Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tracking Workouts and Measuring Progress

A few weeks ago I saw some online dialog about workout tracking and my friend and fellow triathlete, Casey Mills, responded with a very comprehensive analysis with pros and cons. It seemed a waste to let all that work vaporize so I asked if he'd do a guest post on the blog discussing software options for tracking workouts.

Casey describes himself as "IT professional by day and an aspiring triathlete by morning, evening, and weekend." I can tell you he is a guy who reshaped his entire body over the past two years and in the process uncovered some amazing speed. His mantra is, "Your ability to change your habits will determine your success." Here's what he has to share:

It was just a few short years ago I started exercising on a regular basis to improve my health. It wasn’t until later I decided to attempt to become an endurance athlete.  I vividly remember how difficult each and every run was that first year.  Asking anyone to add one more thing could be overwhelming, but that is exactly what I am asking you to do.

What is the first thing everyone does when they start a weight loss plan? Stand on a scale to get your body weight.  More times than not this is the primary metric used to measure success. There are of course other metrics that can be used, like: body fat percentage, muscle percentage, measurements at various points, BMI, waist height ratio, and if you are brave enough, photos.

Why should your measurement for progress in fitness be any different? Yes, you can compare races on a yearly basis, but no one on a weight loss plan would wait a year to step on the scale.  Shorter foot races can more easily be compared but as races get longer or more sports are involved (triathlon) it becomes harder to judge progress depending on the course, weather, number of water stops, etc.


If you aren’t technology savvy one of the most basic ways, other than a pencil and notepad, is to track your activity with a spreadsheet. A quick Google search of “exercise spreadsheet” might help you find one to your liking.

Pros - Easy and simple to use. If you are a spreadsheet whiz you can customize it any way you like.

Cons - Only accessible from your PC and must have Microsoft Office or similar software installed.

* If you are a Gmail user you can upload a spreadsheet to your Google Docs account and have the spreadsheet accessible from any Internet connection. Be careful, not all formatting and formulas translate well to Google Docs.

Basic Online Tracking

As I have become more consistent with my workouts and try to slowly build my volume over time. I find more and more valuable. In a glance it displays your activity for the week in miles, time, number of workouts, and estimated calories. doesn’t ask for age or weight so the calorie estimate is probably way off. While not an exact science, measuring my workout load with keeps it simple.

Pros - Very easy to use with a simple and intuitive interface. Integrates a social aspect with Facebook and friends within the website. Friends compete on a weekly basis to see who can accumulate the most miles. Workouts can be imported from Garmin and Nike+ equipment so you don’t have to manually enter your workouts. Consumable items like shoes and bike tires can be added and mileage is tracked for each individual item. Has a great mobile website but also has 3rd party apps available in the Android and Apple app stores.

Cons - All workouts are stored in meters and kilometers. When exporting your workouts for a year end report you have to manually convert.

GPS Products and Software

Originally I started with a basic heart rate monitor watch. I can’t remember the exact cost but it was somewhere between $75-$100. These work great for showing current heart rate and after the workout your min, max, and average heart rate. But the cost of GPS based watches has dropped significantly in the past few years. Personally I own a Timex Global Trainer to track my triathlon races and day to day running. While my Timex can also track my cycling, I use a Garmin Edge on my bike. This is primarily because the Edge can display up to eight items instead of the four for the watch. I hear enough comments about how large GPS watches are; no one would ever want to wear a Garmin Edge on their wrist.

Garmin does a great job of bridging the PC and online gap. Garmin Training Center can be installed on your PC. Garmin Connect is their free online tool. While Connect is great for sharing workouts with your peers, it does not have the level of detail or give you the ability to compare workouts like Training Center.

This is the same workout in Training Center (Left) and Connect (Right).

In my opinion, comparing elevation over time is the best way to compare workouts. The above is two bike rides separated by about 4.5 months of hard work. It is hard to see progress even over that period of time.

Garmin has the Garmin Fit app in the Android and Apple app store for $0.99. Essentially turning you phone into a GPS workout tracking device. Workouts can be uploaded to and any history already on the Connect website can be viewed. Extra hardware is required for a smart phone to capture heart rate, running cadence, or cycling speed/cadence.

Pros - Garmin makes great equipment that is easy to use and very competitive on price. They provide software for the PC along with free online storage for your workouts. Mature low cost smart phone applications for 99 cents. Connect can easily calculate workout time and mileage over almost any period of time, based on all or individual exercises. Training Center is excellent for analyzing individual workouts or comparing two workouts.

Cons - You must own a Garmin device or a smart phone.

TrainingPeaks is the online only way to track EVERYTHING. You can track weight, sleep, sleep quality, appetite, glucose, blood pressure, fatigue, hydration, mood, motivation, body fat, pulse, sickness, soreness, stress, water consumption, calories, carbs, fat, protein, sugar, fiber, and much MUCH more. Oh yea, and your workouts. There is a small piece of software that installs on your PC. Device Agent transfers your workout data from your GPS based device to the website. has a free basic version that has a fair amount of features. A slightly richer experience than When trying to use paid features you will constantly see a nag screen to sign up for a premium subscription.

$19.95 for one month
$49.00 for three months
$79.00 for six months
$119.00 for one year

Training Peaks also has a free mobile app in the Android and Apple app store. The Android app is still in beta.

Pros - Comprehensive tool to track ALL of your workouts, meals, and metrics. Easy to use free basic version. Free smart phone app. Works with more than 90 training devices of all brands. Twitter and Facebook integration.

Cons - Subscription required for premium features. Internet connection required. Nag screen pop-ups. Large learning curve for the website interface, it is very busy.


These are just a few available options that I have personal experience with. There are many free or low cost smart phone apps that can track your runs and rides, but I find it inconvenient to carry a large phone during a run. Especially if I am trying to hit a specific pace or heart rate. Running with a smart phone is one thing, running with it and viewing the screen is another.

Sadly I haven’t found a single product that does everything I want for the price I’m willing to pay (free of course, I need to save money for race entries and hotel stays). Over the past year I have started transitioning my workout log to My Timex watch only works with, and since their site is also compatible with my cycling computer, I have a single destination to log all of my activities. Garmin Training Center is best for analyzing individual bike and run workouts, but I find myself doing that less frequently. The social aspect of keeps exercise interesting while offering the ability to quickly log in and view my volume for the week. Hopefully one of these solutions will fit most of your needs. If you have any other suggestions please recommend them in the comments section.

~ Casey Mills