In this day and age, we are surrounded with various bits and pieces of technology that promise to improve our fitness. This can range from the very cheap to the very expensive, with everything in between. In this article, I take a look at some of these pieces of technology that you can use to improve your training performance.
What are you trying to measure?
First up, let’s consider what we want to measure. This is important, because it will impact what bit of equipment we use. Essentially, I think that we can separate training technology into two categories; those that tell us how we’re training, and those that tell us how we’re recovering. If we can get good information from bits of kit that sit in those categories, we’ll be well on our way to making improvements.
So, how do we measure how we’re training? Obviously, that depends on what type of training we’re doing. If we’re just getting into things, this might be walking, it which case a very basic activity tracker might be useful to count our steps. There are loads of different types of these trackers; I happen to use the Apple Watch, which tells me how many calories I’ve burned through exercise (although I’m not convinced how accurate this is), and, through my phone, how many steps I’ve taken (it also reminds me to stand up every hour, which can be both useful and annoying). However, if I’m a bit more advanced in my training, knowing how many steps I take per day isn’t all that useful. Instead, I might want information on how far I’ve run, together with my pace and heart rate. This can be useful for a number of reasons; I can use my running pace to monitor my effort and fitness - I know, for example, that on a long run I need to sustain around seven minutes per kilometre, so getting constant feedback as to whether I’m hitting that is handy. The fitter I get, the easier seven minutes per km becomes, and I can measure this by looking at my heart rate; typically, the lower this is, the easier the exercise is. If my heart rate is at 160 beats per minute (bpm) at my running pace in January, but then in June it’s down to 140 bpm, I know that I’ve improved, and can therefore increase my running pace. To do this, I use a heart rate monitor attached to a chest strap (I use the Polar H7, but there are hundreds if not thousands of different models available), which I sync to an app on my phone (in my case, Polar Beat), which gives me the data I need to monitor, both whilst I’m running and afterwards.
But what if you’re not into running?
Well, there are plenty of other technologies out there to use. If you lift weights, you might want to track the speed of the bar; this can be useful because from this you can understand how much power you’re producing, and can use weights that best maximise this power. When I was an athlete, we used something called the Tendo machine, which was a mat with a bit of string that you attached to the bar, which itself was attached to a processing unit. The faster the string moved, the faster you were lifting the bar, and from this you could understand your power profiles. Today, there are cheaper and smaller alternatives available, such as the Form Collar.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
You can also use technology to assess your readiness to train, by which I mean how recovered you are. A common way to do this to measure something called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the variation in time between heart beats. Usually (but not always) a higher HRV scores indicates good recovery and readiness to train, whilst a lower HRV score indicates higher levels of fatigue. You can use this to see how hard you should train on a given day; if your scores are trending upwards, then intense training might be best; trending downwards and an easier, low intensity training day is called for – this type of training has been shown to improve performance in endurance athletes. You can measure HRV using iPhone apps that are actually pretty accurate; I use HRV4Training. Another measure often used for readiness to train is that of the Counter Movement Jump (CMJ), which when used as a monitoring tool can measure neuromuscular and physiological fatigue. If your CMJ scores are lower than normal, then you’re likely fatigued, and should choose an easier session. Again, as an athlete this involved the use of expensive equipment called force plates, but once again you can now use an iPhone app called MyJump that will measure your jump height for you.
Finally, it might be useful to use video reviews to make sure that your technique is optimal for your sport. This can be worthwhile for a number of reasons; poor technique can lead to reduced performance or injury. You used to need high speed cameras and expensive software to do this, although today there are a number of tablet and phone apps that can capture your movements and allow slow motion feedback, including Hudl.
Is it a MUST have?
Given all I’ve just written, you might think that all these technology is essential, when really it isn’t. A recent review article from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that subjective, self-reported measures of recovery are often better than technological objective measures at determining recovery status. This indicates that keeping a training log of how you’re feeling – and paying attention to those feelings – can be just as effective, if not more than, all the recovery-based technology available.
So there you have it – my quick, brief overview of all various bits of technology available to everyday athletes to monitor training and recovery. None of these are essential, but some of them may help you to make better informed decisions. The good news is that if you don’t want to use any of them, you don’t have to – just asking yourself how tired you feel can be just as effective.
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