The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Fitness

Monkii Bars

You won’t find this equipment at your local park. Instead, the Monkii Bars are a lightweight, portable suspension-training tool.

Use them at home, in your office, at a park, or while camping and traveling—the whole system is completely self-contained within the sleek bars.

Here’s how it works. Remove the 18-foot suspension line from the bars, then throw the line over a branch or hook it up to a door with carabiners and webbing. (A door-attachment accessory is still in the works.) Use the loop to adjust the length, and voilà, you have a personal-training system. The kit also includes training and set-up-anywhere guides.  

Work on upper and lower body strength or use the bars to extend your flexibility. Because the Monkii Bars can be used and stored almost anywhere, you’ll have no more excuses for not working out. The product is set to ship later this summer.

Pre-order for $98, monkiibars.com

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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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, MTBproject.com, 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 TrainingPeaks.com, 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.
—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.
—Strav

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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