Is There An App For That?

Technology can be a somewhat divisive topic for runners.

On the one hand, there are those who — quite properly — celebrate the fact that if you want to be a runner, all you need to do is start running. I’d argue a well-fitting pair of shoes is pretty important to the process, but you don’t **need** to go out and buy lots of (often expensive) equipment to get in the game. You just run. And that’s a good thing.

At the other end of the spectrum, running provides the opportunity to totally geek out with technology you might not even realize exists. Shoes, specialized clothing, and all manner of measurement and data capturing gear. In some cases, all wrapped up in once piece of equipment, like your shoe.

I will confess you’ll find me at this end of the technology spectrum. It’s how I make my living, and — in this case — I’m fascinated by what technology can tell us about ourselves, and the potential to make us better runners.

Read more after the jump.

In this post, I wanted to share my experiences with some specific devices, as well as share some thoughts on the role I think technology can play, especially for new runners. Let’s start there.

I’ve used some form of technology every since I seriously began running. I started with an app for my phone (Adidas miCoach, which is no longer supported) and a chest-strap heart rate monitor. I later added a “pod” for my shoe, which measured things like stride rate, and then a sensor worn on the waist (Lumo Run) which measured gait and running mechanics.

Those lasted a long time, and served two basic purposes. First, coaching. When I started running, I didn’t have a coach or a trainer who could help me. I just sort of went out and ran. And it was pretty clear, once I decided I might actually want to run in a race, that I was going to need a lot of help. The app in particular provided that guidance — you could feed in information about your fitness level, experience, the distance you were training for, and when your race was, and it would spit out a training program just for you. As you ran, it monitored your performance and would helpfully tell you to speed up or slow down, or go as fast as you possibly could.

And it worked. I started running in the month of March, and by August, I ran in my first 5K. I subsequently used it to train for other races and distances and it was a huge help. As I trained, I was also building up a store of information. When I ran. How far. What the weather was. Where I went. Heart rate. Pace. Steps per minute. How fast (or slow, as the case might be). Even elevation gained and lost.

It was incredibly valuable, as well as a bit motivating — I could take a look and see how (or if) I was improving, and areas that might need attention.

Since then, I’ve added an Apple Watch to the mix — it’s the original version, so not a lot in the way of fancy sensors. Although, since I almost always take my phone with me, it’s not a problem. I just use the watch display to track how I’m doing in the run. After Adidas dropped support for their app, I ended up switching over to MapMyRun, from Under Armour. The coaching elements of the app weren’t quite as strong, but that was less of a need and the application does a great job of tracking all the other metrics I’m interested in, and it integrates extremely well with other health related applications I use on my iPhone.

Telemetric Shoes

So it was an interesting coincidence that, as part of the CUCB Social Media Ambassador program, Under Armour provided me a pair of their Gemini 2 running shoes, equipped with what they call Record Sensor technology. Similar to the external pod I’d used in the past, the sensor is actually embedded in the shoes and provides information on pace, cadence, stride length, and distance. Information is captured and stored in the shoes, or synced in real time to the MapMyRun app on the phone.

I never experimented with the feature to store the data on the shoe, as I always run with my phone — I’m one of those runners who likes to listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks as I run, plus it’s a safety thing. If I fall (which I’ve done), am injured, or need help, I like the idea I can make a call and get it.

Beyond the technology, I like the shoes. My form when I began running was atrocious, and a strong control shoe was a must. In the last few years, I’ve started to gravitate to something with less control, mostly in search of something lighter and not so clunky. The Gemini 2 (recently updated to “3” with the same sensor technology) is considered a neutral shoe — These felt great, lightweight and comfortable. I’ve put close to 300 miles on these, plus wearing them casually, and they look to be in great shape. I’ll be wearing them for the Credit Union Cherry Blossom race.

The Watch That Had A Brain

The other technology I’ve been testing is a Garmin Vivoactive 3. (Also in the interests of full disclosure, Garmin, as the technology sponsor of the CUCB race, provided the watch.) It’s been a huge change from what I’m used to in terms of tracking technology, mostly for the better. First, it’s not my first Garmin device — that came several years ago in the form of a handheld GPS device I used while backpacking. That was heavy(ish), used batteries at a rapid pace, and pretty much told you where you were. (Pretty important, and useful, when you’re in the backwoods.)

In contrast, the Vivoactive is extremely light, and packs quite a bit more functionality into the device. While it also syncs with a smartphone-based application, you don’t need to take your phone — in fact, it doesn’t transfer workout data until after you’ve completed your run (or yoga, or one of several other types of workouts available (pre-loaded or installable) on the device. The watch itself is round, unlike many other smart watches that are rectangular or square. It’s available in several finishes — mine is black with silver trim.

