5 BIG Changes I’ve Made Based On My Garmin Data

Many of us wear fitness trackers like Garmin and Apple watches… but in a recent informal survey of 50+ cyclists most said they only check basic ride data like distance and speed. Some even warned of getting too obsessed with the data.

So, you’ve gone for your ride. You wore your chest strap or your trusty watch, and now you’re checking your distance and speed. Maybe you hop over to Strava to see if there is a PR or two waiting for you. Then, you’re getting on with things. But hey, wait up – is that it? ‘Cause I think there’s a whole lot more in here, something quite possibly (yeah, I’ll say it) life-changing for cyclists like us if we look for it.

My goal is to still be on my bike in my 80s, and it’s 100% possible. I rode up mountains in Mallorca with this guy, Rick, 74. I’ve been on chairlifts in the Rockies with skiers in their 80s. I want some of that, but it’s not just going to happen on its own. So, how do we tip the odds in our favor? Well, we look to the data and change our behavior.

I’ve come from not even wanting this watch to never taking it off, to making some really big changes based on the data. I can honestly say I’m fitter, healthier, and happier as a result. And I’m going to share the five biggest changes I’ve made. But first, my question to you is: Are you a “no thanks, I’m not going to let some device hijack the joy of my ride” type of person, or are you a “love me some data” like me?

I asked my 50-plus cycling group, and boy, did they weigh in. Turns out, most of us record our activities. A tiny minority of participants reject the device data world; they just want to ride for the love of it. But over here, on the other side of the spectrum, are the “if it isn’t on Strava, it didn’t happen” types who are all in on FTP tests. We have even done a V2 Max test in a lab (also me). But, for sure, smack dab in the middle, the largest cohort were the cyclists who, on the one hand, wouldn’t leave home without their device but really just like to check in on their post-ride distance and speed. They also warn: just don’t get too obsessed with your data.

So, while there’s a bit of a debate about our relationship with our data, I think we can unlock far more value from our devices that can have a profound impact on our lives. We just need to approach it with the right mindset.

5 big changes I’ve made, thanks to my data:

1. Structured Training

For years, I went to a spin gym here in Toronto. Every class was an all-out effort because that’s all there was; there was no such thing as an endurance class. Then we bought a Peloton, and again, I’d pick the spiciest class I could find and then race my way up the leaderboard every time. This led to a high hamstring injury that was hard to rehab. In the absence of data, I just thought it was a bike fit issue. Stupid. I had no concept of the idea of recovery, which you need at any age, whether you’re an elite athlete or a recreational cyclist.

It’s counterintuitive, but let’s read this right from Garmin’s own page: “It’s expected that regular hard training will improve our fitness levels. But watch out, push too hard too often, and your fitness level will start to decrease due to the overtraining phenomenon.” Firstbeat, the people who supply this tech to Garmin, add that recovery from overtraining may take several weeks to months, but it’s also possible that an athlete never reaches the previous performance level.

I started paying attention to training status on Garmin Connect, and it was interesting because it suggested that I should have a certain amount of low and high aerobic rides and a smaller amount of anaerobic or higher-intensity rides. On top of that, you get your overall status, and for me, it’s normally productive or maintaining. Occasionally, it’s recovery or the dreaded overreaching, along with the number of hours you should recover. That awareness led me to:

2. Stop Committing Random Acts of Fitness

You know what I mean – jumping on your trainer, clicking the class that looks the hardest or the easiest. Again, now I haven’t taken a class in like well over a year. I skip all of this. I go to just ride, click my Garmin suggested ride or that day’s ride if I’m doing a training plan, and fire up a podcast. And if you’re looking at me saying, “I just want to go out and ride,” I get that. GCN did a survey, and they asked people how often do you ride with friends. Overwhelmingly, people said hardly ever because it would interfere with my training. That’s a little bit sad, right? I mean, we’re supposed to get out and do things like this with our friends. It’s an important pillar of aging. For me, if it’s a mountain bike day, I really don’t care what my status is unless I’m really tired. I’m going; I’m in charge of me. Remember, it’s just a suggestion. In general, though, learning about the fitness benefit of rest and recovery introduced me to the benefits of Zone 2 training – the easy zone where you can still talk, and yay, you burn fat. Plus, it’s just fun to mix it up and check the boxes that make you a stronger rider and keep you younger longer.

3. Pay Attention to Your VO2 Max

What is VO2 Max? Here’s Dr. Rhonda Patrick:

“VO2 Max is a measure of maximal oxygen uptake, which reflects an individual’s ability to utilize oxygen during exercise. It’s considered one of the best indicators of cardiorespiratory fitness and is associated with improved health span, increased lifespan. Higher cardiorespiratory levels, as measured by VO2 Max, have been consistently linked to a reduced risk of mortality and longer lifespan.”

