Tracking Progress in Endurance Sports: Old School Methods Still Work

There are a lot of fancy ways to measure progress in endurance sports, but a new study suggests all you really need is a heart rate monitor and GPS – or a watch and map if you’re really old school.

There’s a problem in training for endurance sports. The problem concerns the ability to monitor and track progress for the average coach and athlete. While there is excellent lab equipment that can track an athlete’s progress with great precision, this equipment is both cost- and time-prohibitive. Researchers published an article recently in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that sought a resolution to this problem.

You may be thinking there’s no point in this. You race at one or a few distances and you already have a great measurement tool: time. If your time is faster, your fitness has improved and – more importantly – your actual performance is better, which is the bottom line. Time is a measurement tool that every coach and athlete employs. That’s all well and good, and a simple and effective tool no doubt, but it is limited. Let me explain why.

There will come a time in training when every athlete reaches the peak of general fitness. You’ll know you’re there when you hit a major wall in progress. To get any further you will need to begin to vary your training practices and be precise in everything you do. It will become hard to say whether your time to complete race distance has improved when progress is measured in milliseconds and your training is spent doing over-distance work, sprints, long slow distance training, and other methods that aren’t done at race pace. This is especially true when your race pace is intense enough to put you in overtraining if you do it all the time. When you reach this point, you will need more sophisticated measurement tools.

Recently I wrote an article about a proposed method for measuring improvements in conditioning for runners. While the leg angle discussed in this article was a great tool for measuring efficiency in running, it did require some investment in equipment and perhaps a better-than-average understanding of mechanics. As a runner myself, I had hoped for something simpler and easier, but just as effective. In today’s study, the researchers used the simpler measurements of heart rate and running speed. While you would still need a heart rate monitor for this method to be most effective, it’s possible to perform with just a clock and a map.

The idea is to look at heart rate against your running speed. Heart rate varies day to day due to numerous factors, so it’s important to use this method every day while training. If the heart-rate-to-running-speed measurement improves, that means your heart rate is either lower at a given speed, or your speed is faster at a given heart rate.

To validate its effectiveness, the researchers compared this readily-available measurement tool to the more expensive lab tests. Sure enough, heart-rate-to-running-speed measurements correlated with several lab tests that monitor for fitness improvements, including maximum speed, pH balance of the blood, and V02 max during 28 weeks of training. In other words, it is a good tool that can provide daily information to coaches and athletes.

Although the researchers state that this method requires an initial lab test, I don’t think it’s necessary. While certainly useful, seeing your heart-rate-to-running-speed change in time would be a very good tool for any coach and athlete to use without need for further testing. So break out your heart rate monitor and your GPS, or your watch and map, and start tracking your progress.


1. Ville Vesterinen, et. al., “Heart Rate – Running Speed-index May Be an Efficient Method of Monitoring Endurance Training Adaptation,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000349

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