Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Running Better With Electronics

Running can be totally free spirited where you just lace 'em up and go out the door and you're free from every care in the world - it's just you and the road.  But if you're a stats junkie like me, you're going to want to see what you did when you get back.  Sometimes you're following a prescribed program and you actually need to track your pace in real time and hear audible cues to know a pace change is just ahead.  Whatever your reason for being "wired", part of the fun is finding out what works for you.

Running Watches
Garmin 405c Running Watch - bulky but effective
You basically have 2 options with watches - a pacing watch that is calibrated to your average stride length, or a GPS watch which takes location readings every 10 seconds to calculate distance and pace.  

I use a Garmin 405 GPS watch for every run or hike.  It connects wirelessly to a heart rate monitor and a foot pod sensor (for cadence, or steps-per-minute).  Sometimes I leave the heart rate and foot pod at home, but mostly I use them for real-time readings of both.  After the run the watch can upload all the data collected to the Garmin website where there's reporting features such as run mapping, graphs and charts (sample).  There's also the ability to get reports on distance, heart rate, pacing, etc., on any time period.  Mostly this all works well.  There's a host of features on the watch more than these basics, and you should research carefully what you value before making a purchase as they are pricey.  Also the rechargeable battery is rumored to have a lifespan of about 2 years - not very long for something that cannot be replaced (unconfirmed).  

One of my chief complaints with this watch is positioning accuracy which affects distance calculation and speed.  On almost every run I have a fastest pace of a sub-6 minute mile.  Flattering, but sorry that just won't ever happen.  I presume the watch is doing triangulation from at least 3 GPS birds (satellites), but the reception is affected by buildings and other barriers.  This can lead to inaccuracies over longer distances.  Once I had someone ride a bike  with a calibrated speedometer next to me on a long 17 mile run and the difference was at least a 1/2 mile at the end.  A related complaint is the delay in finding itself - at the start of GPS tracking it "warms up" and finds where you are in the world.  This can take a LONG time on occasion, and when you're trying to squeeze in a run on your lunch break this can be very annoying.    

The advantage of the watch is the simplicity of it.  Strap it to your wrist, start the training program and off you go.  

Music/iPod and Headphones
I've gone through some trials here.  Mostly the problem with MP3/iPods is sweat - they kill the devices.  If you're going to use these devices you need to find a way to keep them dry.  Sweat seeping into charging and headphone ports WILL KILL these devices quickly.  I don't always run with music, but sometimes it's helpful.

The iPod Nano 2nd generation is a very thin, lightweight option.  It has push-button positive action controls for song selection and volume adjustment, which makes adjusting things while in motion a pretty easy task.  My wife still uses this for her runs with a Nike armband and so far has not been affected by sweat.  Given she's been using this for over 4 years, I'd say it's passed the sweat-stress test.  

The iPod shuffle by far is the lightest device out there with extraordinary battery life.  I'm a music shuffler, so assuming the playlist is loaded that I want, I'm off on a weightless music-filled run.  The iPod headphones are crap for running, and conventional headphones don't have the music controls on the headphone wire to adjust volume and song selection.  I ended up with a Scoche Shuffle sleeve that puts the controls on the device.  This works incredibly well, and so far has been impervious to sweat.  The Shuffle, however, is not.  While under warranty I went through 2 of these devices.

iPod Nano 6th Generation
The iPod Nano 6th generation is an OK device, but I'm not thrilled with it for runs.  It's very light and has large storage capacity, and hosts playlists.  The advantages stop there.  My first complaint is the touch screen.  This is VERY ANNOYING for a few reasons:  1)  I can't see the screen with sunglasses on or in bright sunshine.  2) Dragging my finger across the screen when it's sweaty doesn't produce accurate results - things get selected that I don't want or vice-versa. Also it's subject to inadvertent touches, and when you want to advance to the next song there is absolutely no way to do it by touch unless you get lucky.  3) It's very susceptible to sweat.  In less than 7 months I was on my third device.  I have given up on this device for running and now resides in my car.

Headphones are tricky.  As I mentioned in the Shuffle review above, the Apple headphones for running are crap.  They fall out of the ear, the cord isn't long enough for elaborate routing under the shirt and down sleeves, and the quality isn't all that awesome.  I played around with headphones that have a squishy memory foam end that expands to fill the ear canal after they're inserted.  These work OK but the cheap ones lack good sound quality.  As a gift last Christmas I received the Bose IE2 headphones.  At $99 they're very pricey, but they've held up extremely well, are great from running (put them in and they don't move AT ALL), sound great and have survived rain and long-run sweat.  They are not billed as waterproof or sweat proof, but I've not had any issues with them.  I bought a pair for my wife and she has not had any issues running with them as well.  I highly recommend these if you value music on your runs.  

iPhone Software
I've looked a several programs since I decided to try lugging my iPhone along on my runs.  Apart from the weight, it does offer some nice advantages.   At first I carried it in my hand, but after 10 miles this just isn't practical.  I broke down and bought a Tune Belt armband, which just barely fits around my bicep (and I don't have "guns" anymore).  They do sell an band extender for a few bucks, and you may need this depending on your arm size.  The Tune Belt does appear to be rain and sweat proof, though the plastic screen protector does fog up on long runs which concerns me.  Also, once inside the Tune Belt the phone is impossible to see in the daylight with sunglasses, the iPhone unlock slider is hard to operate and removing it from the Tune Belt while in motion is likely to result in you punching yourself in the nose (it tends to stick to the plastic window and requires a good tug to get it free.)  

Among the running programs I've looked at are Nike+ GPS, Run Watch, RunKeeper, Runmeter and iMapMyRUN.  Most of these have a free eval version.  I've learned that any one of these will have at least most of the features I want, but none have ALL the features I want.  I'll save you the suspense and tell you that Runmeter has (almost) everything I want - which is accurate GPS mapping, robust interval training, social media integration (love those on-the-run tweets), the ability to email progress to specific email addresses (useful for letting the wife know I didn't roll off into a ditch somewhere to die), announcements of stats, and it's sort of iPod friendly.  

Runmeter on iPhone 4
Since Runmeter is my top choice, they've already done the hard work and rated themselves against the other major competitors here.   I've looked it over and cannot improve upon their comparison.  Run Watch is not on the Runmeter comparison chart, but it's similar in many ways to the others.  The Eval edition does allow you to email progress updates which I valued before I bought Runmeter (at $4.99??).  

Wahoo ANT+  key
Runmeter recently updated with iOS 5 and now has ANT+ integration with the Wahoo key.  I nearly jumped on this for my heart rate and foot pod modules, but the key plugged into the iPhone won't fit in the Tune Belt, so I'd have to buy a Wahoo belt that accommodates the Wahoo key ($29.99) in addition to the key itself ($79.99).  In the end, I would get the same functionality I have from my Garmin 405 watch, and I wouldn't have the integrated website reporting I get with Garmin.  If I see Runmeter move towards offering users robust reporting on their website I may spring for the Wahoo key, but for now I'll just stick with my watch (at least until the battery dies).  

Conclusion
In the end, I selected the Garmin 405 watch for its ANT+ devices integration, and the Runmeter program for my iPhone.  If I want music on my run, I use Bose IE2 headphones that I plug into the iPhone as an MP3 player.   This combination gives the stats junkie in me all the stuff I want to look at, either in real-time or after the run, and gets me music reliably if I so desire.  

That's it, let me know if you've found some other technology gadget that helps your run - I'm always interested!

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