A Simple Secret to Improve Your Running (Or Anything Else)

A Simple secretWhat if I told you there’s a nearly free, fairly simple way to become a better runner (or swimmer, or biker, or whatever it is you want to improve)?

Good news: It exists.

Even better, it’s not only helped people improve their athletic performance, it’s also helped them lose weight and become healthier.

So what is this magic weapon?

It’s data.

I’ve written before about how research has shown that tracking performance helps people to improve it. In fact, many more athletes perform at high levels today than in the past, in part because we are now able to track much more data at a deeper level of detail to better understand the conditions that foster success.

Now, just like there’s no magic pill for weight loss, data by itself will not lead to improvements.  What makes data effective at improving performance is using it to make changes; you have to close the feedback loop. In terms of running, which is the sport I’m most familiar with, here are some ways to make use of your data:

  • Switch it up. Running the same route, distance, and pace over and over is no way to improve. If your data suggests you’re a creature of extreme habit, make an effort to mix it up by choosing shorter and longer routes, or different routes that offer a change in terrain.
  • Monitor in the moment. Once you have a good sense of what your typical pace is, you can keep track of your performance while you’re still running and adjust for improvement. I know about how many minutes it typically takes me to reach certain landmarks on my running routes, and if I am going significantly slower it’s a sign to pick up the pace. Conversely, you may need to slow down if you’ve gone out too fast. When I ran my marathon, I used my 10k splits to gauge whether I was keeping to my planned pace, designed to keep me from losing gas in the final miles.
  • Plan for the future based on the past.  My historical running data helps me gauge what training plans are realistic given the time of year (both weather-wise and race-wise). It also helps me judge where I can make improvements. For example, I know that my mileage drops when the temperature goes below a certain threshold, so that’s a good time to plan ahead for indoor workouts.
  • Maintain motivation. I’ve alluded to the frustration of becoming a more experienced runner, because it means that improvements are smaller and harder to come by. My running data helps keep this frustration in check by reminding me of my overall progress. I may not be much faster than I was a year ago, but I can look back four or five years and be amazed. I have also had the experience of finishing a run that felt slow and difficult, only to see in my data that I was running the same or even a faster pace on that route than I had in the past. In this case, data reassures me not to give up and to keep working for gains.

Do you track your running or other physical activity data? What do you use to do it? And how do you close the feedback loop and use the data?