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Adventure : Fitness

Putting Your Fitness Tech Data to Work

Every day, as hundreds of thousands of athletes around the world fire up their Strava apps, Nike+ FuelBands, Fitbit Flexes, and other wearable-tech devices, they produce a mind-boggling amount of data.

In 2013, Strava users recorded 53.3 million runs and rides totaling 905,408,836 miles. In the Fuel-Band’s first year on the market, Nike claims that users generated enough kinetic energy to light up more than 6,700 homes. Even bike-sharing services are amassing data. B-cycle, which runs programs in 31 cities, reports that, in 2013, its 3,813 bikes clocked 1,532,836 miles over 719,641 trips. And the International Mountain Bike Association’s (IMBA) crowdsourced trail-finder site,, contains 21,328 miles of GPS-mapped trails, with hundreds of miles of new routes being added each month.

Now that vast amount of back-end data is being used to effect real-world change. It’s already driving policy innovation: Oregon’s department of transportation has purchased Strava usage stats to improve its cycling infrastructure, right down to considering how often street cleaners should sweep bike routes in cities like Corvallis. In Arizona, IMBA tapped trail-use data to work with the Forest Service to allow bikes on several formerly illegal but well-known singletrack routes around Sedona. And the Outdoor Alliance’s exhaustive visitation stats helped federal land managers expand the 2012 Colorado Roadless Ruling from an initial 500,000 acres to 1.2 million.

But perhaps the greatest impact is happening in the health and fitness world, as researchers leverage all those bits that chronicle our routes, distances, times, and heart rates to fine-tune formulas for peak performance. Jawbone, the maker of the Up activity tracker, has found that among its thousands of users worldwide, jet lag from a coast-to-coast trip usually upsets sleep patterns for at least five days. Basis, maker of a wristwatch-style fitness and sleep tracker, is working with the University of California at San Francisco and others on sleep studies, including one that mined user info to prove that one of the most effective predictors of quality sleep is a consistent bedtime.

{%{"quote":"A vast amount of back-end data is being used to effect real-world change. And it’s already driving policy innovation."}%}

Companies are also using the data on daily habits to make concrete training prescriptions. Jawbone has found that Monday is the most popular day for workouts. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunday is the least.) Strava users seem to go hardest and fastest on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The takeaway? Don’t plan your high-intensity interval rides for a Thursday when, for whatever reason, the data tells us you won’t be as into it.

Colorado Springs–based Carmichael Training System regularly draws on data points culled from its work with thousands of cyclists, runners, and triathletes to guide its coaching strategies. Among the nuggets learned from years of GPS, heart-rate, and power-meter data files: Contrary to popular assumptions, mountain biking is as effective at building competition-level fitness as road riding. Those who follow its training programs closely experience fewer injuries than those who don’t. And athletes can put up maximum power numbers for as many as three consecutive days with no loss of output—despite their own perceptions that they’re losing strength.

Ten years ago, this type of data was the exclusive domain of elite athletes and a smattering of bioscience labs. “But no one looked at the data to learn from it,” says Gear Fisher, founder of TrainingPeaks, a Boulder, Colorado, online coaching platform. (TrainingPeaks’ integrative training plans are also published on Outside Online.) “They used the technology to chart real-time performance, and then they forgot about it.”

That’s why this summer, Fisher’s company is rolling out an update of its WKO+ software, which Fisher believes is one of the most accurate exercise-modeling programs ever. “We’ll be able to predict performance based on as little as one workout,” he says. The data comes from numbers collected through, which is used by thousands of coaches to manage tens of thousands of runners, triathletes, and cyclists.

Looking at all those past performances, the company will predict results for new customers. “You’ll be able to see what you’re capable of at your current level of fitness,” says Fisher, “and soon you’ll also see what you need to do to reach a specific goal, like a 13-hour finish at Ironman Florida.” That’s right—not just any Ironman, but that particular Ironman. “You may not want to do what’s required to get there,” Fisher concedes. “But we can tell you if you can.”

