When you’re out riding or running with a group, it is almost rare these days to see someone without a GPS on their wrist or handlebar. The GPS tracking movement is huge and not only just for looking at your route when you get home, but for analyzing data real time.
Take your average Garmin (arguably the most popular brand for GPS fitness tracking devices). These watches and bike computers can show you literally hundreds of data points at any given moment. The funny part though is how few of them people actually use. Some will simply buy these expensive devices just to upload their route to a website like Strava. Often times, you’ll see someone who has all of the factory settings still showing fairly irrelevant data for a given moment while riding. These powerful tools are commonly left underutilized.
Now, of course there are folks that don’t want data while they run and ride. They just want to enjoy themselves and will check things out after they finish up. But for most people, I think the quality and enjoyment of your ride could be increased with a few customizations to the screens on your watch or computer.
Having used a GPS in some form for 5 years while training, I’ve honed my settings again and again, trying to find the perfect setup for getting useful data at a quick glance. Below is what I look at and why.
Admittedly, I don’t run much. I recently ran significantly more than usual and that got me thinking on this subject and refining my approach a bit. But really, this is far less refined than my riding. I use a Garmin Forerunner 220 which has 2 sets of screens you can customize. I use the same screens while racing and training.
Pace – I like to know how fast I’m going. This keeps me in check and honest if I’m going too fast or too slow.
Time – I use this simply to keep track of how long I’ve been out and when I need to get back. Or when racing, to calculate my finish time based on current pace.
Heart Rate – Knowing how my body is responding to a certain pace is important to me. It gives me a heads up as to how fatigued I can expect to be or if I’m excited and going too fast. At the start of a race I might feel great, but my heart rate tells the truth about how hard I’m working.
Distance – I use this like time. It gives me an idea of how much work I’ve done and an idea of what I still need to do.
Average Pace – My pace fluctuates significantly when I run. So having this average showing is helpful for my expectations on how fatigued I will feel at the end of the run, and how long this run will probably take.
Average Heart Rate – Similar to average pace, this keeps me aware of the total effort being expended. Some miles my heart rate will be lower, which could fool me into thinking I’m going easier than I am. This keeps me on track over the duration of the whole run.
This is where I have put in most of my miles on GPS devices. I use two different profiles: one for racing and another for training. I do this mainly because I don’t want the Garmin to auto pause while I’m racing because I do keep auto pause on while training.
Screen 1 Training:
Speed – I like to know how fast I’m going at any given moment. This is mainly for fun and provides little insight into what is happening on the ride. Though sometimes if my speed is high and power or perceived effort is low, then I know there must be a tail wind, and I’m not actually superman.
Time – For the same reasons as running, I like to know how long I’ve been out (approximately, minus stops).
Distance – Again, like running I like to know how far I’ve gone. Though I will say, I look at this very infrequently while riding (and may relegate it to another page soon). I base my rides on time, never distance. So this is another “fun” field.
Average Speed – This field is not very helpful for determining effort as terrain and total ascent can greatly skew what your speed is. However, if you have routes and roads you are familiar with, or if you live in a place that is perfectly flat, you can begin to use this as another gauge of how hard you are working. I know for certain routes (around where I live) what speed I can maintain solo for certain effort levels, and how that will increase if I have a few other riders to work with.
Cadence – This is a funny metric, and one that I look at more during hard and measured efforts than just normal riding. Let’s say I want to attack a group and go as hard as I can for 5 minutes, then I will look at the cadence to ensure I am at my optimal cadence for maximum efficiency. Also, when I get fatigued, I know that my cadence tends to drop. Watching that number can help me stay focused when my legs are particularly tired. This is a field that takes much practice to become meaningful. Knowing what cadence suits your body for certain efforts makes this a useful number. But it certainly takes time to gather that data. And you'll need a cadence sensor.
Power 3 Second Average – I run a power meter on bikes I train on for many reasons. However I find that the 3 second average really smooth’s out the tiny jumps of output to give me a more readable wattage number.
Heart Rate – Similar to running, I like to use my heart rate to compare against how I feel and what power I’m currently hitting. This comparison tells me a lot about my fitness that time of year, my fatigue that day, and even how hydrated and fueled I am.
Average Power – This is simply the average watts you have produced over the duration of the ride. I use it to give me an idea of how hard I am working. It factors in coasting to its number to give you a true average. On a ride that has lots of long downhills, the average is telling you how hard you are working with all of the “breaks” or zero values you are getting from coasting down those hills. Often times I will go out and try to ride this number as high as possible, which leads to me being very steady, versus boosting my normalized power through jumpy efforts or attacking climbs. The average power is the “facts” about how much power you produced consistently over the course of the ride, and thus how fatigued you will be.
