The world of high-tech running accessories is exploding at an exponential rate.
The best exercise, it is often said, is the one that you will continue to do. Once you’ve completed the charity 10k, after your trial membership to CrossFit ends, when your mountain bike’s not so shiny and new — if you still want to run, ride or do Insanity, then you’ll know you’ve found the right one.
For me, it was running. I could fit it into my schedule and all I needed was a dryish day and a pair of shoes.
Also some shorts. Cutoffs and cargo shorts won’t do, so yes, I’d have to buy running shorts. And though I have countless T-shirts, those tech togs sure do wick away the sweat, the tag says. And did you know they make special socks for running? Some have toes! And so forth.
As it turns out, it’s easy to accessorize what should be the simplest of fitness plans. Not counting choice of shoes — no need to further boggle the mind here — there are huge markets for shirts, shorts and all-weather gear. New Adidas shorts may help motivate a run on a gray day, but we live in the future and we need technology to be part of the process of putting down and picking up of two feet in rapid succession.
Two of the biggest recent trends in fitness tech are compression wear and wearable trackers. Races are full of runners sporting colorful, over-the-calf knee socks or slick, black sleeves covering their calves. It’s not a fashion statement like the runner’s tutu; it’s a perceived edge in the race or a hedge against injury.
Compared to compression gear — the tights, shorts, shirts, arm or calf sleeves, and socks, available from numerous companies, are all quite similar — fitness trackers are all over the place and no single device or app has yet to set the standard.
Running with a smartphone is very popular and useful. Google Play and the App Store have plenty of free fitness trackers that can be deluxed for a small fee. However, running with a phone can be annoying — it’s got to be strapped on somehow and it’s relatively large and heavy. Dedicated fitness tracking devices, in comparison, run the gamut from button-sized upscale pedometers to multifunctioning, satellite-talking, pulse-taking wrist trainers. Many of the trackers sync via Bluetooth to your phone or computer.
Who watches the watchmen (and women)?
We’re in a transitional time in the world of the smart/fitness/watch/activity/lifestyle/tracker. GPS watches for runners have been around for most of this century and current offerings from companies such as Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Timex, Garmin and TomTom are well-reviewed and reasonably priced from about $100 to less than $300.
Paul Amos, 44, a member of the West Philly Runners (westphillyrunners.com) club, uses a Garmin GPS watch (garmin.com) and the MapMyRun app on his iPhone combined with a heart rate monitor.
Amos has been using the Garmin for six months and MapMyRun for the past four years. He switches between the two depending on whether he’s running alone (MapMyRun allows him to listen to music) or with friends. Running three to four times a week over four years accumulates a lot of data. How obsessive is he about that information?
“Very obsessive,” said Amos, “I’m training for an Ironman Triathlon. I tend to run the same races over and over, so I can compare the data. For instance, if I felt like I was running slow in a race, I can look back and see that last year I was running 8-minute miles and this year, it was 7:50.”
Another West Philly Runner, Kyle Cassidy, 47, gets his stimulation from simulation. Zombies, Run! is an app for Apple and Android phones that turns you, the runner, into a survivor in the Zombie Apocalypse.
“When you hear the zombies come, it’s actually kind of scary,” Cassidy said, “and it motivates you to run faster.” Motivation is a key factor in Cassidy’s training, and he really enjoys the gimmicks such as virtual trophies he earns using his Nike+ GPS watch. “One of the nifty things is that I just ran my 1,000th mile. It was during a run with my running club and they threw me a little celebration during it.”
Cassidy likes how his Nike+ shows his stats in comparison to other runners in his age group and uses it as a motivator. “Whoever designed the app really understood my psyche,” he said. He never exercises without it, because he feels “sort of journalistic — if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.”
But I’m not training for a triathlon, sir
GPS fitness watches are definitely designed for serious athletes, with more settings than most people would need or like and unit bodies that all seem ridiculously large. Hence, the appearance on the market of the Activity Tracker.
The difference between activity trackers and the classic runner’s watch is primarily the GPS. Activity trackers use accelerometers alone to count steps and then combine the data with other information to give you a picture of your overall activity level and help you reach your fitness goals.
