts. Build tracking as a supplemental habit to your fitness habit. Personally I find tracking it helps support my fitness too.

It’s easy to become overly focused on the data we can collect and the how-to for tracking for tracking your fitness and workouts. But as I like to repeat, it’s not really about the tracking or the data; it’s about engaging with the data and using it.

Ideally one day most tracking can be done passively. For now workout logging is a pretty seamless form of manual tracking. For now tracking itself is just the work needed to go beyond tracking and become data-driven.

As you can see from my specific usage, one of the biggest opportunities once you’ve managed to track your workouts is data-driven personalization and optimization. Basically you use tracked data to create a personalized fitness plan.

Through a combination of tracking data and machine learning technology, I’m seeing more and more tools that turn data into action. Your fitness data is leveraged to to create a research-backed, highly targeted, and highly personalized fitness plan for you. In my case using TrainAsOne, I’ve noticed consistent improvements in my running, while avoiding injuries, by following my tailored program and adjusted workouts. All of this is only possible by tracking your workouts.

Hopefully this post provided a good intro to how to track your workouts. Share a comment if I missed a tool that should be included.

Obviously you have to track your workouts to get to the data-driven stage of health and fitness. But once you do start consistent tracking, it’s amazing just what you can do with that data. Not only can you become more accountable for the workouts (your logs don’t lie!), but your actual training can be more efficient and more optimal. You can avoid injuries and improve results. You can workout less but still make incredible improvements.

Through the power of tracking and technology, you can reach not just a better and fitter you but an optimal you!

Best of luck and happy tracking!