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Adventure : Running

Real Athletes Don’t Need Wearable Tech

The popularity of wearable fitness trackers has exploded in the last two years. There are more of them now than you can shake your Fitbits at. But for all their ubiquity in the consumer mainstream, have they managed to earn a place in the hearts (and on the wrists) of real athletes? Surprisingly yes, but not in the way you’d think.

First, a point of clarification. “Fitness tracker” is an extremely broad term that could be used to describe just about any exercise gadget. For the purposes of this article, we'll use fitness tracker to define a type of non-GPS wearable device that uses accelerometers to count your steps and monitor your activity levels. Think Nike's Fuelband, various Fitbits, the Withings Pulse, the Basis Band, and the Polar Loop.

Generally speaking, these products don't track the kind of workout data that’s useful to dedicated athletes. “I think most athletes—even at the recreational level—are looking for more specific feedback pertaining directly to their training,” says Vince Sherry, co-founder of the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project and owner of Run Flagstaff. “Most runners want speed and distance.”

And those are two metrics that all of the current fitness trackers absolutely suck at delivering. Because they have no GPS, they effectively count your steps, guess the length of your stride, and then cobble together an estimated distance—which is always way off the mark. Even if the gadgets could accurately measure how far you’ve gone, they don't have a good way to deliver that information to you in real time.

Another Run S.M.A.R.T. Project coach (and Competitor Magazine's 2013 Ultrarunner of the Year), Rob Krar agrees. “You wear a wristband that provides almost no feedback while in use, then have to download to a computer or smart phone to access data? Seems like a gimmick at best and certainly not something I'd recommend to my clients.” Among ultrarunners, he hasn't seen anyone using these wearables, and added that GPS technology dominates that niche of running. 

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And yet, some athletes are starting to use the fitness trackers. Why? “Athletes are very number-oriented,” says Stacy Sims, MSc, PhD, an exercise physiologist, nutrition scientist, and the co-founder and CRO-research scientist behind Osmo Nutrition. “From a coach perspective, there is some use to them—more to identify how much people are doing and not counting so as to identify low recovery.”

Recovery is a key component of exercise and improvement, particularly when dealing with athletes, but many people don't get that the extra stuff they do in between workouts contributes to inadequate recovery. “Walking to and from the store is great for health, but that three- to four-mile round-trip is an extra load on the legs.” So Stacy has her athletes wear activity trackers in between workouts to get a better sense of how it all adds up.  

But there’s a dark side to all that data. “Having something on your wrist telling you you're not sleeping well can lead to more stress, in turn making it more difficult to sleep,” adds Sherry. “It could be a vicious cycle, especially for a runner who is overly aware of the need for proper recovery.”

Of course, if we open the door to other types of fitness trackers—GPS wrist watches, bands that count strokes as you swim, heart rate monitors, and power meters on bikes—then you’ll find plenty of athletes, from beginners to professionals, adopting the tech, and not just for training sessions. New systems promise to let NFL and soccer teams track their players in real time, regardless of whether they’re in a roofed-in stadium. A coach could see that a player is starting to run slower than normal, and know that it's time to bench them. Future wearables might be able to analyze an athlete's sweat, then relay the information in real time in order for her to address her hydration and nutrition needs.

So what’s the bottom line? As for the common, everyday wearables we're seeing advertized everywhere, well, they're great for helping the average Joe remember to get off the couch every now and then, and they're not bad for analyzing your recovery, as long as you don't get too obsessed with your numbers. In their current state, though, for athletes, they're just no match for the data you can get from a GPS watch (or even a smartphone app). If you're choosing between one or the other to help with your training, GPS is the way to go, even if it just means downloading the latest version of Runtastic on your phone.

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The Science Behind the Existentially Minded Runner

You may doubt the numbers, but according to neuroscientist and philosopher Deepak Chopra, you have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts running through your mind every single day. That’s somewhere between 42 and 56 thoughts a minute. Which means that a half-hour run gives you at least 1,260 opportunities to think about whatever you want to. Talk about mind power.

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are running-appropriate: “If I tuck my hips in like Pre, I can run as fast as Pre.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are worth millions: “What if the next special-edition Oreo were s’more-flavored? Hell, yes.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are freaking existential: “Expecting the unexpected is impossible. It can’t be unexpected if you’re expecting it.”

