Free, cheap, and professional grade training support

Here’s what I know about fitness: the same thing doesn’t work for everyone.

It’s like Curly said in City Slickers, you gotta find your one thing. Stick with that, and everything else falls in place. But figuring out that one thing, the thing that works for you, aye, there’s the rub.

When it comes to tracking your workouts, folks tend to fall into one of two camps. There are the folks who weigh their food and time every workout and produce reams of spreadsheets to analyze. And then there are the folks who just go with the flow, who run until they get tired, who do what feels right.

For instance, some folks will use an iPod so that they get lost in their run or ride. They use calming music for their LSD runs or long rides so that the miles just disappear, or uptempo music to up the intensity of a workout. Other folks swear that listening to music is counter-productive because it blocks the signals from your body, that you need to be fully aware of the pain and effort that you are experiencing in order to benefit from it.

I say, to each his own. Figure out what works for you and go for it.

Along those lines, some people need data in order to improve. They need to know the exact mileage, pace, elevation gain, and the like so that can put a number next to the feeling. You intuitively “know” what a work out felt like, but what does it mean? You could subjectively give that run a 7 on your personal intensity scale, but what exactly does that 7 look like? Can you put numbers up against that feeling?

If you fall into the more analytical group, then life couldn’t be easier for you today. There are dozens of ways to track your runs or rides, and you can spend as much or as little as you want in taking full advantage of the technology that is out there. And if you don’t want to spend a single dime, there are

For starters, if you’re trying to use your REI dividend check or feel the need to personally jump-start the economy through frivolous spending, you have a lot of choices out there. Just about every GPS out there comes with fitness software so that you can plot your route onto a map as well as determining elevation gain, total distance, pace, maximum pace, and anything else you can think of.

If you want this kind of data, there are a couple of things to consider. First of all, do you really need to see the route on a map? If the answer is no, then you can save a lot of money by opting for a GPS with fewer features. By extracting the processor that converts GPS data into a map location, manufacturers can provide most of the features in a smaller, lighter, cheaper package. You won’t get a map, but you will still get mileage, pace, and sometimes elevation gain. Nike offers this package in their Nike+ series, which consists of a footpod that fits into the insole of certain models of Nike running shoes. The Nike+ pod talks to your iPod and your computer, so you can see your data on the iPod screen while you’re running or wait to download it until you get home.

Garmin also makes several models of wristwatch-based GPS units, some selling for as little as $99, that give you everything you can imagine except for the actual map of your route. The Garmin watches use the ANT+ wireless sensor interoperability platform, the industry standard these days for getting different computers to talk to each other. ANT+ allows your watch to serve as the tactical operations center, receiving data from a GPS footpod (which clips to your shoe laces), a heart-rate monitor, and, for cycling applications, wheel speed sensors and power meters. The Garmins also use ANT+ to wirelessly download your run or ride to your computer, so you can sit back and enjoy your recovery meal while your run downloads without even having to take off your watch.

If you do want to see your run or your ride on a map, then you still have quite a few choices. If money is no object, then one of Garmin’s many GPS units could by right for you. The $299 Forerunner 405 looks like a typical sports watch but is as powerful as that unit sitting on your car’s dashboard. It will track time, mileage, pace, heart rate, calories burned, and can even provide you with a Virtual Partner to run against. When you get home, you wave it at your computer and the run is downloaded, plotted, mapped, and analyzed. For cyclists there is the even more powerful Edge series, which does all of the above as well as providing a full-color map display. You can plot a course ahead of time and then just follow the arrows while you ride, or use the GPS to find the nearest Starbucks when it’s time for a break.

The technology options are quite nearly endless for the consumer willing to pull out the plastic, who wants to help stimulate the economy single-handedly. But what about us cheapskates out there, those of us so tight we’ll squeeze a dollar until the eagle hollers? Turns out there are a couple of free or nearly free options out there as well.

You can assemble a do-it-yourself package for running or cycling at Velo Routes. Velo Routes is based on Google’s Maps, making it quite user friendly. You input a route, then time yourself on that route, and Velo Routes will tell you your pace and elevation gain. While Velo Routes was made for cyclists (hence the elevation gain feature), it works just as well for runners. Of course, you could do the same thing with Google Maps, but Velo Routes adds the ability to save and track runs/rides, to find other runs/rides in your area, to compare times with other runners/cyclists, and to develop cue sheets for your run or ride.

Another program that does about the same thing is Map My Fitness. Map My Fitness is broken down into five very similar sites, focusing on running, cycling, hiking, walking, or triathletes/multi-sporters. Map My Fitness is basically Google Maps on steroids. It lets you plot a route, save it, share it, find the routes of other users, generate a training log, and analyze your workout data. Map My Fitness would be cool enough by itself, but if you own an iPhone, then you are really in luck. Using the iPhone application, the whole thing now becomes hands-free. Your iPhone tracks your run or ride, you download the data to your Map My Fitness folder, and without plotting a single point or typing in anything, you have a complete breakdown of your workout.

So pick your poison. Free, free-ish, cheap, or professional grade. Your pick, according to what works for you.

Now go forth and do great things.

About SAO'

Dad to two amazing girls, husband to one.
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