Wearables for Athletic Performance

This is the latest in a series of blogs where I discuss the learnings obtained from trying various wearable devices to aid my training for a significant sporting event. On July 2nd I participated in a 44km SwimRun event (http://www.brecaswimrun.com/breca-buttermere). SwimRun is a new endurance multi-sport that’s taking the world by storm. In a SwimRun event competitors have to traverse a landscape alternating between swimming and running. It is done in teams of two. Teams are largely self-sufficient and carry everything needed. This means running in a wetsuit, necessary for combating cold lake water, and swimming in trail shoes that are necessary for the almost marathon distance run and 1900m of vertical ascent to be overcome.

I started training specifically for the event in the fall of 2015, through the winter I upped my running mileage and continued to swim intensively three times per week. On any business trips a key task was to locate a pool to continue my training. In addition to running and swimming, I tried to fit in a couple of intensive body-weight workout sessions per week. If time allowed I also continued to pursue my first love, riding my bike. While cycling is not done in a SwimRun, it offers an alternative, low-impact, way to build cardio-vascular fitness. As the weather, gradually, warmed-up in the spring, I also started doing more open water swimming in near-by lakes.

I wanted to use wearable devices to help me track my training. I started with a Fitbit Flex. This is a simple wearable that does little more than track steps. It wasn’t long before I stopped using the device. It simply didn’t give me enough useful information to track what I was doing. For a while, I simply relied on whatever smartphone I happened to be using, together with a variety of apps such as Strava and 7 Minute Workout. In an effort to get toward my ideal race weight, I also started tracking my food intake using MyFitnessPal, which has one of the most comprehensive food databases available.

Since November 2015, the two devices that I use most have been the Moov Now activity tracker and a Garmin Forerunner 920XT smartwatch. Both have strengths and weaknesses that mean I constantly use them both.



Moov Now – Overview

The Moov Now device is a minimalist wrist or ankle worn tracker little bigger than the CR2032 battery that powers it. It contains a number of sensors that are able to precisely detect movement in any plane. There is no display – only a small LED synchronization indicator. The Moov Now has been optimized for a variety of activities: running or walking, pool swimming, cycling, 7-minute workouts and cardio boxing. It also monitors general activity levels and sleep. The key innovation in the Moov Now system is the real-time coaching that it offers when running, cycling and doing 7-minute workouts, and cardio boxing. The coaching makes use of game-type structures with levels that must be achieved to unlock higher levels. However to hear the coaching you need a phone or tablet device running the Moov app.

The application has four different running programs – for these the Moov device is worn on the ankle. I have used all of them and they really help to drive me harder, faster and further than I would on my own. The downside is having to take my phone along with me. And to hear the coaching feedback requires headphones, something I am not keen on using while running. The best solution I have found are bone conduction headphones from Aftershokz. These don’t fall out of my ears like ear bud style headphones do. And they also allow me to hear traffic and other ambient sounds, while still hearing coaching instructions and even music quite clearly.

Tracking pool swimming is a real strength of the Moov Now system. The device is worn on the wrist during pool swimming. The application needs to be started on the phone and the swimming workout selected. You can then leave the phone in a locker and swim. On completing a swim session the Moov Now tracker syncs the data with the phone and you can review your session. Coaching is not provided, but plenty of data is gathered that allows for detailed analysis.

The other activity in which both coaching and gamification are used is in the 7-minute workout programs, which are both testing and fun, although the range of exercises covered is quite limited.

As an Android phone user, the cycling program is of limited use. For iPhone users the cycling program does offer a way to estimate power – this is due to iPhones including a barometer that can accurately gauge vertical ascent. However, how useful and accurate the power estimation is, is difficult to assess without extensive testing.

While the mobile application is well designed and impressive, there is no partnering web-based application where further activity overviews or analysis can be undertaken. Furthermore, workouts can’t be exported to other applications such as Strava. This is an oversight in my view and something many Moov users are calling for.

The most impressive thing about the Moov Now device is the price. It’s currently on offer at Amazon.com for US$59.99 – undercutting the significantly less useful Fitbit Flex by US$20.

Garmin Forerunner 920XT – Overview

Garmin has been producing its line of Forerunner watches since 2003. Most use GPS to track position. The 920XT is among its latest watches and is aimed at multi-sport enthusiasts – especially triathletes. It is therefore optimized to track and record running (both indoor or treadmill as well as outdoor), swimming (both pool-based and open water) and cycling (indoor and outdoor). In addition to its sporting functions the 920XT can link to a smartphone to provide notifications of incoming calls, messages and other items. It is not optimized for this but does a decent job, for example I can read text messages on the watch.