Looking ahead, Strava cofounder Michael Horvath sees a day when user data can help race directors design courses that challenge—but don’t destroy—participants. “We’d be able to tell how much climbing is too much from completion rates and where people quit a race,” says Horvath. He even sees it helping gear manufacturers. “Users can track the number of miles they’ve put on their running shoes before they swap in a new pair,” he says, “and from the aggregate data, we’d know how many miles runners can get from that specific model.”

The rub, of course, is that people have to actually wear the devices and upload their results. In addition, the sample size, while enormous in scientific terms, is nonetheless self-selecting: active users of wearable tech. “The best you can say about the data is that it can be used to draw useful conclusions about the people who are using each app, like Strava,” says Yuri Feito, an assistant professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University in Maryland. Still, says Feito, “Statistically, the level of information involved with Strava dwarfs anything that a research lab could pull together on a survey of cyclists. That shouldn’t be ignored.”

Increased likelihood of achieving a fitness goal when logging training and following a plan: 100 percent.
Fitness-program success rate among participants who shared their workouts 
via social media: 
85 percent.
Extra weight lost in a month when logging an additional three days of food-diary entries: a third of a pound.
Most common cross-training exercise for runners: swimming.
Most popular activity among females in Los Angeles: hiking.
Improvement in performance when working out with a coach: 10 to 20 percent.
Average length of bike rides in 2013: 20.5 miles.
Average length of runs in 2013: 4.7 miles.
Additional sleep per night enjoyed by climbers versus other Jawbone users: 8 minutes.
Most active week in 2013 for cycling and running: August 25 to 31.

Stats from the Data Revolution:

  • Increased likelihood of achieving a fitness goal when logging training and following a plan: 100 percent. (TrainingPeaks)
  • Fitness-program success rate among participants who shared their workouts 
via social media: 
85 percent. (411Fit)
  • Extra weight lost in a month when logging an additional three days of food-diary entries: a third of a pound. (411Fit)
  • Most common cross-training exercise for runners: swimming. (Jawbone)
  • Most popular activity among females in Los Angeles: hiking. (Jawbone) 
  • Improvement in performance when working out with a coach: 10 to 20 percent. (TrainingPeaks)
  • Average length of bike rides in 2013: 20.5 miles. (Strava)
  • Average length of runs in 2013: 4.7 miles. (Strava)
  • Additional sleep per night enjoyed by climbers versus other Jawbone users: 8 minutes. (Jawbone)
  • Most active week in 2013 for cycling and running: August 25 to 31. (Strava)

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Building a Bionic Athlete

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even people who weren't yet born when it first aired on T.V. in 1974 know those iconic sci-fi words from the Six Million Dollar Man's opening sequence. And today, we really do “have the capability to make the world's first bionic man.” In fact, we already have. We're still working out the “better, stronger, faster” bit, but when it comes to rebuilding humans, we're kicking ass, and that's good news for outdoor athletes.

Let's start with a definition. The word bionic is sort of a portmanteau. It's basically the melding of bio- from biology, and onic from electronic. People tend to play a little fast and loose with the definition, often stretching it to mean technologically enhanced, rather than strictly electronically enhanced, but however you definite it, it's a field that’s progressing at an incredible rate right now.

Say you wipe out on your mountain bike and come away with a broken forearm. Tradition would have us wrap it in layers of fabric and heavy, bulky plaster, where your arm would basically suffocate while it healed for a month or two. Got an itch? Want to go for a dip in the pool? Too bad.

In the near future, though, your bum arm may simply be scanned and a breathable, lightweight 3-D printed plastic cast could be made in two pieces that snap together. Not only would it give you the most badass tan-lines ever, but the porous design allows for the attachment of an ultrasonic pulse generator (impossible with plaster casts) that may help to “reduce the healing process up to 38 percent and increase the heal rate up to 80 percent in non-union fractures,” according to the description. Plus, it looks way cooler and would be much less susceptible to rancid funkiness.

