How to Use Running Data Analysis to Maximize Performance


Learning how to use running data analysis to maximize performance isn’t as hard as you may think!

Sure, all those numbers and technical terminology can seem complicated and confusing, but it’s just a matter of learning and understanding what each one is.

From there, you can focus on how exactly to use that particular metric in your training to improve both while training and in races.

Here are the metrics you should be focusing on and how exactly to incorporate them into your training for the best results.

1. Cadence

Cadence measures how many steps you take per minute while running. It’s an important piece of data to analyze, as it can help you gauge your running form and benchmark your fitness.

Cadence varies from one runner to the next, and it can range between 150 to 180 steps per minute. In general, the higher your cadence, the better your running form.

Good running form – landing on the ball of your foot, short strides, slight lean forward – is best achieved with a high cadence.

Generally, elite runners will turn over 180 to 200 steps per minute. For the average runner, a cadence of between 170 and 180 is recommended for optimum running.

It’s important to note that your cadence will vary based on the type of run that you’re doing on the day. For example, your cadence on a long run may be slower than when you’re doing speedwork.

To work out the cadence for speedwork, tempo, or normal runs you’ll need to work out your base cadence. Most smartwatches will monitor how many steps you take per minute, which is your general baseline cadence.

If your cadence is a little on the low side, the best way to increase it is by taking a shorter stride length, which will result in smaller steps.

When you take long steps, it’s very easy to overstride. When you overstride, you can lock your knees or place your legs under excessive stress, which can increase your risk of an injury.

To avoid this, you want to get your feet underneath your body as quickly as possible, which will generate plenty of force to drive you forwards and help you run more efficiently.

One of the best ways to help improve your cadence is to put a playlist together of songs that are between 170 and 180 beats per minute. As you run, try to synchronize your steps to the beat! It’s fun and effective.

You can use an app like Weav Run to create an adaptive music playlist for you to run to. Alternatively, download a metronome onto your phone to help you synchronize your steps.

How to Use Cadence to Maximize Performance

To improve your cadence, analyze your data to help you establish a baseline for all your training speeds.

To work out your baseline on all your runs, head to the track and use the 800 to 1200 meter lanes. Start running, focusing on each training pace (marathon, speedwork, tempo, recovery).

Run at each pace for a minute and count your steps for 30 seconds. Then multiply that number by two and record the number for each training pace. You should notice that your cadence increases when your speed increases.

Now it’s time to set a goal for each pace. For each of your recorded numbers, add 5% onto it. This is your goal cadence for each specific pace. For example, if your cadence was 168 steps per minute, aim to achieve 176 next time.

Practice your new target cadence for at least three weeks. Then do this test again and check your progress.

2. Ground Contact Time

To accurately measure your Ground Contact Time (also known as GCT), you’ll need a running pod. Most watches don’t offer it as a metric, but if they do, it’s generally not accurate.

Ground contact time and cadence work together, but ground contact time refers to the amount of time your foot spends on the ground rather than in the air. Elite distance runners range between 175 to 200 milliseconds ground contact time!

Improving your GCT will not only increase your speed by reducing the braking effect, but the quicker you can apply force through the ground, the faster you’ll be propelled forward.

By lowering your GCT, your running efficiency will improve, cadence will increase, and you’ll reduce your risk of injury. Even small improvements on your GCT can have significant impacts on your running times.

While you ideally want an equal GCT (50/50) for both legs, in reality, it could be 49% on one leg and 51% on the other. By improving your GCT, you can help balance it between your left and right leg.

An imbalance of more than 2% between each leg can increase your risk of injury, as well as affect your performance.

How to Use GCT to Maximize Performance

The first step is to work on improving your cadence by shortening your stride length. Focus on taking quick, light steps during your run.

Then figure out which is your slow leg. There’s a quick trick to figuring this out! See how long you can stand on each leg for, with your eyes closed. You can also lie on your back, stretch your hamstring, and see how far each leg goes.

Whichever one of these tests you do, you should easily be able to figure out which is your weaker leg. This is the leg you’ll want to pay particular attention to strengthening.

Incorporate cross-training into your workouts with a focus on developing muscular strength. This will help to correct muscle imbalances so that your dominant leg doesn’t compensate for the weaker leg.

It’s also a good idea to change up your running routes so that you’re running on a variety of different terrains. This will expose you to a number of gradients, which can increase your balance, proprioception, and strength.

3. Training Load

Monitoring your training load is very important. Fortunately, most smartwatches calculate the training load of each workout session.

Training load data measures your current fitness levels, heart rate during your workouts, and long-term training volume.

It provides vital information between the training load and your body’s capacity to handle that load. This helps you to work within your limits, to push when you need to, but to not push your body beyond what it can cope with.

If your training load is too high or increased too rapidly, this can exceed what your body can deal with. This can lead to burnout and an injury, so this metric is key to keep an eye on.

If your training load is too low, then you’ll be able to increase the intensity to a level your body can handle. Try this and you’ll reap the results!

Analyzing your training load, regardless of what the structure of your workout is, can prevent overtraining and boost performance.

