Why use Fitness Trackers? Does it help your training? What is the best one for me?
Fitness trackers range from simple to sophisticated with price points to match every budget. Their primary purpose is to help with workouts. Most will have a timer feature that lets you set the alarm for a particular interval or use a stopwatch to track your session. Many trackers will also allow you to specify your workout activity, such as walking, running, swimming, hiking or bike riding. There are a lot of models out there, and choosing the right device for you can be overwhelming. This article aims to give you a starting point for your research.
Start by defining your goals, what you want to do with the tracker: Set a daily step goal? Track the distance of your runs, bike rides, swims, hikes or gym workouts? Perhaps you are interested in your recovery and want to track your sleep? Plan and navigate routes? Keep yourself accountable and motivate yourself to keep moving? Your desired use will determine what kind of wearable is suitable for you.
FROM BASIC TO ADVANCED FITNESS TRACKING
If the only thing you want is to track routes, average pace and length, or walk, run or bike ride, you can do it with your phone. Sports Tracker app works brilliantly for this purpose. Or you could buy a low-end tracker that tracks your steps and sleep, such as Garmin VivoFit 4, at around $100.
If you want to go beyond basics, look for a device that comes with the following features:
- Heart rate monitor: This is a feature that will give better insight into your fitness. That’s because adding heart-rate data gives you a more holistic look into your body, both awake and sleeping. These days, most fitness trackers do wrist-based heart rate measurement, although many also offer an add-on chest strap heart-rate monitor. Your resting heart rate can give you an indication of your fitness. Generally, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness.
- Decent battery life: A fitness tracker needs to last at least two days on a charge. Nothing is more annoying than a dead battery half-way through a long hike. Oh well, maybe the bugs.
- Smartwatches with GPS track and map your routes and use them to calculate your pace and speed. You can also plan and program a workout: say you want to run 4 X 1k intervals with one-minute rest. Your watch will alert when you need to start and stop.
- If you plan to use your watch for swimming, it is crucial to choose a waterproof device (most of them are). You can choose a multisport device, such as Garmin 945 or a swimming specific watch that can track your distance, strokes, and pace, has features for logging drills and timed sets, and detects what stroke you are doing.
- Most devices also report your heart rate variability (HRV), the time between each heartbeat in milliseconds. Measuring your HRV is one of the best ways to know if your body is stressed. A normal, healthy heart does not tick evenly, but there is constant variation. Heart rate variability is a measure of the flexibility of the nervous system: when you over-train, your nervous system becomes fatigued and less flexible, and you don’t recover. Generally speaking, the higher your HRV, the better. If you’re well-rested and haven’t been training excessively, your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system co-operates with your sympathetic (fight and flight) nervous system giving you nice, consistent, and high HRV values.
- Sleep tracking: You can learn how well or poorly you snooze through the sleep analysis. The device takes into account not only the time when you crawl into bed and wake-up, but changes in your heart rate; your heart rate data is more erratic in REM sleep and lower in non-REM sleep, for example. It also observes changes in your heart rate variability (see above) and movement spotted by the accelerometer.
- Connectivity: The watch alerts you to phone calls, notifications, and alarms from your smartphone. You will see your stats and fitness progress neatly organized on your phone app. You can also connect your device to automatically sync your outdoor workout to Strava to track your favourite performance stats, and afterwards, dive deep into your data. Strava also acts as a social network, where your friends and followers can give you kudos and comments. Maybe that’s just the extra boost you needed to complete that gruelling workout!
- NOT so useful: most of these fitness trackers also provide you an estimate of calories burned. In my opinion, this is one of the most useless features of a fitness tracking device. The device uses your information, such as height and weight, and estimated metabolic rate, and plugs it into an algorithm that varies from company to company. In my experience, the accuracy of these estimates is questionable. And honestly, you don’t need to know. Focus on the quality of your calories, not the quantity. Learn to listen to the cues of your body and eat when you are hungry. If you were not able to sustain energy during the workout, try a different fueling strategy. Rant over.
- Extra features, such as altimeters, preloaded maps, advanced metrics, solar charging and music storage, can come at a premium.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT DEVICE FOR YOU
Pick the features you want and need, rather than a brand. Then decide how much you want to spend. There is an endless amount of products in the market at various price points. Higher-end watches can provide you with much more data about what you’re doing, and last much longer on a charge. There are specialized models for runners, triathletes, golfers, endurance athletes, and those who go hiking and skiing. The most popular fitness tracker and sport watch brands are Fitbit, Apple, Samsung, Garmin and Suunto. There is also a range of incredibly impressive devices designed for sleep tracking and recovery optimization, such as Whoop wristband and Oura ring. Learn more about these sleep and recovery optimization wearables here. Garmin’s Body Battery feature is very similar to the Whoop and Oura ring’s training readiness metrics.
For an in-depth look at the features between various GPS watch models, I found this comparison chart from DC Rainmaker extremely helpful. Select product type (watch/activity tracker), then product use (run/bike/swim/tri/hike) and price range (budget/moderate/high-end) to compare products.
If anybody is wondering: After a heated internal debate between Garmin and my home country brand Suunto, I went with Garmin fēnix® 6. The recent Garmin Ransomware attack worried me a bit, but they now have it under control.
Do you need one of these fitness trackers to crush your goals? Absolutely not. You can train by feel and perceived exertion. The best, most sophisticated equipment we have is our own body. Some of the world’s best athletes trained and competed before any of these devices existed. There is no hardware or software in the world that I consider more important than my mind-body connection. However, if you are very committed to working out and improving your performance and want some help in interpreting how your body feels and are really into numbers, these devices can help.
Regardless of whether your device is a budget-friendly or a high-end model, it does not tell you what to do. Your device will give you useful statistics on your recovery, fitness, and workouts, but don’t give you a strategy to change it. If you want to run a faster 10K or finish your first triathlon, you still need a tailored training program to get there. Achieving your goals is not just about training hard, but also training and recovering smart!
Fitness Science is an authorized Garmin dealer. We are happy to help you source a Garmin device (not limited to models you find in our store). We can also help you analyze your data and program your workouts.