Or say you managed to seriously screw up your knee on the slopes. Relearning how to walk (or even just regaining basic mobility) is extremely difficult during rehab, which is why the AlterG Bionic Leg offers so much promise. I actually got to try it myself last year. It's essentially a full-leg brace with lots of motors and servos inside it that provide motorized assistance with both extension and flexion.  

The amazing part is that the bionic leg can sense what you're trying to do through a pressure sensor under your foot, and react instantly. It provides lift when climbing stairs and resistance when you're sitting down so you don't fall into a heap. Plus, it's fully adjustable, so you can slowly take more weight as you progress in your recovery. No, it doesn't let you run at supersonic speeds (or run at all, yet), but it allows you to move without having to compensate in ways that could hinder your rehab. So you can slowly build up your strength by doing things you normally do, while still maintaining good form.

{%{"quote":"While we're not yet at the point of using these systems to leap tall buildings, you can bet that people are looking beyond restoring function and on to adding super-human capabilities."}%}

But what if something even more extreme happens? What if, say, you lose a limb? The way tech is now that doesn't have to be the end of your athletic career. Take this incredible, thought-controlled bionic limb developed by researchers at the Rehab Institute of Chicago. Not only does it allow a man to walk and go up and down stairs, it also allows him to do it at normal walking speed. If you watch him from the waist up, you'd never even notice a limp.

Or how about Case Western's FINE system, which intertwines with nerves left intact on a limb. This allows for direct sensory feedback for amputees (think Luke Skywalker's hand), so users can sense resistance and pressure when they’re gripping or manipulating objects—something we thought was impossible less than a decade ago.

Perhaps most impressively, take the example of Amanda Boxtel, a skier who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1992 accident. Now, for the first time, she's walking again, thanks to a 3-D printed robotic exoskeleton that was molded to fit her body.

So while we're not yet at the point of using these systems to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you can bet that people (especially the military) are looking beyond just restoring function and on to adding super-human capabilities. We may not get to Elysium within our lifetimes, but don't be too surprised if you live to see the world record for the 100-meter dash get smashed by a pudgy guy in an exoskeleton.

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Can the National Pro Fitness League Become the Next Big Thing?

Just before Thanksgiving last year, the co-director and executive producer of the CrossFit Games left CrossFit. Tony Budding had worked for the company for 10 years, first as a coach, then as the first affiliate director, then as media director. He left, he says, because “all of the competitions that we were doing in CrossFit were limited by the need to prove fitness.” Budding believes the best way to grow and monetize the sport lies in creating a more sponsor and spectator-friendly competition

As CrossFit defines it, fitness is increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. In other words, an athlete proves his fitness by doing the more reps of a certain exercise than anybody else in a certain amount of time, or outlasting his competitors in a particular exercise. Therefore, “if you want to test fitness, you have to do a wide variety of things,” Budding says. “Unfortunately, a number of those things you need to do to test fitness don’t end up playing very well for spectators and for TV.” 

Enter the National Pro Fitness League. Billed as “the world’s first professional spectator sport with co-ed teams competing in human performance races,” the league hopes to make the sport of functional fitness more accessible to a broader audience.

Budding is modeling the NPFL after other national leagues including the NBA and NFL, complete with regional teams (think: New York plays Phoenix), a team revenue sharing model, and professional athletes. 

That’s what has CrossFitters abuzz about the NPFL, rather than bemoaning Budding as a sell out: the league is attempting to professionalize functional fitness. Just as in other professional sports, team members will get paid to play. Right now, athletes who make one of eight regional teams stand to earn a minimum of $2,500 per match. That means an athlete who competes in all of this year’s six matches will pocket at least $15,000, regardless of their results.

