Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Optical Heart Rate Monitors

In the past, exercise heart rate monitors have used EKG technology on a chest strap to track heart rates and thus exercise intensity. Recently, however, a a number of companies have released a new type of sensor that presses against your skin and flashes light through the top layer and measures your heart rate via the capillaries there. The technology works quite well. These devices communicate over both Bluetooth and/or ANT+ with a GPS watch or smartphone to record heart rate data.

Two devices in the exercise market that have capitalized on this new technology are the Mio Link and Scosche RHYTHM+. I originally purchased the Mio Link and liked it, but it's not quite perfect. It was certainly a step up from the chest strap I had been using. For whatever reason chest straps frequently gave me heat rash in the humid Houston weather. The Mio is worn on the wrist like a watch and needs to be placed fairly firmly against the skin in order to provide solid tracking. Even so, I did notice an occasional drop in the signal; no worse than the chest strap, but still not perfect. I also discovered that the signal was a bit weak. When I was using an older device like my ForeRunner 610 to track the data I actually had to wear the Mio and the 610 on the same wrist in order for it to pick up the signal.

Despite the issues, I still quite liked the Mio Link, but the blogger I follow who reviews exercise gadgetry started saying a lot of good things about a similar device called the Scosche RHYTHM+. I decided to give it a try and found it to all of the good of the Mio Link with none of the niggling issues. The Scosche can be work on the wrist or pretty much anywhere else on the arm. I wear it around my upper arm. It's extremely comfortable as it has a stretchy cloth-like strap. I often forget it's even there. The signal is quite strong and I've never had any issues with drops.

As you can see, the Scoshe comes out way ahead and I can't recommend it highly enough. I wear it on every run and it's been flawless. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Garmin ForeRunner 610, 310xt, and Fenix 2 Comparison

As I mentioned previously, I love gadgets. A lot of folks from my generation are subject to this affliction, but I got the double whammy because of a genetic predisposition towards the same. My Grandfather was every bit the gadget collector in his time.

When it comes to running, the main electronic hub is a GPS watch. When I started out, I did some research, and as I often do, I overreached a bit and got what was (supposedly) the best of the best, the Garmin fenix 2. After some concerns about it's GPS accuracy, confirmed by many similar experiences documented on the Garmin forums, I decided to hit up ebay for an older watch, the Garmin ForeRunner 610. Don't let the price on Garmin's site fool you. I was able to get a new one for quite a bit less than half of the MSRP. I chose the 610 because of the research done by this guy. Seriously, that fellow's work on the topic of GPS accuracy was amazing. I should have stopped there, but as I said in my previous post, there are a few features of the 310xt (a contemporary of, and thus having similar GPS accuracy to the 610) that I was interested in, so on a whim one day, I grabbed one of those from ebay as well.

If you want amazingly detailed reviews of these devices, head on over to dcrainmaker.com (best running/cycling, swimming gadget site... period). What I'll do here is focus on the things that mattered to me.

Usability

The fenix 2 wins here, no question. Perhaps it's just the fact that it's newer, but Garmin nailed the usability on this device. Everything works intuitively. The button layout and menus is exactly what you expect. Starting, stopping, and configuring activities is very natural. The screen contrast and DPI (clarity) is terrific; no jagged edges on numbers or letters in this device. That's not to say the 610 and 310xt are terrible, but they're definitely different. The 610 is a touchscreen device, and that works decently, but I'm not sure touchscreen is really necessary for an athletic context. I usually just end up making a mess of my screen with my sweaty fingers by the end of every activity and then end up having to clean it. Still, it works and it's a bit lighter than the fenix and definitely smaller, so it doesn't scream, "Look at me! I'm a funky running watch!" The 310xt, like the fenix 2 is all buttons, but it's not as intuitive. Not terrible, just not great. It's also purely an "activity" watch. You literally need to turn it off after each activity or it will stay on and constantly try to find satellites and other connected devices, running the batter down pretty quickly. The fenix and 610 can both be in "watch" mode when not in an activity, however the fenix is nice in that being in an activity or not is an active choice, whereas with the 610 you don't have a choice. If you unlock it our of watch mode, you go to activity mode (i.e. searching for satellites and connected devices) automatically.  

