I Switched To Garmin And Learnt About Data Analytics

When I first started running in 2017, I relied on a Samsung app in my phone to track my runs. Over time, I come to realise that if I want to be serious about improving my running form, I need more data to look and analyze my running activities.

It was with that idea in mind that I decided to get a Fitbit smartwatch. One that doubles up as a tracker and a watch, amongst other functions. After all, if I need a wearable that can record heart rate data and all other data during running, I might as well get one I can wear and use for other purposes.

Fitbit Blaze is my first wearable. I should have seen it coming. Once I started wearing it, my watches went into cold storage. I looked at the data frequently. And I started fretting over what I saw from the data. Like, why is my resting heart rate rising; why is my running pace not improving despite trying out various strategies? The data yielded good insights which I use to fine-tune my running strategy over time.

I replaced Blaze with Fitbit Charge 3 two years later because the contact points had worn off. Charge 3 was easy to use, and it was light. It also had a watch and alarm function. That was all I needed from a wearable. No need for colourful displays or AMOLED screens. And I can still access my data using the same app.

But this year marks a new milestone in my relationship with wearables. I finally decided to get what many running enthusiasts wrote fondly of – a Garmin Forerunner. Apparently a Garmin Forerunner model is what runners will get if they wish to improve their techniques.


Being Data Rich

There is nothing wrong with Fitbit products. They worked well for me over the past years. The Fitbit app is easy to use too. Its ecosystem is fairly established. Many health and running apps sync to Fitbit easily. I am sure Google will develop Fitbit further once it has sorted through all the acquisition issues and details.

What I notice about Garmin is how much more details it collects from the user. The Forerunner is designed for runners, and aimed at getting data to help runners understand their current form. The best part is, Garmin reports the data back to you at no additional cost. Yes, free of charge. That is unlike Fitbit, where you have to subscribe to its premium service if you want additional data, such as sleep score analysis and a health metrics dashboard.

If I do not own a Garmin, I wouldn’t know what I am missing. Having a Garmin monitor my sleep pattern helps me to drill deeper into how I can improve my sleep quality, for example. Pulse Ox is a handy measure that shows whether I have underlying respiratory issues. Garmin also has this function to alert me if I have abnormal heart rate patterns.

An example of sleep data from Garmin that shows more than sleep duration and sleep stages. Garmin tracks your respiration, pulse Ox and movement too.

Another nifty widget I like is body battery. This widget tells you how much you recharged from sleep and hence how much energy you will have at the start of the day. Garmin will also suggest if you should engage in fitness activities for the day, based on your battery reading. The data here is useful in showing the relationship between sleep and energy.

This widget uses heart rate variability, sleep quality, stress and activity to estimate the energy level for that day.

Fitness Data Is The Gem

But I digressed. My aim of getting a Garmin is to utilize its technology to improve my running form. There is a wealth of data Garmin collects and analyzes for your digestion. The screenshot below is one example. Garmin tells me, based on my exercise frequency, heart rate and respiration patterns whether the training sessions have been helping.

Garmin shows your training status once you have at least a week of exercise data. This is useful in understanding your overall training and how it impacts your fitness.

If you notice from this graph, not all training has benefitted me. Linking this chart with the training activities I did during the same period, I conclude that I need to be intentional when to schedule my 2 runs in a week. If I don’t schedule those runs, I will get an alert to say that I am not keeping my form. It also tells me that I may need to schedule in another training activity of a different form to shape my fitness level.

To derive such analysis, Garmin collects a detailed dataset for every activity you engage in. Besides duration, heart rate and pace, which Fitbit collects too, Garmin collects additional data such as speed, cadence, elevation and calorie consumption. From these data categories, Garmin will calculate the training effect (whether the training is aerobic or anaerobic) and your performance condition during the activity.

The benefit of using Garmin goes beyond statistics. For one, Garmin tells you whether you are recovering well after an exercise. It also uses your data and probably that of others (probably with similar profiles and/or fitness levels) to recommend what you should do for any day. While this function is useful, I sometimes choose to dismiss the recommended workout and do a long distance run, simply because I feel I need that.

The last thing I like about Garmin: rather than capturing and analyzing your data, Garmin goes beyond to predictive analysis. It suggests the kind of timing you can reach when running in a race. This is useful for me, for it shows the possibilities I can achieve. I suspect though that these predictions may only be possible if I take up the recommended training plans or workouts available in its app.

An example of possible timings under race conditions. Garmin adjusts the predictions based on your most recent exercise data.

The Usefulness Of Data Analytics

Since getting the Forerunner 245M, I have come to depend on the advice it gives to adjust my training. I am also more conscious of my health data, in particular the level of body battery and stress level. My fitness level and ultimately my performance in a run depends on nutrition, stress and sleep management. I realise that being aware is a step towards caring for my well-being in the course of a day.

At the same time, I also discover the danger of relying on data. If I am too focused on what the numbers show, I may run into the danger of losing the joy of running. Hence there are some settings I will turn off during my runs, such as the vibration mode and reducing the number of data screens shown. I also turn off notifications to avoid getting distracted during my runs.

So it is the same at work. Focus on data to obtain insights to what needs to be improved. In doing so, avoid being too fixated with the trees that you fail to see the forest. The information you can gleam from data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it. And sometimes, even if you have a certain recommendation or prediction suggested from the data, give yourself the leeway to overwrite that if your experience tells you that there may be a better way.

This is my first encounter with a product that allows a user to use data analytics in different ways, depending on your comfort level. There are other functions embedded within the Forerunner 245M which I have not tapped. One of them is the logging of heart rate variability, which I suspect is a stronger factor in determining your fitness level.

Have you used any wearables to help you keep tab on your fitness level? What tools help you to keep track of your health and fitness data?

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