“It gives us an opportunity to do what we love at a higher level,” CrossFit Games athlete, Katrin Davidsdottir, told the new league. In the CrossFit Games, only the top 10 individuals and top three teams in the final standings earn prize money. (Click here for more on how NPFL team selection works.) 

As for the actual competition, the idea goes something like this: Two teams of 10 (five women and five men on each team) will go head to head on the “Grid,” a playing field the size of a basketball court that, Budding says, never changes and is easy to follow. Matches will consist of 11 races in which teams of five must perform a certain number of functional fitness exercises, such as deadlifts, rope climbs, and handstand pushups. One match will easily fit into a two-hour time slot, including 10 commercial breaks and personal interest stories, Budding says. And unlike, say, pro tennis matches, an NPFL match will never run long—guaranteed.

If this sounds like a grab at sponsorship money, ad dollars, and ticket sales, that’s because it is. “We are a spectator sport which means we exist for the fans,” Budding says. Like America’s most famous national leagues, the NPFL is extremely sponsor-friendly, and that’s something CrossFit, perhaps, is not.

“Huge companies like Nike and Under Armour approached CrossFit when it was starting to get big, saying, ‘Hey, we want to be involved,’” says William Imbo, Associate Editor at BoxLife Magazine, a CrossFit lifestyle publication. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman said no. Those companies “wanted to have a say in how CrossFit is advertised and marketed and he shot them down,” Imbo says. “It’s really important for CrossFit that the community has a huge say in how it’s run.”

While some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok, Budding believes he can do better.

“CrossFit is a fitness program,” Budding says. It’s a participatory sport whose Games attract fellow CrossFitters. “Our goal is to make our teams and our athletes so compelling, so exciting, so speaking for the metropolitan area that they’re from, that people want to just be fans of the team”—even people that have no intention of ever performing a snatch. Like hockey fans who can’t ice skate.

Because the NPFL’s matches begin in August, while the CrossFit Games end in July, Imbo says the two aren’t directly competing—for now. Budding says he sees the Games and the NPFL not as adversaries, but as entirely different entities. 

“They’re in the gym business. They’ve given people the opportunity to make a living doing what they love, and that’s very cool,” Budding says. “But that’s not a spectator sport. That’s not a sponsorship business. That’s not a TV business.” He hopes the NPFL will be all of those things and more.

“My goal,” Budding says, “is to be bigger in the U.S. than the NHL.”

More Outside CrossFit Stories:

Clarification: The original headline of this story stated that the CrossFit Games have not been a success on TV. That is not correct. As the body of the article correctly notes, the CrossFit Games have drawn over a half-million viewers on ESPN, routinely averaging more viewers per show than coverage of the X Games and Major League Soccer. 

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Polar Plunges Are For the Weak: Meet the World's Ice Swimmers

On a frigid February morning in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, swimmer Donal Buckley dives headfirst into the boomerang-shaped Lough Dan. Submerged in 38-degree water with no wetsuit for warmth, Buckley begins to freestyle his way across the frozen lake. His goal? To join an elusive club of fewer than a hundred swimmers across the world who have completed an official, mile-long ice swim.

“Imagine taking off all your clothes and climbing into the chilled water in your refrigerator,” says Buckley. “An ice mile is colder than that.”

As he plows on, his muscles contract in the freezing water, delivering less power with every stroke. Fine motor skills are lost. As his body struggles to stay warm, his brain begs for more oxygen. In the final 200 meters, Buckley experiences tunnel vision as he churns closer and closer to shore. Finally, he reaches the beach, where friends await to lift him out of the lake by his tired limbs. He crumples in a moderately hypothermic heap a few yards away. The total time is 38 minutes. 

Antarctic Origin Story

Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was an ice cave in the Arctic where the DC Comics superhero could temporarily escape from the hectic pace of life in Metropolis. Ram Barkai, a world-record-holding extreme swimmer from Israel who now lives in South Africa, shares the Man of Steel’s affinity for polar wastelands, and some might consider him a Superman in his own right—he’s appeared on both Stan Lee’s Superhumans and the Discovery Channel’s Superhuman Showdown. However, instead of beginning on the planet Krypton, Barkai’s story has its origins in a frozen lake in Antarctica.