The display itself is bright — up and down swipes move from one section to another (watch, heart rate, schedule, audio controls for your Bluetooth-paired phone, etc.). Left and right swipes take you to more or less detailed screens. I typically wear the larger version of the Apple Watch and — accounting for the different shapes — were about the same size. My Apple Watch is slightly thicker, and while it’s not heavy, it packs a certain heft that’s absent from the Vivoactive. The Vivoactive is also a bit thinner.

I’m used to the higher resolution of the Apple Watch, which manages to pack a lot of information into the display. While that’s helpful, in some respects, the Vivoactive display is easier to use — with big, bright data fields, you can see how you’re doing at a glance and easily swipe from screen to screen to see more data. And, if you’re of an age, you don’t have to pull out a pair of reading glasses to make out all the details. The Vivoactive supports a variety of face designs, and it’s possible to add additional data fields (and more faces) from a store.

Battery life has been good. The watch turns off the onboard GPS system when you’re not working out to save energy. That can cause a brief delay when you’re starting a workout, like a run, that uses the GPS. The watch has to locate and sync with satellites to get a good position. It’s mostly a problem the first time you use the watch, or if you significantly change your location (for example, if you’re on a trip). In my case, the first time I went for a run I had to wait at least a couple of minutes while the watch searched for and locked onto the GPS satellites. That’s actually not unusual for GPS systems — it’s like waking up in a strange location and having to sort out where you are. Once the watch has established a fix on the local satellites, subsequent startups are considerably faster.

As mentioned, during a run, information is readily available and visible in the watch display. You’re able to customize the particular fields you want to see, and as mentioned before, easily swipe from screen to screen to see different details. In my training runs, the watch has performed flawlessly.

The Smartphone Connection

Like other devices, the Vivoactive comes with a smartphone app. As mentioned, workouts sync after completion and are available for review on the phone. (You can review details on the watch itself, although the larger screen on the phone means less swiping and moving from one screen to another to take in details.) For the most part, the application — Garmin Connect — worked well. The display is bright and colorful. Today’s activities and statistics are displayed first on the screen, and are followed by “cards” for the last seven days, and the previous month. Tapping on a card or field pulls up detailed — very detailed — statistics. If data is your thing, you’ll find plenty to dig through.

The only real complaint I had was with the app’s syncing to Apple Health. I use Apple Health as a clearinghouse of sorts for the various health-related apps I use. I found the Garmin Connect would transfer (and read) information properly from the Apple Health database, but problems arose in recording workouts. Most activities were synced multiple times, although the actual underlying data was only counted once. So, you might look and see you’d supposedly run the same eight mile run a dozen times, but the system properly tracked the single set of data. Something to chat about with tech support when I get the time. It’s strange, and mildly annoying, but as long as the data is being recorded properly it’s more an inconvenience than anything else.

So. I could go on, at length, about other bits of gear that I’ve used. But this post is already quite long enough, so I’ll close by returning to my original point about the role of technology. I do believe technology can play a valuable role in assisting athletes at any level in understanding, and improving their performance. Indeed, as someone who first started working with computers when they filled entire rooms, I find the capabilities of the applications, phones, watches, and other sensors to be nothing short of amazing. The fact that my watch, or a shoe, or a pod I strap to my shorts can tell me my stride length, or that I drop one hip more than another, or any of hundreds of other pieces of data can be tremendously empowering and informative.

Although, to be fair, I get the point of those who aren’t as enthused about technology as am I. During one of my recent training runs, with the PR Running Training team in Reston, I was halfway there when I realized I’d left my headphones (Bluetooth, of course) at home. It’s over an hour drive to get to training, so it was too late to go back and get them. So, that week I ended up running more “unplugged” than normal. And it was nice — just the sound of my breathing, and feet hitting the trail. I felt a bit more connected — to myself, and the world. And it was nice. So, perhaps there’s a place for both approaches. Technology is great, it can tell us a lot about ourselves. But sometimes it’s best to just go out, run, and listen to our bodies.

6 comments On Is There An App For That?

  • Great post! Meanwhile i’m SO lost!!! This is my first Garmin and first foray into running technology other than phone apps like map my run and now strava….

  • I am in the market for a running watch and run into your article (via Twitter). Thanks for the detailed write up! I was thinking about something simple and inexpensive like Garmin 25 or 35 but now I might rethink!! See you at CUCB!

  • Oh, the shoes sound so cool! I love my Garmin and the watchface they made for CUCB! Last weekend I drove to D.C. for a run and left my phone at home! I had to borrow a tourist’s phone to get a picture of the blossoms and text it to myself. :-O

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