For decades, I mounted bicycle computers to my handlebars and attached sensors to my wheels so I could tell how far I’d pedaled and how fast I was going. But smartphones have changed everything. I now rely on my iPhone and apps to track my rides.
If you’re willing to take a few seconds at the beginning of your ride to open up an app and tap a few buttons, you gain access to a wealth of data: distance, elevation, speed, precise maps, even cadence and heart rate if you buy some accessories. You can mount your smartphone to your handlebars so you can view the measures while riding, but I prefer to slip my phone into my jersey pocket or Camelbak and forget about it. As you ride, the apps record a trail of digital breadcrumbs that can be plotted in everything from Google Maps to GIS software. Websites connected to the apps store all your rides, show your mileage in calendars, and offer lots of advanced features I haven’t even explored, including nutrition and weight tracking.
I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of fitness apps and have settled on two as my favorites. The first is Strava, which is made for cycling. Below is an example of yesterday’s ride, from Denver to Golden and back on the Clear Creek Trail.
One of the features I like about Strava is the ability to track your performance on specific segments, usually hills, and compare yourself to other riders. It’s a great way to benchmark your fitness and make your standard, close-to-home rides more interesting. I live in a neighborhood called the Highlands, so I finish pretty much every ride by sprinting up one of the hills tracked by Strava and this little game prevents me from dogging it on the tail ends of my workouts.
Apps like Strava can also help you find new routes. Dozens of others cyclists here in Denver are using Strava and creating a sort of crowd-sourced bike map of the city. It’s amazing/humbling to see how fast some people get up these hills. Are they on motorcycles or really that fit?
MapMyFitness and its cousin MapMyRide are similar to Strava, but with the former you can also record runs, hikes, and other types of outings. Like Strava,they use GPS to track your ride and offers a number of ways to analyze the data, including a 3D virtual tour. If you’ve got a website or blog, you can easily embed ride summaries like the one below, or post to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.
One disadvantage of these apps is that your phone needs to be running its GPS, which drains your battery. The problem is even worse if you try to pair these apps with a heart rate monitor. I bought a pricy dongle for my iPhone that picks up the ANT+ signal, but never could get it to work well with any iPhone apps. Instead, I download data from my heart rate monitor watch, a Garmin Forerunner, to my PC (or Mac) using a free application called SportTracks. Below is an example of a graph from the program that shows my heart rate and elevation during today’s recovery ride along the Cherry Creek Trail.
More on heart rate training in a future post, but for now I’ll say that it’s been super-helpful for pacing myself, avoiding over-training, and improving my endurance. In the meantime, I’d encourage any fellow cyclists to try out some of these apps (another popular one is Endomondo). They all have free versions that should satisfy most needs and you’re bound to learn something useful about how your ride.