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Garmin’s “Unproductive” Training Status

I was feeling pretty good while I knocked out what felt like a decent 6 mile run. It wasn’t a PR performance but I certainly hadn’t been riding the struggle bus either. It was a warm day and I ran a slightly hilly route that I had run many times before. I had followed my training plan, at least mileage-wise. I finished, satisfied with myself and enjoying the usual post-run endorphins. 

Then I look at my Garmin: “Unproductive” 

Wow. Now I’m feeling criticized and wondering if I’ve been doing everything wrong. I’m questioning my life choices and feeling like I might have just totally wasted my time.  What’s up with this judgy training status? I’ve seen many of my running friends post similar woes on social media. It leaves us all wondering how Garmin calculates the effectiveness of a workout and what can we do to train more… productively? 

How Garmin Calculates Training Status

The answer to this question is both short and long. The short answer: It’s based off of your VO2 max.

The long answer: Well, now we need to know how Garmin calculates your VO2 max.

VO2 max is the maximum (max) volume (V) of oxygen (O2) your body is able to absorb during exercise. Garmin estimates your VO2 max using algorithms from Firstbeat Analytics (now owned by Garmin). Basically it takes background information, at least your age, and then samples heart rate data compared with your speed during your workouts. As a simplified example: if your average heart rate for a 9 minute mile this week is say, 140 and the next week it’s 150 your VO2 max would be trending lower. That later workout at 150 beats per minute would be considered unproductive. 

How to improve VO2 max and have more productive workouts

As you probably know, a lot of factors can affect your heart rate. Heat, stress, illness, poor recovery, diet and hydration are just some of them. Training too much in the “grey zone”, where you aren’t working hard enough on your hard days but too hard on your easy days can also be limiting your VO2 max. Try addressing some of these common issues to start seeing improvements in your training status.

Incorporate more interval training.

The number one way to improve your VO2 max is by performing short bursts of exercise at or near your maximum intensity. Many of us are guilty of focusing on our mileage but not paying attention to speedwork vs. recovery. A good training plan will have a mixture of hard (partly anaerobic) and easy workouts, but they are only effective if you actually pay attention to your intensity. 

Sleep more. Like for real.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but sleep is critical for recovery. Your body can’t absorb the effects of your training without proper rest. Also, sleep deprivation alone can affect your heart rate variability. It tends to stay higher rather than fluctuating as it normally would during a day when you are well-rested. Try turning off screens an hour before bedtime, eating earlier and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon (even if you don’ t think caffeine has a big effect on you). 

Manage life stress

Psychological stress can affect your resting heart rate. Some stress is unavoidable but we can often control small stressors that add up more than we realize. Try stepping away from social media and the news. Try a “screenless Saturday” and ignore your emails for a day.  Go outside and take a walk instead. Learn to say no to things you don’t absolutely love to do. 

Pay attention to your diet and hydration

We already know it’s impossible to outrun a bad diet. While being an endurance athlete does give you a few more calories to burn, many of us learn the hard way that it is not an open license to eat whatever we want. Eat too many calories and you wind up with excess weight which can increase your heart rate. Eat too few calories and you may compromise your recovery which also can increase your heart rate. Inadequate hydration can also lead to a higher heart rate. Keep up with it throughout the day as well as while training. A well balanced electrolyte sports drink can help prevent dehydration during long or intense workouts.

While it can be frustrating at times, I do actually like the Garmin Training Status feature. No, it doesn’t take the brutal humidity where I live into account but it does give me useful information. I don’t really want to do interval training either, but if I want my watch’s approval I better get on it. 

Kara Sasser, USAT Level 1 Coach