Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Running With GPS and HRM

I am a person who loves number. I am a person who is very competitive, always striving to better myself. Naturally with running, I enjoy seeing graph and line charts of my performance as it (hopefully) improves. I feel it really gives me something to aim for and KNOW that I am making progress. I got into the buzz of running statistics as I started C25k with Nike +GPS on my ipod touch/bluetooth GPS but it didn't work. This was a shame because the website is really nice. You can set goals and see your progress towards them and other features such as colour scaling runs. Overall it's a nice site for beginners. But as I say, my bluetooth GPS did not work with it and I was concerned that I couldn't import/export from the site should I wish to switch to another running site - it's just not flexible enough.

I tried a few different apps in the app store - making tracks, runkeeper and mapmyrun. All had their benefits, but I plumped for runkeeper in the end. I like the runkeeper website with it's built in graphs and it's integration to facebook/twitter, but I also liked the app very much and especially the audio cues at preset time or distance intervals. You can tell after say 1km your time and pace.

I used this solution for the first few weeks up to my injury and a little afterwards and was MOSTLY happy with it, but it had drawbacks.

- My ipod had to stay unlocked (sensitive to button presses) and in my pocket. This meant firstly if I wanted to see my pace at any point in time, I had to gingerly take it out of my pocket being careful not to touch the screen. I've paused many a run doing this!

- You have to wear headphones. I used the NHS C25k podcast which was great, but I found my earphones sometimes came unplugged, pausing the podcast or got snagged on a zip and fell out my ears etc - these are real distractions. One run my headphones gave out and I had no idea whether I should be running or walking!

- The GPS sometimes cut out (unbeknown to me at the time). All that hard work - none of it tracked.

- The GPS had problems with bad data points. Some runs were logged as 20-35% longer because of bad data point mapping. There is one bit of my traditional route where I go under the road and my GPS screwed every time. Correcting this took sometimes 30 minutes plus on the website and other times it was just quicker to delete the data and plot the route manually (losing pace data in the process).

- HRM function. As you get into running, you realize that tracking your heart rate would be both beneficial and cool. The options for doing this on your Ipod/iphone with runkeeper are limited to an expensive proprietary piece of hardware.

I would point out that a new iPhone 4 worn in a specialised arm carrier would probably solve some of the above, but there was enough to make me want to switch.

My solution was a Garmin Forerunner 305. I picked one up new from Amazon for just under £100. I'm in love. Here's why:

- It's not as big as you think. Don't get me wrong, it's not an everyday watch (it's battery only lasts 10 hours) but it's light and you won't notice it.

- I can use it with the runkeeper website for posting runs to facebook twitter. You "post new activity" from the website, connect the watch via usb and hit import. There it all is, pace, HR and route.

- The GPS has been flawless. Coming home from a run and knowing that the data is accurate is how it should be. I don't have to inspect the route and spend 30 minutes correcting the route before posting it. It's entirely trustworthy. Even the bit where I run under the road is interpreted perfectly. I don't get a great deal of spare time between work, family and exercise so I REALLY appreciate this - I could not go back to the inaccurate and less functional GPS.

- Combining with Zonefive Sport Tracks software. WOW! The detail this combination can provide is totally awesome. It automatically reads the splits so I can see my running pace and my walking pace. I can see how many minutes I spent in Heart Rate Zone 4. I can see just how that bloody hill kills me and how long it took to recover.

- Preset intervals. Using the PC software, I can preset the watch to follow the C25k Intervals and have it give me a bleep countdown to the next interval.

- Totally custom display. When I am running, I can see my lap (interval) pace and time so I know that when it says 5:30m/km I need to slow down and I can see how long I've got left to recover. I also have it show my total distance so that I can push right at the end and I have it show me my current heart rate so I know if I am pushing too hard.

- I don't need to worry about pockets, headphones, valuable iDevice getting rained on/stolen - just my running :-)

I have to say that this device is one of the best gadgets I have ever owned. It has helped me understand my running and it's value has been immense.

So in summary, I just run with the 305 and then upload to both runkeeper and Sporttracks when I am done. Runkeeper gives me a nice pretty overview of how I am doing and gives me encouraging popups like "New Personal record - total distance" as well as updating my facebook profile for accountability and further encouragement. Sporttracks give me the wealth and depth of statistics about the run and helps me learn where I can improve the next time I run. Lastly, I found a plugin for Sporttracks that overlays a colour coded pace and heart rate worm over the route, just like the Nike site. This was the first eye candy cool feature I fell in love with and now I can finally have it.

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