As you upload your data, you accumulate a growing history of rides. It is helpful to find ways of classifying different types of activities. Races and training sessions often include laps that are repeated during the ride. Many GPS units can automatically record laps as you pass the point where you began your ride or last pressed the lap button. However, if the laps were not recorded on the device, it is tricky to recover them. This article investigates how to detect laps automatically.

First consider the simple example of a 24 lap race around the Hillingdon cycle circuit. Plotting the GPS longitude and latitude against time displays repeating patterns. It is even possible to see the “omega curve” in the longitude trace. So it should be possible to design an algorithm that uses this periodicity to calculate the number of laps.

This is a common problem in signal processing, where the Fourier Transform offers a neat solution. This effectively compares the signal against all possible frequencies and returns values with the best fit in the form of a power spectrum. In this case, the frequencies correspond to the number of laps completed during the race. In the bar chart below, the power spectrum for latitude shows a peak around 24. The high value at 25 probably shows up because I stopped my Garmin slightly after the finish line. A “harmonic” also shows up at 49 “half laps”. Focussing on the peak value, it is possible to reconstruct the signal using a frequency of 24, with all others filtered out.

So we’re done – we can use a Fourier Transform to count the laps! Well not quite. The problem is that races and training sessions do not necessarily start and end at exactly the starting point of a lap. As a second example, consider my regular Saturday morning club run, where I ride from home to the meeting point at the centre of Richmond Park, then complete four laps before returning home. As show in the chart below, a simple Fourier Transform approach suggests that ride covered 5 laps, because, by chance, the combined time for me to ride south to the park and north back home almost exactly matches the time to complete a lap of the park. Visually it is clear that the repeating pattern only holds for four laps.

Although it seems obvious where the repeating pattern begins and ends, the challenge is to improve the algorithm to find this automatically. A brute force method would compare every GPS location with every other location on the ride, which would involve about 17 million comparisons for this ride, then you would need to exclude the points closely before or after each recording, depending on the speed of the rider. Furthermore, the distance between two GPS points involves a complex formula called the haversine rule that accounts for the curvature of the Earth.

Fortunately, two tricks can make the calculation more tractable. Firstly, the peak in the power spectrum indicates roughly how far ahead of the current time point to look for a location potentially close to the current position. Given a generous margin of, say, 15% variation in lap times, this reduces the number of comparisons by a whole order of magnitude. Secondly, since we are looking for points that are very close together, we only need to multiply the longitudes by the cosine of the latitude (because lines of longitude meet at the poles) and then a simple Euclidian sum the squares of the differences locates points within a desired proximity of, say, 10 metres. This provides a quicker way to determine the points where the rider was “lapping”. These are shaded in yellow in the upper chart and shown in red on a long/latitude plot below. The orange line on the upper chart shows, on the right hand scale, the rolling lap time, i.e. the number of seconds to return to each point on the lap, from which the average speed can be derived.

Two further refinements were required to make the algorithm more robust. One might ask whether it makes a difference using latitude or longitude. If the lap involved riding back and forth along a road that runs due East-West, the laps would show up on longitude but not latitude. This can be solved by using a 2-dimensional Fourier Transform and checking both dimensions. This, in turn, leads to the second refinement, exemplified by the final example of doing 12 ascents of the Nightingale Lane climb. The longitude plot includes the ride out to the West, 12 reps and the Easterly ride back home.

The problem here was that the variation in longitude/latitude on the climb was tiny compared with the overall ride. Once again, the repeating section is obvious to the human eye, but more difficult to unpick from its relatively low peak in the power spectrum. A final trick was required: to consider the amplitude of each frequency in decreasing order of power and look out for any higher frequency peaks that appear early on the list. This successfully identified the relevant part of the ride, while avoiding spurious observations for rides that did not include laps.

The ability for an algorithm to tag rides if they include laps is helpful for classifying different types of sessions. Automatically marking the laps would allow riders and coaches to compare laps against each other over a training session or a race. A potential AI-powered robo-coach could say “Ah, I see you did 12 repeats in your session today… and apart from laps 9 and 10, you were getting progressively slower….”