GPS Accuracy

I've already kind of covered this, but to reiterate, the 610 and 310xt beat the fenix hands down in this category. The fenix get's a satellite lock more quickly, due to caching, but unless conditions are good (little tree cover and few tall buildings), it does a very mediocre job of tracking your position.  This is critically important as many of the metrics that the watch records are based off of that GPS position: distance and pace (unless using a footpod) are the two most important ones. When I've work the 610 and 310xt together and then compared the tracks, they never completely align so I can't really tell which is the more accurate, however they are both more than close enough to give pretty good measurements for pace and distance.

Footpod

A footpod is a device you can attach to your shoe to track a few things like cadence and it can be used to measure pace and in some cases distance. Fort what it's worth, the fenix has some of the same sensors as a footpod built into and supposedly can track cadence even without a footpod. I can't attest to the accuracy of it's measurements thuough. For the most part, i'd like to rely on the GPS for final activity measurements, but for real time pace the footpod tends to do a little better job. GPS readings work out well when strung together to make a track, but individual readings are usually only within a 15-25 ft range so second to second pace readings can bob up and down a little too much for comfort. The footpod, especially when calibrated provides much more steady readings. 

The 610 and 310xt both have the ability to use the footpod for "current" pace readings while leaving all of the other measurements to the GPS. This is great; exactly what I'm looking for. The fenix isn't quite as cut and dry though. When the footpod is setup to record pace, it seems to use that pace for other metrics in addition to the current pace. Not ideal. Then there's the fact that the 610 and 310 show the current pace identically when connected to the footpod but the fenix always shows a different number (yes I DID wear all three once to make this comparison, and yes, I did look pretty funny with three watches on one arm). Sometimes the number is lower and sometimes it's higher. 

Looks

As long as you're not a petite person, the fenix looks great and coiuld probably be used as a walking around watch; It's got a rugged black metallic vibe. The 610 is small and also could easily be worn for normal use, but it's definitely got a plastic look and feel. The 310xt doesn't have a watch mode, so it's not for normal day-to-day use. It's also the least watch-like of the three. That's no big deal if you're using it for it's intended purpose, but I'm sure there are some folks who just won't like the large, orange styling of the device. 

Misc

In most other respects the devices were either identical or close enough not to matter to me, but there are a few other items to keep in mind:

The 310XT has much larger display than the other two, although the excellent layout and clarity of the fenix almost negates this advantage. The 610 is certainly readable and usable, but the 310xt gets the edge here. 

The 310xt also has a "course" mode, meaning you can upload a path and then use the GPS features to keep you on that path. This is a great feature if you find yourself running in unfamiliar or frequently changing environments, but if you have a couple of regular routes, then this obviously won't matter. The fenix can do this as well. The 610 doesn't have this feature, despite having the necessary sensors, screen, and processing power to do it. Too bad... 

The fenix has a huge number of other miscellaneous features that aren't on the 310xt and 610. Remember that it's currently Garmin's top of the line device. It does a million things and if any of those things are important to you, then their absence on the 610 and 310xt will clearly rule them out, but as far as running goes, those two older devices have all of the important bases covered. 

Conclusion

The 310xt is almost a slam dunk for me. Why "almost"? Well, I did run across one bug, and really, there's no other way to describe it except "bug". For details, I'd encourage you to read my Garmin forum post on the topic, but the bottom line is that the "current pace" feature that I've mentioned several times above doesn't work correctly when using the device's "workout" feature. A workout is a preplanned set of steps. For instance: Step 1) warmup for 3 minutes, step 2) run for 30 minutes at pace xxx, step 3) recovery run  for 5 minutes. There are many different ways to setup the steps including distance, heart rate, etc. For whatever reason, when using this feature, the current pace feature doesn't actually give "current" pace. It gives some kind of average pace that I haven't been able to pin down yet. It's bizarre. The 610 does not have this problem. I am extremely annoyed by this as I use the workout functionality regularly and I am such a new runner that I'm still learning how to maintain a steady pace and the current pace metric is an important aide to that goal. 