After a 2012-13 explosion, the activity tracker market seems to have leveled off and is shedding some of the underperformers. Nike has stopped developing hardware for its FuelBand line, but will continue to sell them and instead focus on software, Motorola discontinued its music-playing MOTOACTV smart watch in 2013 after a late 2011 launch, and Fitbit, one of the leaders in the field, has recalled one model, the Fitbit Force, due to a rash it caused on some users.
Design and function vary widely in the trackers. At best, they should help you reach your fitness goals, telling you just how many steps you’ve taken, calories you’ve burned, etc. Trackers come in three basic styles: wristwatch, bracelet and pendant with some crossover and variation. If a tracker looks good with non-fitness clothes, you’re likely to wear it more often, allowing the data it collects during the non-workout parts of your day to paint the best picture. If it helps to combine your fitness tracking with social media, there are choices there as well.
Ben Taylor at Time magazine online put together a great comprehensive list of 26 fitness trackers, ranked and scored on several criteria including ease of syncing and battery life (time.com/516/26-fitness-trackers-ranked-from-worst-to-first). Unless you fall in love with a tracker and find it to be truly compatible, check out this article before making any purchases.
I received three trackers from manufacturers to demo and learned a few things about them — and myself — in the process. I found out that my inner geek comes out when data about my runs are readily available. I also learned how important device compatibility is in the fitness tracker market. I learned that when you have an iPhone, you’ve got a wider array of choices, and that when you’ve got one of the cheaper smartphones on the market, you may not be able to sync it to any of your trackers.
As it turns out, the Basis Carbon Steel Edition (mybasis.com, $199) that I tested syncs with Mac and Windows computers, while many others track your information just with app-based software. Owning the previously mentioned cheap phone, that’s a plus for me. I often take my runs at lunch on workdays and it’s simple to hook the watch up to its USB cord and sync my fresh info while charging the watch for the next few days. As data built, the Basis software started pointing out trends and habits. You can select up to 12 habits you want to adopt, such as getting up from your desk and moving around during the workday. Then you can disappoint the Basis when you commit the sin of not living up to your best intentions.
One of the best features of the Basis is that it automatically knows what activity you’re doing. It knows when you’re walking as opposed to running or even biking. According to the company literature, “Basis uses four types of advanced sensors to track motion, heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature separately.”
The sensors include a blood flow monitor with proprietary optical sensors that somehow “see” the blood flowing through your arm; a 3-axis accelerometer which detects body movement; a perspiration monitor detects changes in sweat levels; and a skin and ambient temperature sensor saves on the cost of thermometers. Proprietary technology crunches these numbers and tells you what you’re doing and for how long you’ve been doing it. The data gets uploaded to the Basis website upon connection to your PC where your workout history is viewable.
The built-in heart monitor is a selling point for the Basis, and it also makes sleep analysis possible. I was disappointed when I couldn’t get real-time heart rate readings while running, so I asked Stacie Blanke, a company representative: What’s up with that? She replied, “While most people associate heart rate monitoring with exercise and athletic training, Basis is not intended to replace a chest strap monitor at this time. The Basis team purposefully designed the product with blood flow-sensing technology that helps maintain battery life and keep the band lighter and smaller for comfortable, 24/7 wear, but movement and exercise will likely disrupt the heart rate-monitoring capabilities.”
Though it’s not the most effective way for an athlete to do real-time heart rate checks, Basis pushes the monitoring as a way to track and manage stress levels during the day and give you information on your sleep patterns. Mostly, I’ve used the information to see that, yup, I sure don’t get much sleep.
The best-looking trackers could be something else at first glance. The Misfit Shine (misfitwearables.com, $99.99) is a standout because the interface is so distinctive. It’s a quarter-sized, seemingly blank, convex disk of aluminum that can be worn any number of ways. The Shine comes packaged with a silicon wristband so you can wear it as a wristwatch or bracelet. Or it can be fitted into a small silicon sling with a magnet on the end that can be wrapped around an item of clothing to wear like a pin or a brooch. The most interesting thing about the Shine is that it gives you immediate information via a circle of 12 LED lights shining through tiny laser-drilled holes in the metal. Two taps on the face will tell you how much of your personal daily goal you’ve achieved (i.e. 2 dots out of 12), then it tells you the time, first flashing an hour, followed by minutes.
You set up weight and activity goals through the Shine’s well-designed, iOS-only app. It’s also there that you find details about your day’s and week’s activity levels. A sleep monitor with fungible goals is also available, though my colleague and running partner who tested it found it to be inexact, mistaking sitting and watching TV for sleeping.
