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How to (Actually) Read Your Fitness Tracker

What fitness data is most relevant? We spoke with experts to find out what we should be looking at.


Everyone has a fitness tracker. Whether on a cellphone, a dedicated tracker like a FitBit, a smartwatch, cycling computer, et al, each of these devices is feeding you fistfuls of data in real time. You can track your all-day activity, analyze a single workout, or study progress over weeks and months. But, as fine as all those numbers are, the larger question is: what do you do with all that data? And what data is most important? We spoke with Taryn Lushinsky, Running Brand Manager, and Mike Saturnia, Consumer Products and Technology Executive, from Wahoo Fitness to find out exactly what data we should pay attention to.

“Data helps you reach your fitness goals faster. We try to pick the metrics that allow you to train smarter and allow you to train more efficiently,” Lushinsky said. So, you set out to get fit. What’s the most important stat to look at? Distance covered? Calories burned? Pace? Cadence? None of the above?

It’s all about heart rate. The most important stat to look at is heart rate. Regardless of what type of workout you’re doing, looking at your heart rate data both during and after your workout can help you achieve your goals. “At the end of the day it’s all about what exertion level you’re having,” Saturnia said. “Throughout the course of the day, if you’re using a fitness tracker to get fit, you are going to have to move your heart rate into different zones.”

Different heart-rate zones are beneficial for different purposes. Lower heart-rate zones are beneficial for building endurance, but if you’re looking to improve performance, it’s important to spend time within 85 percent of your max heart rate during your workout. “There is a rule of thumb out there and the rule of thumb is basically 220 minus your age — that’ll get you to your max heart rate,” Saturnia said. “But that varies a lot based on lifestyles, fitness levels, etc. So we prefer to do a very specific heart-rate test.” You can take Wahoo’s heart rate test by using the RunFit app paired with a Tickr X heart rate monitor.


Have a plan. At the end of the day, the metrics that your fitness tracker is feeding you will only work if you have a plan and stay with it. “For people to be most effective and maximize the effect of the data, they need to have a basic plan and an idea of what it is that they’d like to achieve,” Saturnia said. “The key is that the fitness trackers give you the ability to see if you’re hitting your goals. If you’re an athlete, maybe you’re training for something like a 10k, you’re going to set a specific set of goals. The key is to understand your goals, build a plan, use a fitness tracker to see how you’re performing against that plan and then revisit the goal on a regular basis and set new goals.”

Adjust your plan. Inevitably, as you continue to work out, you’ll get in better shape and spend less time in your max heart-rate zone. This is where heart-rate data is valuable. “You can look back over a period of time, and look at your heart rate data and say, ‘Okay, I did plenty of endurance-based training,’ or low heart-rate activity over the course of the last workout or the last week. ‘I need to increase my level of intensity more so that I can both improve my cardiovascular as well as my overall endurance level.’ Or you may look at it and say, ‘Okay, I’m operating at a moderate level a lot, but I want to take my performance to the next level.’ When you look back at the data, if you’re not spending enough time in a zone that’s close to 85 percent or higher of your max heart rate, then you can go back and tweak your workout so that you spend a little more time there to drive improved performance.”

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