I've been working around this bug by using the "alert" feature instead of workouts for now. I can set an alert based on time which I can use to emulate that middle step I mentioned above. It's far from perfect but it's OK. If I can't get this figured out in the long run, I may end up heading back to the 610 which would be disappointing as a like the larger screen and course feature of the 310xt. We'll see.

The other conclusion I've come to is that I'm going to keep an eye on some of the non-garmin products out there. Garmin used to absolutely own this segment, but Polar and Ambit are making some pretty strong headway (especially Ambit). Their current top-of-the-line devices do not appear to suffer from the GPS issues that plague the fenix. 

On this last note, let me just state for the record how ripped off I felt when I ran into the GPS accuracy problems on the fenix. That was a VERY expensive device. Sure, it's probably "good enough" for people running streets with at least decent sky visibility but in anything less than good conditions, including trail running which I deeply enjoy, it's nowhere near acceptable for a premiere device, especially when their previous generation devices all work perfectly fine in those less than ideal conditions. 



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Running Gadgetry - GPS Watches

One of the best things about running is the all the cool gear. GPS watches, heart rate monitors, foot pods, shoes, shirts, shorts, socks, hats, hydration, music players... oh, and nipple protection. Can't forget the nipple protection. Today, though, I'll focus on GPS watches. If you want really in depth information on what's out there, there's no better place than DC Rainmaker. That guy does a tremendous job reviewing gear; far better than what I'll do here, but I still think I have a few things to add from my experiences.

At thins point, I've tried three different GPS watches: Forerunner 610, Forerunner 310xt, and the fenix 2. The fenix was my first device as I had done a lot of research and decided to get what was supposedly the best of the best of the current generation of GPS watches. So I bit the bullet and paid the exorbitant price for that device. As it turns out, maybe not the best idea. If you are a triathlete then I think that yes, this might still be the right watch for you, and maybe even a hiker (as that is one of it's main uses) but for running anywhere that might have a slightly degraded GPS signal like wooded trails or near tall builds, the current generation of Garmin devices appear to have some problems. You can check the forums for the Fenix 2, Forerunner 220 and Forerunner 620 to see what I mean. For once, newer might not be better, at least in some situations.

So after a little disappointment with the fenix 2 I picked up a refurb Forerunner 610 on ebay. The fenix was better in every conceivable way, expect GPS accuracy. and since my needs were pretty simple (I'm not training for swimming or biking and hiking isn't a big priority), the 610 met most of my needs.

So why did I just pick up a 310xt? It uses the same GPS unit that the 610 does. It has a significantly larger screen but weighs almost exactly the same as the 610. Unlike the 610, you can upload pre-plotted courses to it and and then follow that course via a map on the device. This is useful for my training as the mileage varies a lot (an increases almost every week) so the running routs I need to take change constantly. Being able to pre-plan them and then follow along, while not critical, is pretty helpful. I've only used it a few time and I've already found an issue that might negate all of those advantages (I have a email out to Garmin support to see if I can solve this; I'll report back in a later post), but as long as I can overcome that one issue, I think I do like it just a tad better than the 610.

Soon I'll do a detailed comparison of the three watches.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

And Now For Phase 2

Last year was all about a diet. This year has been a transition to fitness and a more normal nutrition regimen. The former part is going well, but I haven't quite found my footing with the latter. There's so much contradictory "expert" information out there. It's difficult to sift through it all, but more on that later.

