The Athlete’s Guide to Tracking

Mackenzie Lobby Havey
by Mackenzie Lobby Havey
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The Athlete’s Guide to Tracking

From elites to weekend warriors, wearable fitness technology and other gadgets and gizmos have become an integral part of training and fitness. In particular, activity trackers have risen to the top in terms of popularity. They can analyze your golf swing, track your steps, count swim strokes, and evaluate your sleep patterns. Indeed, if you choose the right device based on your particular training goals these tools can help you in your path, though they aren’t without limitation.

With plenty of research to back up the use of tracking your training, it is no wonder the technology has gained such a foothold in the sports and fitness world. In addition to providing data based on workouts, it can also help an athlete stay motivated and modify training to best meet goals. Where these devices can fall short is when it comes to extracting meaningful insights from the data they capture. Most devices don’t have the capability to provide personalized recommendations on how to improve. In understanding what these devices are capable of, you’ll be better able to make an informed purchasing decision when sifting through the wide variety of activity tracking options.

The Benefits of Using a Fitness Tracker

When it comes down to it, fitness trackers are largely about accountability. Research backs up the fact that seeing cold, hard numbers after a workout can be undeniably motivating. One study demonstrated that using a pedometer, the precursor to today’s activity trackers, was more effective in inspiring participants to exercise beyond simple goal setting alone. While setting your sights on a long-term goal is still important, the tracking of daily activity can help you stay on the right path from one day to the next.

To be sure, these types of devices have been identified as an important tool in fighting the war on obesity. In the same way, athletes looking to take their games to the next level often rely on the data offered by activity trackers to keep them motivated through training. Like a checklist, looking back at the numbers offered by such devices give a sense of satisfaction and motivation.

Similarly, research has also shown that tracking the food you eat can assist in establishing healthy eating habits and weight loss. Since many activity trackers have an accompanying smartphone app integration that allows you to keep a food log, this serves as an important feature for athletes looking to shed pounds. With a growing body of literature that suggests proper nutrition may trump exercise when it comes to achieving and maintaining your optimal weight, the importance of diet tracking shouldn’t be underestimated.

Another feature that many of the newest crop of activity trackers have is sleep tracking. By analyzing the amount of sleep you’re getting and the quality of that rest, athletes are offered a new window into the world of recovery. This data is particularly notable to those committed to an intense training program because they are likely to need more sleep than the Average Joe if they hope to bounce back from one workout to the next.

An additional benefit an athlete can garner through the use of an activity tracker: access to their online communities. While you don’t need to utilize these features, studies have shown that online social support can help keep a person committed to a workout routine. Perhaps it’s a simple electronic thumbs up from a friend in response to a bike ride you just posted or a personal best that’s been advertised on social media via your device’s accompanying smartphone app. There’s just something motivating about having a community watching and supporting your goals.

Identifying Your Goals

Establishing your long-term goals is the first step in figuring out which activity tracker will best suit your needs. One of the best ways to approach this process is by establishing S.M.A.R.T. Goals, which will help define that finish line down the road:

  • Specific: The objective of training should have a specific end game, whether it is scoring a personal best in the marathon or setting a new record in the weight room. This should include everything from the time and place you want to achieve this goal to who else might be involved in the process. By being unambiguous, you’re less likely to let yourself off the hook when it comes to training.
  • Measurable: Whatever your goals may be, they should remain measurable so you can monitor your progress throughout training. This also allows you the chance to celebrate when you reach or surpass that initial goal.
  • Attainable: If you’re coming back from a long layoff after an injury, setting a goal to run your fastest 5K the next week probably doesn’t make sense. Consider the circumstances when coming up with your goals, rather than setting yourself up for disappointment.
  • Realistic: Be sure to set your goals sufficiently high so you’re motivated to chase them, but also be realistic about the time and effort you can put in to reach them. This is all about looking at the bigger picture and setting your sights on an achievable outcome.
  • Timely: If there’s no clock running on reaching that end goal, you’ll be hard pressed to stay inspired to work towards it. By setting a deadline, you’ll be more likely to persist through training.

What to Look for in a Tracker

Once you’ve got a firm grasp on the goals you hope to accomplish, you should consider the various features that activity trackers offer. While some are more basic with step count and calorie burn, others employ more elite options to give you important feedback on your progress in training.

If you’re hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon, for instance, you may want to choose a tracker that includes heart rate. If you’re looking to improve your golf game, however, you should seek out swing analytics. Or if you’re interested in improving your vertical jump, identify a tracker that can measure height and air time via an accelerometer. Or if it’s simply about increasing your daily activity, a tracker with step count and distance will suffice. Keep in mind, most of these devices are able to show you the data for these discrete topics but aren’t capable of personalized insights to inform you of what to do to improve.

Here are some of the most common features in activity trackers that you should keep an eye out for:

  • Step count: This is the most basic construct included in most activity trackers. For athletes, it can be a handy bit of information regarding non-training related exercise.
  • Sleep: Many of today’s devices can sense movement while you’re sleeping to offer numbers on how long you’ve slept, as well as how soundly.
  • Heart rate: Whether it is a wrist monitor or a chest strap, heart rate numbers can be important for a wide variety of training objectives.
  • Food log: A device that includes a linked app that keeps track of your daily nutritional intake means that it will do the work for you when it comes to crunching calories burned vs. calories consumed.
  • Distance/pace: This is an important feature for swimming, biking, running and walking. Check into whether the tracker has separate features for each in order to get an accurate read on things like distance, pace and speed.
  • Gait analytics: Many of the newest trackers include a built-in accelerometer that can track your running gait to give you numbers on your cadence and how much time you spend in the air with each step.


Wearable fitness technology is proven to help athletes meet their goals by providing motivation and accountability and giving visibility to actual performance within a discrete area (like activity level). However, most trackers fall short in giving personalized insights that help you determine how to improve. To make the most of trackers today, know your goals and choose the tracker best suited to keep you accountable in meeting that goal.

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About the Author

Mackenzie Lobby Havey
Mackenzie Lobby Havey

Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance journalist and coach based in Minneapolis. She contributes to a variety of magazines and websites including,,, Runner’s World and Triathlete Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in Kinesiology from the University of Minnesota, and is a USA Track and Field certified coach. She has run 14 marathons and is currently training for her first IRONMAN. When she’s not writing, she’s out biking, running, and cross-country skiing around the city lakes with her dog.


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