On an excursion to Antarctica in 2008, the then-38-year-old Barkai convinced his expedition leader to let him go for a swim. He’d become a fan of open-water swimming starting in his younger days, when he’d served in Israel’s army, and subsequently enjoyed regular frosty swims in the cold ocean surrounding his home in Cape Town. He leaped into a frozen lake and swam for a full kilometer, for which he later received a Guinness World Record.

“Give me a challenge to excite me, and I’ll find a way to prove everyone wrong,” Barkai says. “I took on the cold water in the sea as a demon I had to face, to get familiar with and conquer.”

After completing another wintry swim in Lake Zurich the following year, this one 2.3 kilometers, Barkai decided to formalize cold, open-water swimming. He created the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009, an organization that standardized the benchmark to one mile in water temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and that follows English Channel rules (unassisted and uninterrupted time in the water, no wetsuits allowed). Today, only 87 swimmers from 17 countries have successfully completed an ice swim—locations include sites in Norway, Alaska, Sweden, and the U.S. (Boston Harbor) in the middle of winter. Barkai says that number is growing, however, and he hopes to one day make ice swimming a sport at the Winter Olympics. 

How They Train

Proper training and experience are more than just a question of peak performance for those attempting to swim a mile in freezing waters: they’re a matter of life and death. An ice swim is not an experience the weekend Ironman contender should try on a whim.

Training begins with covering significant distances in normal water temperatures before even attempting cold swims. Of course, intimate familiarity with cold-water submersion is a must. Barkai recommends daily dunks of under a minute to help acclimate the body over time to the piercing sensations frigid waters impose. Many swimmers use ice baths to store these pain perceptions in their memory so they don’t come as a shock later on in open water. Much emphasis is placed on the fundamentals—stroke, breathing, and speed—since technique tends to devolve in a freezing lake.

Perhaps even more important than physical conditioning is its mental counterpart. Understanding how the cold affects your body while in the water is essential, and being able to stay calm under such intense conditions is what will keep you from drowning in a panic.

The cold has an incredible ability to focus the mind. From the second you plunge into the water, you don’t have the luxury of letting your attention wander to outside thoughts. The mind must be zeroed in on every single stroke, every single breath. Despite the pain, you must continue to move.

“Unlike marathon swimming, you can’t just switch off your brain—it’s too dangerous,” Barkai says. “I run a regular checklist, like I would in an airplane: hands, fingers, toes, tongue, vision, rationality. I make sure that I am still capable, both physically and mentally. When that’s not the case, it’s time to get out.”

Hardcore Factor

Being ice swim–ready means more than simply being physically fit: you must of course be fit in terms of strength, but you must also be fit in terms of overall health, says Barkai. In such frigid temperatures, your body must pump more blood to your arteries, which results in higher blood pressure. For those who don’t know what they’re doing, risks can include temporary or permanent nerve damage; drowning from involuntary aspiration, due to cold-shock response; hypothermia; and loss of motor control.

Based on his own experience, Buckley is concerned that less knowledgeable swimmers will attempt the feat without the requisite training, background, or confidence; he believes that the IISA should only permit ice swims once a participant can present a verified training log. Even the most skilled cold-water swimmers don’t undertake the challenge without a proper support system in case of emergency. Let’s just say that ice swimming is not for the faint—or weak—of heart.

“The biggest danger actually presents itself post-swim, from cardiac fibrillation,” says Buckley. “I’ve spoken with two doctors who have expertise in cold water, and they believe there is significant cardiac risk for everyone, regardless of experience.”

To read more about Donal Buckley’s ice swim, including how he trains and the associated risks, check out his open-water swimming blog.Below, see a short documentary about Buckley.

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