The Milestone Pod (milestonepod.com, $19.95) is the simplest tracker I used. Slightly larger than a quarter and as thin as a dime, the device laces into your sneakers and keeps track of your miles. It’s marketed primarily as a way to record the miles you put on a pair of shoes so you know when to replace them. The Apple and Android app will store and track your workout sessions indefinitely — you just need to sync the Pod every day. The Pod knows the difference between a walk or run for exercise and distinguishes it from casual movement. Mileage, pace, cadence and run history are viewable on the app and it will also store contact and emergency information that can be accessed if necessary by emergency personnel. (The EMS symbol is printed on the silicon holder that laces to your shoe.)
Though the utilitarian Pod just sits on my running shoes, fighting with their grungy simplicity and the Basis looks like a digital watch I had in the early ’80s, there’s a mental fashion line I had to cross to put my compression gear to use.
Compress or excess?
Although brightly colored compression gear is ubiquitous on race day, and would have fit right in aesthetically back in the 1980s, it may or may not have any effect on athletic performance. The idea is that the tight-fitting, elastic items will help support your muscles and also increase blood flow through the extremities. Most manufacturers tout their products as aiding in and shortening recovery time. Specially placed panels of different fabric stiffness and graduated support differentials are supposed to enhance your exercise experience. Research points to recovery as being the most likely effect of wearing the socks or calf sleeves during or after a run, with performance and endurance parameters less well established.
I ran in a pair of McDavid calf sleeves (think spandex socks without the feet) provided by the company (mcdavidusa.com, $24.99/pair). My first experience was a couple of days after I got a bad case of shin splints during a run across the Ben Franklin Bridge. The good news is that the shin splints didn’t return — and still haven’t — but the bad news is that I ran very slowly and never felt comfortable. The first time, I had myself half convinced that they were too small and cutting off the circulation of blood back to my brain and that I was going to have an embolism (I don’t know much about physiology). In my experience, if I expect something to hurt or go wrong during a run, it throws off everything and makes for a rough time. For a subsequent run, I measured my calves and found that the sleeves were, in fact, a proper fit. But I still ran slowly and didn’t feel like I was getting any benefit from them. Obviously, not everyone needs or wants to wear compression socks or sleeves while running and I seem to do OK without them. My editor, on the other hand, wore a pair a day after tweaking his calf and thought the added support helped a great deal.
So I didn’t like running with compression sleeves. But after a run? Oh, my. Following a medium-fast 8-mile run, I pulled on a pair of CW-X knee-length, circus peanut-orange Ventilator Compression Socks (cw-x.com, $55), noticed the “R” stitched onto the sock on my left foot and tried again. The soles of my feet were a little tender, as per usual after a long run, but my calves, which are also usually sore, felt perfectly fine right away. I wore them for the rest of the evening and was shocked to discover the next day that I had absolutely no lingering leg soreness.
CW-X is a subsidiary of Wacoal, the Japanese brassiere concern. The company calls its patented Support Web technology “targeted support” and equates it with taping techniques used by trainers for injured muscles. It seems to be a tech-centered company, as it refers to the research in kinesiology done at the Wacoal Human Science Research Center in Kyoto. For me, the research would be simple and unscientific. I tried the socks and I felt good. Then I tried the Endurance Generator Shorts ($119.95).
The shorts, featuring trademarked fabrics, are like bike shorts, but with more seams connecting the various fabric panels. The panels mimic the way doctors and therapists use kinesiology tape on an athlete. I initially liked the fit and the flexibility, but it wasn’t until I reached the Art Museum steps that I found something to distinguish them from regular spandex. The company claims that the shorts are “ideal for long-distance trail runners,” and after climbing those stairs, I’m inclined to agree. It actually felt like my thighs were being pulled up on each step. I didn’t feel that way running on the flat Schuylkill River Trail, but I did on two sets of stairs that day.
The shorts and I got a workout at the 15k Quadzilla Trail Race in July. The good news is that I finished the race without injury at a respectable pace. The bad news is that the shorts are not magic hill-climbing cyborg symbiotes and the race was really hard. Next year, more actual hill training, less hoping that the gear will do the job.
Joseph Kemp is the design director for the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.