Measurable progress

“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.” – Samuel Johnson

Today is just a few weeks past the one year anniversary of my first 5K, Fit 2 Lead on Oct. 30, 2010. To prepare for this event, the company I work for sponsored a 12 week “On the Move” training program designed to introduce the proverbial “couch potato” to a fitter lifestyle with a specific goal of completing a 5K running or walking event.

As I tend do with most things that I find interesting, I approached this new fit lifestyle with a consuming zeal.  I’ve come a long way since then and a yearly anniversary seems like the perfect time to look back and reflect on progress made.  Fortunately, one of the first good habits I adopted was to log everything. I have almost a thousand miles worth of running logs with lots of details like average heart rate, elevation change, split times, daily weight changes…I can even tell you which pair of shoes I was wearing on any particular run!

In spite of all of these tools available to measure progress, the most important one to me is how I feel now. When I started the “Couch to 5K” program, I actually thought I was in shape. Maybe I wasn’t in terrible shape, but I quickly found out that I couldn’t run a mile without stopping 4-5 times (not slowing down, I mean a complete stop) to catch my breath before I passed out and died. I wondered if I could actually run three miles. I wondered if I could even beat the racewalkers. Now I look forward to an easy 11.5 mile run around the bay, or three to four hour long runs on the weekend. A year ago, I would get winded running up a single flight of stairs. Today, I don’t even think about it. My legs are stronger. My lungs are stronger. I’m more confident, competent and successful. I feel better.

I know, it sounds like an infomercial for “Acai Berry” or “ShamWoW” but it’s true…running is my miracle pill. It’s not available in stores so act now! Try it free for 30 days. If you’re not satisfied, the next year is on me.

What about the data?

I expect the data to support the idea that running makes a person fitter. In terms of the metrics that I am tracking, I define “fitter” in the following ways:
weight – trending toward ideal weight
pace – trending toward faster pace
heart rate – trending toward lower heart rate for similar exertion level or greater exertion level for similar heart rate.
race times – trending toward faster race times

Weight

When I started running with “On the Move”, I wasn’t overweight but I carried a few more pounds than I needed and I was gaining. My ideal weight according to my height, age and medium frame is in the range of 154-166. I logged my first daily weight entry at 180. Today, my weight is quite stable in the 162-163 range. Words don’t do this justice. To really appreciate the effect running has had on my weight, just look at the chart!

Pace

As I began training for my first 5K, i very clearly remember struggling in my training runs to push the pace fast enough to finish 3 miles in 30 minutes. That was my goal and just a few weeks before the race I seriously wondered if it was possible.
Take a look at the first couple months of training runs. Average pace is around 11:30m/mi.

My last two months of training aren’t exactly fair comparisons because I have been focusing on long slow distance runs preparing for an upcoming marathon and ultra-marathon. Still, the pace is definitely quicker despite the runs being so much longer. Even my intentionally slow pace is faster than my best effort a year ago.

Heart Rate

As a Christmas gift last year, I received a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch with heart rate monitor. I wore the HRM on just about every run for many months straight and then stopped for many months more. A few weeks ago, I decided to wear it out on a 6 mile training run just to see if I could identify any improvements. Actually, that was the genesis of this post.

A person’s heart rate rises as the need for oxygen increases until it reaches an upper limit that is largely determined by genetics. Because heart rate rises with increasing physical effort, it is a very good objective indicator of actual effort. As we train, our bodies adapt to the conditions by getting stronger and more efficient. Eventually our lungs process more oxygen with each breath and our hearts move a greater volume of blood with each beat. This means a well conditioned runner requires less work from the heart to achieve a similar performance as a poorly conditioned runner. A sign of improved fitness is thus indicated by a lower heart rate for similar performance, or greater performance for similar heart rate.

Look at my most recent heart rate data:

That’s six miles at 9:19 m/mi and 160 BPM heart rate. If my conditioning has improved as I think it has, my earlier runs should show either a higher heart rate for the same pace, or a slower pace for the same heart rate.

Here’s the data from running the same route eleven months ago: The pace is slower by 1:12 m/mi and heart rate is just a little higher.

Here’s another run from 11 months ago, this time on a flatter route but a similar pace. Heart rate is 13 BPM higher.

This is very clear and encouraging evidence that all my training is paying off with a more efficient cardiopulmonary system.

Race Times

Lots of unexpected things can happen in a race and the course conditions are rarely the same so there may be variation in performance from race to race. One thing that has been consistent with each race so far, I have run each one with 100% effort. Here’s my entire race record which covers exactly one year.

With a few exceptions, I have beaten my previous PR for a given distance every time I’ve lined up. It’s getting harder to beat them though. I haven’t run a 5K in quite a while now and I’m anxious to see if I can break an 8:00 pace.

Measurable progress

I don’t need to see the data to know that I’m a better runner today than I was when I started a year ago. I feel better, I look better (I know, how is that even possible?) and my mood is much improved. Still, I’ll keep logging my runs and studying the details because I really enjoy seeing measurable progress.

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