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Thoughts on training logs from a data nerd

Keeping a record of your training can be a helpful accountability tool or a powerful motivator when you look back at how you've progressed over time.

While both of those things are true for me, I'm also in it for the data viz. And, as I've evolved over time as a runner, the metrics and visuals I find useful have also changed. Here's a little history of my running data tracking...

Phase 1: What data?

I started running in middle school, which lands us around 2001. GPS watches and smartphones were not a thing; I didn't even have a watch until I went to France in 2005 and bought myself a Swatch...I was very cool. So, throughout middle and high school track and cross country, I had whatever numbers my coaches shared with me from their stopwatches. I never really even had a good grasp of how long our training runs were and definitely no idea on pace. This blissful ignorance lasted through college, where I ran sporadically and without much dedication.

Phase 2: Garmin Connect

Garmin Forerunner 10 (L) and Forerunner 235 (R)

My first run with a GPS watch was on Aug 3, 2014. I can be so precise thanks to the never-ending data log that is Garmin Connect. It tells me that I ran 4 miles at an average pace of 9:43 per mile in 79 degree weather in Madison, WI. I had a super-slow-to-connect Forerunner 10 and I wish I had a screenshot of what Garmin Connect looked like back then. I certainly don't recall being very focused on numbers at that point, or having any structure to my training. Post-college I ran a couple 10ks but mostly just ran around for fun; total miles was really my only metric of interest. Clearly, data nerdom hadn't yet begun, but, thanks to my later self, I do have a picture of the watch from 2016, when I was training for my first marathon (on the left - I was comparing splits 10.5 months apart - and the watch on the right is my second Garmin, the Forerunner 235).

Phase 3: Written Marathon Log

I eventually upgraded my Garmin when I got tired of waiting 5 minutes for the little Forerunner 10 to find a GPS signal. RIP, little 10. However, when I started training for my first marathon in the summer of 2016, I decided to also create a manual log. I did this mainly for personal accountability purposes. I decided that I would pre-make the decision to get out the door for each run (instead of debating it with myself each morning) and that I'd log the run length in a notebook after completing each one. I drew out the monthly calendars by hand and eventually filled the entire notebook. I mostly loved seeing the weekly totals get bigger and bigger as marathon training went on, added very basic notes on workout types, and had some sort of red dot code (what for? shoes? an eternal mystery...).

Handwritten training log from 2016

Phase 4: Strava and Final Surge aka Data Party

Splits from a recent long run on Strava

I kept up the written training log until April 2019, when I gave birth to my kiddo. I had a long, slow come back after that (story for another day!) and when I finally got back to it, I went all in on a Strava subscription and a Garmin 245 Music (a bit of a treat yourself moment).

Honestly, I love Strava. I love its data viz and its challenges and adding pictures to my runs. But, it did take me awhile to sort through the noise of metrics on the app (I'm mostly an app, not desktop, user). These days, I mostly focus on the Workout Analysis and Splits sections. I want a general overview of pace and heart rate, and this gives me what I want. I love to see a perfectly progressive run in the Splits bar chart, and appreciate the average pace line in the Workout Analysis graph. When I program a workout or intervals into my Garmin, these show up as separate segments on Strava and I'm a happy camper (Garmin integrating and directly pushing runs to both Strava and Final Surge is amazing). And for tracking consistency over weeks and months, nothing beats the satisfaction of consistent Strava bubbles on the Training Log page (below!).

The "Strava bubbles"

When I started working with a coach one on one in 2022, I gained yet another place for numbers, Final Surge. As opposed to Strava, I'm more of a desktop user on Final Surge because it's easier to see the various parallel graphs. I love playing around with these and go a bit more into the metrics than I do on Strava - average pace, max pace, average and max heart rate, and cadence. I particularly like the ability to see how pace fluctuates during faster intervals and where I need to work on smoothing it out.

Data from a recent run on Final Surge

Phase 5: Yes, there's more. Return of the manual log.

If you follow Grayson Murphy, you know that she creates and sells an annual training log. And this year, I couldn't help myself. Digital training logs can't compete with the sense of accomplishment and reflection I get from maintaining a written log. I also like the Life section for each day, along with blank monthly graph sections to fill in with whatever data you choose.

A week in the Racing Grayson log

Now, do I use all these logs and metrics everyday? No. That'd be a big much. But I do try to do my manual log each day, I briefly review Strava after each run, and I check in on Final Surge after big workouts. And once a year I typically export my Garmin data so I can play with my own visualizations in Tableau or Looker. For the data-inclined runner, there's no end to the fun.

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