How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are? While this seems like a simple question, it’s amazing how many people start out on a fitness regimen without a clear idea of how they’re going to track their body changes. For most people, they are going to rely upon nothing more than the number they get when they stand on a scale: body-weight. Worst number for fitness tracking ever.
The reason your weight is a bad number to track is because it fluctuates according a lot of variables; your fat stores, your muscle content, how much water you retain (which is, in turn, affected by factors like salt in your diet), hormone levels, and so on. People end up freaking out and losing hope because after three weeks of steady downward numbers on the scale, they’re faced with a three to five pound uptick. They instantly feel like all their work has been wiped out, and start to wonder why they’re wasting their time. Of course, they’re not wasting their time at all. The uptick was progress, but they didn’t recognize it. So what’s the solution? That’s pretty easy, measure your fitness, not your fatness.
When I started losing weight a few months ago, I wanted to have something concrete beyond the scale to work with. I knew that, in the past, relying solely upon the scale to track your fitness just doesn’t work. Losing weight can be bad, because you can be losing muscle, not fat. Similarly, gaining weight can be good, because you can gain muscle at the expense of fat. ‘ve heard more than a few people say that what they find frustrating about running is that they decide to be a runner. So they go out, they run a few times a week, but the instant they miss a day, they feel like a failure. The problem is not that they “failed,” per se, it’s that they didn’t do three things: benchmark themselves, set goals, and measure progress. So how do you do that, exactly? And what other things can you track that will give you a real idea of what your body is actually doing?
Step 1: Benchmark yourself
Let’s say you want to lose weight and get fit by running. Well, the first thing you can do requires only a map or a computer (which you probably have, if you’re reading this), and a watch.
The first thing you want to establish is where you’re at: this will be helpful later on. So you start off by figuring out a distance you want to run, and then determine how long it takes you to do it. So if you map out a 5k running route in your neighbourhood (using, for example, www.mapmyrun.com), you’ll then go out and run the route. Don’t worry about running the whole thing; simply get out there, walk 5 mins to warm up, and jog until you need to stop. Don’t overdo it; just do it until you feel like it’s too tough, then go back to walking. Walk until you’ve cooled down, and give it a run again. Repeat this process until you’ve finished the run. Now when you’ve finished the run, at the end of 5k, write the time down of when you’ve finished.
The time it took you from start to finish, regardless of how much walking you did, is your benchmark. Let’s say it was 45mins, 31 seconds, start to finish. That’s your benchmark. Now you know where you are.
Step 2: Set some goals
Now you need to figure out where you’re going. If it took you 45 mins and 31 seconds to run 5k, you can get a couple figures from that:
- Benchmark: Total Time: 45:31
- Benchmark: Average Pace: 9:06mins/km
- Benchmark: Average Speed: 6.59km/h
You can find a good calculator right here for these figures if you’re math-challenged like me.
So based on those figures, it’s easy to establish a couple goals. Let’s establish some goals just based on those numbers:
- Major Goal: 5k Run-time of 30:00mins
- Major Goal: Average pace of 6:00min/km
- Major Goal: Average speed of 10km/h
Now we set a milestone date for when we want to achieve those goals:
- Milestone: 12 weeks from start
What does that allow us to do? It gives us a 12-week timeline to achieve those goals,and it lets us break those goals into manageable chunks. In order to meet those goals, we’d need to see changes of each figure, as follows, in each of the weeks of our 12-week timeline.
- Weekly Goal: Total time decrease: 1min, 17s.
- Weekly Goal: Pace increase: +0:16min/km
- Weekly Goal: Speed increase: +.29km/h
So a big jump in overall performance becomes, let’s face it, not a huge jump over 12 weeks, at least when you’re starting out. I mean, chances are, you can improve on last week’s time by just over a minute, right? You’d just have to push a bit harder for a bit longer. That might just end up being running for 20s longer before you walk, six times throughout a run. That’s not bad at all!
All that being said, I wouldn’t worry too much about these sort of numbers, unless you’re a data hound like me. Setting major goal and a timeline to achieve that goal is probably enough.
Step 3: Measure your progress
So now that you have your benchmark and your goals, all you need to do is keep up the exercise and record your progress. Do this for every workout session, even if it’s just your start time and end time, as having this data collected somewhere will allow you to compare the time it takes you to run the same distance over time.
Next, mark some dates on your calendar: in the example above, the end of week 3 (25% of goal), week 6 (50% of goal), week 9 (75% of goal), and week 12 (100% of goal). These are your progress dates. On these days, you look at your data closely and see how you’re progressing. You may be overperforming, and meeting your goals much sooner than expected. You might be underperforming, and meeting your goals may be unrealistic. In either case, it is important to adapt your plan.
If you’re on track or exceeding your goals, seeing your progress can be a boost. If you’re behind on your goals, seeing your progress can be a bummer. What many people fail to do at this point is adapt: if you’re overperforming, you may need to change your goals to keep yourself challenged (safely! don’t injure yourself). If you’re underperforming, you may need to extend your plan over a longer period, or you may need to change your approach to increase your challenge.
By using your data, and adjusting to what the data tells you, you’ll be able to measure your progress, predict performance, and make adjustments. And if you are flexible with goals, you can build a resilient plan; one that takes into account unexpected events and things you can’t control (remember, the Progression Principle applies). Suddenly, you’ll begin to be able to see your progress as it happens. It won’t be theoretical. There’s no greater feeling that doing the same old run, feeling discouraged, and then reviewing your data and discovering you actually ran the same distance two minutes faster than last time, even though it felt exactly the same! Your brain is not necessarily accurate in its estimations, so when in doubt, turn to science!
This sort of setup may seem obvious, especially if you have a history as an athlete. But if that’s not your background, it might be new to you. If so, that’s awesome! You’ve learned a new skill! Congrats!
Common pieces of data you can use to track your fitness besides your weight:
|Cardio||Max Heart Rate*|
|Strength||Max bench press*|
|Endurance||Average heart rate|
|Endurance||Heart Rate Recovery|
|Body Weight||Hip circumference|
|Body Weight||Waist circumference|
|Body Weight||Body Fat %|
*Use these measures with caution if you’re out of shape or inexperienced. Get somebody who is fit — like a personal trainer or a knowledgable friend — to help you establish these. It’s easy to injure yourself otherwise.
In another post, I’ll talk about some of the gear and tools I use to track different data. You’d be surprised at just how many options there are, and just how much data you can gather about yourself in a short amount of time!
Thanks for reading, and stay healthy.