The watch is quite chunky and makes no effort to look anything like a regular watch. Garmin also offers the Fenix range that provide similar functions but that have a slightly more graceful appearance. The user interface takes quite a bit of learning thanks to myriad functions. However once the logic is learned, everything is fairly straightforward, though it can be fiddly and time consuming to make substantial changes to settings.

Where the 920XT really comes into its own is when being used for tracking training or racing in real time. The addition of a heart rate chest belt turns the device into an incredibly rich data gatherer. The heart rate chest strap includes an accelerometer so can record things like stride length, run cadence, vertical ratio and ground contact balance between left and right feet. It’s accurate, detailed and offers many ways to digest and analyse the data. The hardware buttons are easy to use on the fly, once the functions are understood. And offer a more robust and definite feel than, say, swiping a small touch screen – something that would likely not work well when sweaty or at all underwater. In addition to the real-time tracking Garmin also has extensive tracking of performance via its mobile app and web application. Unlike Moov, the Garmin app allows near instantaneous synchronisation with other applications, such as Strava.

Where the Moov Now is quite cheap, the 920XT is pricey at US$499, though it can usually be found for US$100 or so less than list price.

Which is best?

I find I use the two devices differently. Thanks to the on-board GPS and heart-rate monitoring, the Garmin 920XT is the device I use for long runs, cycling and open-water swimming. For short distance running training, where I need to focus on delivering maximum effort over short distances, I tend to reach for the Moov Now, though the Garmin comes along for the ride in almost every situation.

For pool swimming I tend to use both devices, though the Moov is much easier to use because once the app has been started, no further interaction with device is required until the swim session is finished. With the Garmin, I have to hit a button at the end of each swim set. In the midst of a busy session this can easily be forgotten and the resulting data compromised. However both are able to detect the stroke being used fairly reliably.

For 7-minute workouts,  only the Moov offers anything; it’s not an activity supported by the 920XT.

Of the two, only the Moov actively coaches. The Garmin can track activity, with impressive levels of detail, but by itself it doesn’t offer guidance on improving performance – that you have to do for yourself or use a human coach.

How do they compare with smart watches? 

I have not used Apple Watch other than in a brief experimental session. However I speak to many users. Apple Watch can provide some of the detailed tracking that the 920XT does. However while it is useful for moderate sports activity, its touch screen doesn’t respond well to very sweaty hands. Nevertheless, brave users have discovered that while only IPX7 rated – essentially splashproof – Apple Watch can withstand use in a swimming pool. However Apple does not encourage this and warns that damage caused by water immersion will void the warranty. This hasn’t stopped some app developers from releasing swimming apps for Watch, but they do have issues with water interfering with the touch display as well as poor real-time provision of things like distance and elapsed time.

Breca SwimRun – An Epic Race

Breca Swim start
Peter and his partner, Sue, starting one of the swim sections. The Garmin 920XT is just visible on Peter’s left wrist.

I am writing this a few days after completing the event that I have been training for. My legs are still aching, but I am also buzzing from what was, without doubt, my favourite sporting event of all time. The only piece of technology I used during the race was the Garmin Forerunner 920XT. Given the newness of SwimRun as a multi-sport event, the Garmin device didn’t have a ‘SwimRun’ setting – despite being a device aimed at multi-sport athletes. A custom event can be created, but it wasn’t possible to create one with 17 stages to match the event. So I set it to record a ‘Run’ and then hit the ‘Lap’ button every time we entered and exited a swim section. My watch worked well. It recorded every detail of the race. It was a bit optimistic on the elevation gain, but this often the case. The Garmin application allows this to be corrected based on topographical mapping:

GarminConnect Breca

A Garmin style sports watch is likely the only wearable that could stand-up to the rigors of the event. It performed flawlessly, even assisting with the direction of running while in thick cloud on top of the mountain. I wouldn’t have trusted a more ‘consumer’ orientated device to work consistently and unobtrusively. Training for the event, and the race, itself proved to me that for focused activities a generalist device is rarely the best option. Generalist devices require too many compromises that ultimately harm their performance when it matters most. I won’t be trading my Garmin watch or my Moov Now devices for a regular smart watch any time soon.

Picture credits: Moov Now, Garmin and Breca Swimrun.