In February I joined a gym. It's not a treadmill and weight machine kind of place. If you've heard of crossfit, this gym falls roughly into that category but without the intense "work 'till you puke" or "bro" characteristics. Everyone works to their own level. That's not to say you aren't pushed. You absolutely are, but encouragement and positivity are the driving forces rather than yelling and peer pressure. Workouts are broken into two parts. The first is strength work. We'll do one movement. It might be squats, or presses; all done at a specific percentage of the max weight you've managed in the past. The second part of the workout is a mix of cardio and strength with a number of movements usually done as quickly as you can (for the cardio aspect). The variations are endless but we might see rounds of pushups, pull ups, burpees, running, etc. All in all, the workout is only 35-45 minutes, but it's both tiring and satisfying and no day is just like any other so it's never boring. I like it. 

A few months ago, I added a new wrinkle. When I was "big", running was literally something I just couldn't do. Anyone who hasn't been as big as I was might feel that to be a "couldn't" isn't the right word. Well... it is. But now that I can do it, I started doing it regularly more as a curiosity. I can't even really say that I like it, but I do like that I can do it, if that makes any sense, and that's enough for now. I started out small. Two miles was pretty my more normal run for a month or so. I did some research into shoes and form that I'll talk about in a later post, but as far as training technique; nope. Clueless. 

Once I figured out that I could run a little, I decided to set a pretty major goal. I work better that way. It's the lack of hard goals that makes the gym workouts I mentioned above a little difficult for me. Sure, I see progress, but it's vague and hard to quantify or work toward in very specific ways. Running is all about metrics, though. Distance, speed, cadence, intervals; it's all measurable and easy to compare from one day to another. I like that. So I ran across a program that prepares people to participate in a half of full marathon. Notice I didn't necessarily say "run a marathon". That part is a little more up to the individual, however running it is what I'm aiming for. It's nicely structured and there are plans for both beginners and veterans. I'm not yet sure if I'll be doing the full or half distance. We'll see how my body holds up as the mileage increases. I'm already struggling a bit with the same knee that I injured January '13 and the doctor still can't seem to find anything wrong with it (I've been horribly disappointed with doctors these last two years). 

In addition to being a goal unto itself, I'm using the marathon training as a motivation to get the diet and nutrition side of my health into a little more order. I could, and will, go into my eating trials and troubles, but suffice to say, I know that the running will be easier and more enjoyable if I my footsteps are dragging along a little less weight. I was pretty steady with my weight for several months after getting off the original diet, but I eventually got a little lazy and have put on about fifteen pounds. I'd like to drop those again and then another ten by the time I run the race Feb. 1, 2015. That's seems like a pretty reasonable goal. We'll see. Of course, figuring out what I should be eating and how much is surprisingly difficult given how contradictory so much of the advice out there is. 

Finally, I am also doing... wait for it... yoga. The gym I mentioned above brought in an instructor to see how much interest there would be in a weekly class. Attendance was good for the first three weeks but it eventually dwindled down to just the instructor an myself by week six, and while I certainly enjoyed the one-on-one instruction, it didn't really make sense for her to keep holding a class for one student. Go figure. So now I've found another place to try. I've only been to three sessions there, so I don't have much of an opinion yet. It's definitely not a fancy hippy joint, so it's got that going for it. The place isn't terribly well air conditioned so I sweat an insane amount during the class. Seriously, it's kind of gross. ;) I had to buy some special equipment just to keep myself from forming a puddle on my yoga mat and slipping all over the place. Still, I quite like it and it helps me with my calf and achilles stiffness (I'm terribly tight in those areas). 

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to keep up with all three of these things at the same time, but as I consider the marathon training more of a temporary thing, if something does have to give, I think it will be the gym workouts; at least until after the race. That makes me a little sad as the folks who run the gym are truly wonderful people and that experience has been a tremendous benefit to me. I guess I can console myself with the knowledge that cutting back there won't be permanent.

Well, I think that's it for now. I have a ton of new posts lined up, I've been jotting down ideas for the past few months, but I just couldn't get over the hump of that first post after the long hiatus. Now that's it's done, hopefully I get back into the groove.