Analytics on apples and oranges: Comparing sports

I was an exercise logger long before I had heard the word “analytics.” I became a semi-serious recreational runner in 1996, and after a few months of paper logs, I’ve kept track of my running digitally. Early on, I used one of the first log apps, The Athlete’s Diary (which still appears to exist!), then for many years a modified Excel template created by a couple of people from the Dead Runners Society. Since switching to GPS watches, I’ve used a bunch. Currently I use and like Garmin Connect and Strava, as I wrote last week.

The analytics these new tools provide are impressive. But running is, in lots of ways, easy to be analytical on: There’s time and distance, and therefore speed. There’s effort, for which a heart rate is a pretty great proxy. Add terrain (from GPS or your own logging), cadence (from your watch’s accelerometer), and you can analyze and compare almost everything you do.

But what if you do different sports? Or, worse yet, sports that are very complex. When “constantly varied” is in the definition of a sport, as it is for CrossFit, my preferred version of “functional fitness,” you know it’s not going to be easy to figure out how one workout relates to another. What’s a boy to do? Continue reading

Segments Rock! The Value of Virtual Competitions

There’s a guy who lives in my neighborhood. I think he lives here. I haven’t met him and I don’t yet know him even in the virtual way you can get to know people on listservs (remember those?) or social media.

The segment in question.

The segment in question.

So I’m not exactly yet trash talking him. But we’re close to trash talking. See, we are competitors. We are trying to figure out who runs faster on a Bird Hills trail from Newport Road to Bird Road. A couple of weeks ago, I got third overall, then he beat me on it, and this week I did my best to beat him and get back the bronze medal. I succeeded! Take that, French guy! How’s your Maginot Line holding up now? Huh? (I think he’s French. I don’t know. I have nothing against the French, but if we’re competing, we might as well get nationalist about it. I can’t imagine a running event where the Finns don’t beat the French.)

You might be puzzled about how I can compete — continuously — against someone I’ve never met. It’s easy: it’s a virtual competition. It’s a virtual competition made possible by Strava, an endurance sport logging tool. Strava is like a bunch of other cloud-based exercise logging services and just one of the many I use. (To get technical about this: I log my runs with my Garmin GPS watch, which uploads my runs to Garmin’s Strava counterpart, Garmin Connect, which kindly transfers my data over to Strava.) Strava is fantastic because of the incredibly rich analytics I get for my runs and occasional bike rides. But what really has reinvigorated my running are Strava’s segments.

Segments are bits of a route that someone decides to tag as benchmarks tests, usually just for themselves, but, given the nature of these cloud-based tools, for others as well. If the segment you created is an area where other people go, they’ll get the info about it when they log their workout on the site in question. And thus begins a virtual competition.

Or does it? For me, yes, with qualifications. But for others, according to my anecdata, definitely not. In fact, my colleagues in psychology have a reasonable explanation for this: rivalry increases among people with similar performances when they are ranked near the top, and decreases when the chance of getting the gold, or the bronze, or any meaningful recognition diminishes. If you are ranked 200 in something, you are not particularly excited about beating 199, the story suggests, with pretty compelling results.

So on this particular segment, since we’re talking about the third best time, I’m pretty darned interested in keeping my (maybe) neighbor/the French dude, away from the prize. On many other segments, where I’m nowhere near the top — Ann Arbor has some seriously fast runners — I don’t care if I’m number 65 or 265. Whatevs, I say on those segments.

What’s really cool about Strava (and probably about other such tools) is that you can make the competition meaningful. Individuals enter parameters about themselves into the system, and you can drill down and limit the pool to the people who share your parameters, whether it’s age, weight, gender, or some combination.


I now have bronze on the segment and, dammit!, will keep it.

Sure, the parameters are limited, and there’s no way everyone can make themselves feel that they are competitive. But given the pursuits available, there might be. Not a runner? Try weightlifting. Or target shooting. Or walking. Or knitting. Or chess.

Does this mean that I want to endorse the creepy idea that “Everyone is special”? No. But if we do think, as we should, that for some people, meaningful competition can become a source of motivation to push beyond their current limits, then we should think about how to create them. I mean, there is nothing intrinsically valuable about the Newport Road-Bird Road segment, but given the people who’ve run it, it makes me push harder, and run more.

This blog, despite its name, is motivated by (a) my interest in teaching better and (b) that competition does not belong in education. So this post might seem like a weird anomaly. But the fact is that we have students who are motivated by competition. This, I hope, helps us think of ways in which we can tap into that motivation for more than the usual suspects while also not alienating those for whom all of this still remains creepy.

So, for now, my eye is on this guy from my neighborhood, and whatever segments he chooses to run.