So, when I use the term VO2 Max in the podcast, just keep in mind that it’s a measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness. Now, check this out from Dr. AA: “Smoking and diabetes will double or triple your risk of death, depending on the time frame you’re looking at. Having very high cardiorespiratory fitness – having a VO2 Max that is elite, which we would define as the top 2.5% of the population compared to below average – is a fivefold reduction in all-cause mortality. Whoa! I mean, we don’t have drugs that have a 5x reduction in mortality. Now, let’s listen to a clear goal of what our VO2 Max should be: “I hold myself and my patients to a way higher standard, which is, we have a chart that shows all the data by age, by gender, and by VO2 Max. If you’re a 52-year-old male, I’m asking you to have the VO2 Max of an elite 42-year-old male. So, I want you to be a decade younger, elite.” He says you need to be in the elite category for someone a decade younger, and that sounds pretty hardcore. I know I’m 56, and my VO2 Max is currently 49. Well, ironically, yesterday it went down a point after a very hard VO2 Max ride. Anyway, I’m in the top 1% of women my age. So, let’s look at the VO2 Max chart for women. I need to be at or above 47, and it turns out that I’m in the elite group for women in their 30s. And I tell you that not because I’m some kind of super athlete – I’m not, and that’s my point.

If I could do it, you could do it. I’m just consistent. I’m getting enough of Zone 2 and high-intensity workouts. Let’s say that you check your VO2 Max in your Apple Watch or your Garmin app, and you look at the chart, and it’s low. Here’s some really good news for you: you get most of the benefit, honestly, by going from not fit at all to average fit. That gives you three of the 5x. And he says if you go from low to above average, it’s about a 60 or 70% reduction in all-cause mortality – as in, you’re 60 to 70% less likely to die. Put another way, cardio is more deadly than smoking. If you’re a cyclist, you’re already ahead of most people of your age. VO2 Max just helps you get where you need to be to live longer and better.

4. A Good Night’s Sleep

I think by now, most of us know how critical sleep is. It’s when we recover from our rides and our workouts. It has cognitive implications as we age. It bolsters our immune system, and it helps us be happier people. And I’m just a better mountain biker after a good night’s sleep. I mean, I made a whole video about rehabbing my god-awful sleep. But before I had my watch, I had no idea about the quality and the makeup of my sleep. So, Glenn and I started looking at the data every morning, and over time, we could map patterns of behavior from the day before to less than optimal sleep data. There are six factors that make up the score, and by far, the two that you can influence the most are stress and duration. So, if your overnight stress graph is full of orange lines like this – provided you’re not sick – you can fix it so that it looks like this. I rarely get the dreaded orange lines these days, but it’s common. Check this out from the Garmin forums: “Why is my stress all orange? I’m not stressed out; I’m retired.” And that’s really a shortcoming in the data. You can see your stress is high overnight, but you don’t know why. Over time, I just kind of figured out, “Hey, stress is a big factor.” And whenever it was high, it was almost always one or all of five things: I ate too late; I ate off my diet, which is low carb; I had a particularly hard workout or I worked out too late in the day; I was on my phone or my laptop too late at night; or I drank alcohol. So, the fixes were pretty easy. Now we finish dinner by 7:00 p.m. at the latest, and usually earlier. I get up every day at the same time and go for the sunrise walk. We stick to our way of eating, which is low carb, lots of protein, and glide path to bedtime. We dim the lights at 9:00, get out the devices by 8:00, don’t fall asleep on the couch. But by far, the most reliable saboteur of sleep and the best change I made was:

5. Saying No to Alcohol

A night of sleep with no alcohol versus a night of sleep with alcohol – they’re different. The highlight of my week is mountain biking, but before blasting off Saturday morning, there’d be date night with a glass of wine, maybe two. And then every Saturday morning, we’d feel off – like sluggish, tired. Glenn was low-grade grumpy, our sleep scores would be crap. It’s like the only time I drank all week. So, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. I decided to stop drinking for a month, and sure enough, those Friday night sleep scores jumped up, and Saturdays got so much better. And then I found I don’t even want it anymore. And have you noticed how good restaurants are getting at mocktails? So, I started to ask servers if they thought more people are ordering non-alcoholic drinks, and without fail, they say absolutely, it’s a thing.

What do you want more – a full battery after a good night’s sleep before the best ride of the week or a fun night out? Either is okay as long as you know you’re making a choice. Remember that poll I conducted of our 50-plus cycling group that got hundreds of comments? Well, this one’s my favorite: a woman said, “I don’t wear a heart rate strap or a watch ’cause I’m not in training for anything. But you know, I don’t think that’s true. I’m not entering any races, but I’m training for sure. I’m in training for the next mountain bike season ’cause I want to clean the hardest, gnarliest climbs again next season. I’m in training to hold on to my fitness because I know at 56 my default is now decay. You can keep growing though, but you pretty much have to send the signal every day. I’m in training for my next cycling trip, and most importantly, I’m in training for what Dr. Peter AA calls the marginal decade.”

The marginal decade is the last decade of your life, so everyone will have a marginal decade. I think that the marginal decade for most people is really a period of poor life quality. Physical health has usually declined significantly; cognitive health potentially has declined as well. I want to be on my bike in my 80s. I want to hike. I want to still be able to travel. I think, far from obsessing over data or being ruled by my watch, I look at the data as clues as to what’s going on in here, where I’m at, where I can improve upon.

6. It’s all right there if you look for it

All around us are people who accept normal aging, which is actually not normal at all; they’re just letting it happen. But if you’re interested in hanging on to much of what you have and having a great, big life for a long, long time, you can sign up for the Sentry Ride email, and we’ll share the best bite-size finds from reputable sources so that we could go on this ride together.

Alright, that’s it. I’ll see you next time!