Having thoughts is one thing, but controlling them is another. “It’s common for thoughts to bounce around,” says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist and mental-training consultant for U.S. Olympic teams and USA Triathlon. “You go from ‘What am I doing out here?’ to ‘Hey, I’m working hard, I’m reaching my goals, I’m doing this!’” Taylor says that the key to keeping your mind on your run is to successfully manage what’s going on in there. Just as with running, this takes training. “You have to learn to master positive thinking,” Taylor explains. “That’s where it gets hard. It’s a skill you have to work at.”

When you do master your mind, you also maximize your fitness level. “You may have the physical ability to run a certain pace or distance, but if you aren’t in the right state of mind, then, mentally, you won’t be able to do it,” says Taylor.

Once you home in and focus, there’s a reason why that half-hour jaunt seems to produce cranial gems: It does. A study conducted by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia shows that exercise promotes memory function and information processing by speeding cell growth in the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain. A running-induced increased heart rate pumps extra oxygen into your noggin’s lobes, also producing a drop in stress hormones. All of which means that that legendary, clear-headed runner’s high is the real thing. 

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Active Cities: Austin

Austin’s location in the Hill Country has turned it into the outdoor sports capital of Texas.

Run

Town Lake: The city’s signature running loop—you could argue that it’s the best run in Texas—parallels the shoreline of downtown’s Town Lake. The route takes you on a shaded and crushed-gravel track on the south side (the north side is mostly paved concrete). Multiple bridge crossings allow runners to plan 5k, 10k, or 10-mile jaunts.

Swim

Barton Springs: This spring-fed, three-acre pool is an Austin institution and a welcome escape from the summer heat. For lap swimmers, head to the lanes on the other side of the Colorado River at Deep Eddy Pool, a bracing freshwater-spring swimming hole that’s also Texas’s oldest pool.

Float

Texas Rowing Center: Toward the west end of Lady Bird Lake, close to downtown, the Texas Rowing Center offers kayaks, SUPs, and canoes to rent. The boats are a great way to explore the tree-shaded shoreline. Experienced rowers can rent a scull and get in a workout on the same water used by the University of Texas crew team.

Explore

Barton Creek Greenbelt: Park at Barton Springs and tackle this seven-mile network of mountain biking and hiking trails. Stick to the main trail for an easy ride through the hills southwest of downtown. You’ll find highly technical trails with big drops just off the main trail. Mellow Johnny’s bike shop can provide details and full-suspension mountain-bike rentals for $50 per day.

Fuel Up

Whole Foods: The grocery chain’s flagship store, just west of downtown, has top-notch service and a dazzling array of food choices (it’s one of the biggest Whole Foods locations in the country). Employees will even deliver to your hotel for free. 

Gear Up

Texas Running Company: Located on the north side of Town Lake, just three blocks from the famed Lake Trail loop on N. Lamar, this massive shrine to all things running dominates the local running scene. Tuesday and Thursday night group runs attract runners of all abilities.  

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Nike Fires Majority of FuelBand Team

Nike is making waves in the running community this week.

First, the company signed a lucrative $500 million sponsorship deal with USA Track & Field. Now it's going to scale back from the wearable tech market—at least on the hardware end.

Nike will fire most of the engineers who worked on the FuelBand tracker, CNET reports. The company will keep developing software, but it’s cancelled other hardware projects—including the updated FuelBand that was set to debut as early as this fall.  

According to CNET, the company told the 70-person engineering team about the layoffs Thursday. That Digital Sport hardware group built the FuelBand as well as the Nike+ sportwatch and other sport-specific projects. About 55 of those employees were fired, CNET reports, but it isn’t known how many of those people will stay at Nike under different divisions. No one was fired from Nike Digital Tech, the department that makes Web software.

You will still be able to buy the second-generation FuelBand SE—for now. The company plans to “sell and support the Nike+ FuelBand SE for the foreseeable future,” Nike spokesman Brian Strong told CNET.

Given the close ties between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Nike (where Cook sits on the board of directors) many speculate that Nike is leaving the hardware business to partner with Apple and other companies on their wearable tech projects. Just last year, Apple reportedly hired one of Nike's top directors from the FuelBand project to help spearhead development of its own wearable tech. 

"Apple is in the hardware business. Nike is in the sneaker business. I don't think Apple sees Nike as competitive. It's likely that an Apple hardware offering would be supportive of the Nike software," Jim Duffy, a Nike analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, told CNET. "Nike would be content to let Apple sell devices, as long as they would be supportive of the apps."

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