How to Use Training Load to Maximize Performance

Depending on the brand of watch you have, it may show you the training load as you’re running. If it doesn’t, then you’ll have to analyze the data after your run.

Understanding this data will allow you to plan your next run effectively. If your training load was too low, then you can run faster on your next run. On the other hand, if it was high, then do a recovery run.

Be consistent with your workouts and avoid huge increases or decreases. You can increase the intensity of your run by up to 10% a week to increase your performance.

Try to stay in the middle of the “Optimal” range of your training load. While there will be fluctuations, this is the sweet spot.

Data and numbers are good, but remember to pay attention to how your body feels. If you’re tired or your perception of exertion changes, take this into account.

4. Heart Rate Zones

All smartwatches track your heart rate and following it during your workout is one of the best ways to track the intensity of your exercise. This is where heart rate zones come in.

We all have our maximum heart rate, minimum heart rate, and resting heart rate. The best thing about training with heart rate zones is that it’s unique to you! This means it’s easy to stick to even as you progress and get fitter.

Heart rate zones are broken up into 5 different levels that correspond to the intensity and benefit of your training.

  • Zone 1: Very light exercise; 50 to 60% of your max heart rate
  • Zone 2: Light workout; 60 to 70% of your max heart rate
  • Zone 3: Moderate workout; 70 to 80% of your max heart rate
  • Zone 4: Hard workout; 80 to 90% of your max heart rate
  • Zone 5: All out; 90 to 100% of your max heart rate

You can pick a specific heart rate zone to train in to help you keep track of the intensity of your workout. This allows you to challenge yourself while improving your cardiovascular fitness, instead of training by pace alone.

How to Use Heart Rate Zones to Maximize Performance

Plan your runs so that you can run in your targeted HR zones.

Easy, slow or long runs should be in Zone 1 to 2, while hard or fast runs like speed work are in your threshold pace zone (Zone 3 to 4).

5. Fitness Level/VO2 Max

Monitoring your VO2 max is important as it gives you insight into your cardiorespiratory fitness and aerobic endurance level. Fortunately, this is another feature that’s available on most watches.

VO2 is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body uses per minute per kilogram of body weight while you’re at your maximum performance.

VO2 max is an indicator of how efficiently your body will perform on your runs, based on the amount of oxygen it’s taking in. The maximum amount of oxygen that your body can use is delivered to your muscles and it’s then used to fuel your muscles.

As you become fitter, your VO2 max will increase. This means that you have more oxygen available for your body to fuel the cells on a long run.

It’s important to note that a healthy VO2 max will be different for every runner. It’s affected by gender, age, fitness, wind speed, altitude, and a few other things that may or may not pop up on the day.

To put it simply, there isn’t a “best” VO2 max. It’s as unique to you as your heart rate is!

How to Use Fitness Level/VO2 Max to Maximize Performance

Establish your current VO2 max, set training goals, and monitor your progress. Assess your progress over each week, as this will help you to determine how effective your workouts are.

As your fitness levels increase, your VO2 max levels will rise gradually, between 1 to 5 points a week. This may vary slightly between the brands of smartwatches.

One of the best ways to increase your VO2 max is by doing high-intensity training. Running uphill or doing hill reps will also help to push you past your anaerobic threshold.

6. Power Meter

A power meter is an effective tool to measure your performance. The power meter is built into some advanced watches, but you can easily get an external power meter.

The small device can be attached at the core or to your shoe. The sensors are similar to those of a heart-rate chest strap. You’ll be able to see how much work you’re doing and how fast you’re doing it.

It displays your power output in watts and it allows you to see real-time energy output. This not only helps you to regulate your energy, but you’ll be able to see how your energy output affects your form.

The higher the number of watts, the more energy you’re putting out. This will also help you gauge your perceived total effort without having to rely just on your HR or pace.

The biggest benefit is that it allows you to monitor your power across different types of terrain. Unlike heart rate or pace, which will go up or down as you climb up or descend hills – power should remain the same if you are putting in an even effort on both.

How to Use Power to Maximize Performance

The power meter has many benefits for runners. But the main benefit is that it helps you to maintain steady efforts on your runs.

It will help you identify your threshold power, and you can work on maintaining that number while remaining in your optimal zone.

7. Recovery Time/Resting Heart Rate

Rest and recovery are important aspects of any training program, and most watches advise you on your recovery time.

Recovery time is measured using the amount of stress your body has gone through, based on your heart rate and VO2 max scores.

Based on the intensity during your workout, your aerobic system post-workout, and your sleep data, your recovery time could be between 6 hours and 2 days. It also takes into account your heart rate throughout the day and any stress you experienced that wasn’t running-related.

This helps to prevent overtraining and reduces your risk of injury. That being said, though, your recovery period doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work out at all.

This is the time that your body needs to recover before your next intense or hard workout. You can do a recovery run or some light cross-training during this time, but keep it within the parameters that your recovery time suggests.

How to Use Recovery Time/Resting Heart Rate to Maximize Performance

Your device’s software constantly monitors your body’s stress levels. If you’re feeling a little under the weather, it may prompt you to take an extra rest day.

It will also let you know when you’ve taken it too easy and nudge you to do a slightly more intense session. It’s like having a coach in your pocket!

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.