Normalized Power – This metric is simply your average power over the course of a ride with all of the coasting subtracted from it. It is a bit like saying “based on your average power, if you had never stopped pedaling and had pushed a consistent effort over this same distance, you would have done this number of watts.” Its fictional in its nature, but it helps a rider dissect the type of ride they are doing. The further the normalized power is from the average power, the more short, and high watt efforts have been done on the ride. A criterium or an xc mountain bike race, is a perfect example of when normalized power is useful. One might look at their average power during a crit or xc (that has lots of drafting, coasting and sprinting) and wonder why the average power is so low based on how they feel. But the normalized power tells the true story about their fatigue, and could be 50-60 watts higher. Contrast that against a time trial effort, and the normalized and average power will be almost identical, as the rider in the TT is constantly pedaling an even power throughout.
Time of Day – And last but certainly not least, the time of day is something I use to make sure I’m home when I said I would be, and to gauge how much sunlight I have left!
Screen 2 Training (this screen I use almost exclusively for structured training):
Power 3 Second Average – When I’m doing a specific interval, often times I have a power number I’m shooting for. This field is thus at the top of the screen and is the biggest field so that I can see it clearly when I’m hypoxic!
Current Lap Time – Intervals are based on a prescribed effort (power) for a duration. Knowing when that interval is over is often your lifeline while deep in the pain cave. I keep this field large as well!
Heart Rate – Seeing this next to the power during an interval tells me how my body is responding to the efforts that day, or at that point in the workout. This is key to telling me when I need to back off and rest, or when I’m getting more fit and need to push harder.
Lap Average Power – Knowing the specific average for a given lap is helpful to know if I’m hitting my target over the duration of the interval, and not just at that moment.
Lap Normalized Power – This is not always needed during intervals that have steady efforts that mean the average power number is more helpful, but occasionally I will do an interval on rolling terrain and this then becomes my guiding number.
Cadence – As I said earlier, I know the specific cadence where I am the most efficient. As a result, I keep an eye on this during intervals so that I am able to push to my maximum ability.
Last Laps Normalized Power – When I’m doing a hard interval, towards the end, I may not have the wherewithal to look at the screen to see what I’m doing. After the lap is over and the data on screen resets, I usually want to know if I hit my prescribed target. This field shows me that.
Screen 3 Training:
Average Heart Rate – Similar to average power, this just gives me a whole-ride view of my bodies response to a ride. It’s not particularly helpful until the ride is over, as things can change dramatically with warm up and cool downs, but it’s fun to have.
Grade – Another fun metric a Garmin can show you is grade. Or, how much this climb should hurt! I pretty much only look at this when I’m trying to calculate my vertical ascent speed or when a road is ridiculously steep and I’m curious how steep it actually is!
Temperature – This is another fairly useless piece of data that I just like to look at. Typically only when it’s very hot or extremely cold.
Calories – I’ve begun using this data point more recently, as an indicator of how much I should have taken in during a ride, and how much more I need to intake afterwards.
Elapsed Time – Since I use auto pause during a ride, sometimes I lose track of how long I’ve been out riding including stops. This just gives me the total time I’ve been out.
Intensity Factor – This has to do with previously set values within my power profile, but basically it’s how hard you are going compared to what you are capable of. For instance, 1.0 is as hard as you can go and 0.5 is 50% of what is possible. I like glancing at this at the end of a ride as another metric for how tough a ride was compared to history.
Training Stress Score – Or TSS, is a way of measuring how much strain/stress a ride put on your body. So it’s really only something that matters at the end of a ride. The score itself is generated using normalized power, intensity factor and the duration of the ride. I like this number because it is always right. I can go out and normalize 280w on a ride one day and feel great, and do the same a week later and feel horrible. But the higher the TSS, the more tired I feel, every single time.
Total Ascent – Every once in a while, I will look up the total ascent of route or a race to remember before I head out the door. That way, if I’m really hurting, I will look to how much climbing I have left. But usually, this is just a “wow, we’re climbing 100 feet per mile today” kind of useless but fun fact.
Screen 1 Racing:
Power 3 Second Average – During a race, knowing my power is key to helping me pace carefully. I look at this number a lot on long climbs and flats.
Time – Clearly knowing the total time is important to gauge how much further you have to go as compared to the total distance. Knowing when it’s time to conserve or empty the tank is hugely significant in race tactics.
Heart Rate – I keep a constant eye on my heart rate during a race as compared to my power. I know what I’ve done in training, so seeing deviations from those numbers compared gives me a bit of advanced warning about what my body is doing.
Normalized Power – For races that are hilly (the only kind I do) this is how I gauge my total effort. I like this more than average for races as it appropriately weights the taxing nature of climbs and attacks and figures them into my total effort expenditure thus far.
Distance – And of course distance. Most races are measure by distance over time, and so I plan my strategies according to the distance I’ve traveled or have yet to travel.
As you can see, clearly, I’ve got a bit of data overload coming into my brain when I’m riding. I would say that over time it becomes second nature and ultimately, helps me enjoy riding more, and makes me a better, faster rider.
Don’t leave your screens at their factory settings. If nothing else, change it to show your speed, so that the next time you BOMB that local hill, you can see just how fast you’re going! I guarantee it’ll bring a smile to your face.
What fields do you have set up on your GPS? Let me know in the comments.