The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Gear

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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Eton Rugged Rukus

As long as you have sunlight, the Eton Rugged Rukus will blast your music by the pool, on a hike, or around the fire.

The solar-powered music player has two full-range speakers that connect to your phone via Bluetooth. Set it up at the campfire or use the carabiner loop to hook it onto your backpack. The speaker can be charged with an USB port, but it also has an internal lithium battery that lasts up to eight hours for when it gets dark. The gadget can charge your smartphone, too.

And don’t worry about getting a little rowdy around the campfire—the speaker is drop-proof and water-resistant.

$100, etoncorp.com

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7 Camp Chairs You’ll Actually Want to Pack In

When you head out into backcountry, you have to find the right balance between being prepared and carrying the lightest load. And camp chairs—often bulky and cumbersome—are usually the first items to be jettisoned. But there’s a new breed of lightweight, compact chair that was born for backpacking. So whether you’re trekking into the wild or just planning a summer backyard-barbecue circuit, you won’t regret taking these comfortable seats along.

Helinox Chair One ($97)

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Best for: Backpacking and bike touring
Weight: 1.97 pounds with tote bag

The Helinox Chair One has won two of the most coveted awards in the outdoor industry, and for good reason. The Chair One’s poles are made from the same TH72M aluminum-based alloy found in the world’s best tents and hiking staffs. With shock-cord technology, the self-locating poles automatically pop into place. All you have to do is slip on the mesh seat cover, and you’re ready to relax. Chair One can hold more than 300 pounds, but weighs less than two. When collapsed in a bag, it’s about the size of a shoe. Helinox also makes a portable camp table from the same materials.

Alite Monarch ($70)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/monarch-chair.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Best for: Backpacking and music festivals
Weight: 1.15 pounds

The Monarch is not your standard four-legged chair. In fact, it’s not a four-legged chair at all. This seat’s innovative two-leg design lets you use your center of gravity to either sit still or rock back and forth. The coolest part? It works on any terrain. At 1.5 pounds, the Monarch is a very lightweight chair, yet it can hold up to 250 pounds. We reviewed this product a few years ago and it’s still one of the best and most innovative camping chairs around.

Coleman Oversize Quad Chair with Cooler ($35)

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Best for: Car camping and tailgating
Weight: 9.9 pounds

This chair has the same general design as your standard folding camp chair, but with some nice extras. Though fairly inexpensive ($35), it’s more durable than a cheap chair you might get from Walmart. While the Oversize chair is well built and functional, the feature that really sets it apart is its storage space: there’s a built-in cooler bag that can accommodate five beers and some ice. A storage flap on the other side will hold your keys, camera, snacks, and magazines.

Kelty Camp Chair ($25)

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Best for: Backpacking, camping, watching a game
Weight: 1 pound

Everyone should have Kelty’s folding camp chair in their vehicle’s trunk. Simple design and versatility make this a worthy seat. Basically a sleeping pad, its closed-cell, Therm-a-Rest-style foam padding will insulate your bottom from the frozen ground. What raises the chair to furniture status, and not just that of a pad, though, are its internal composite stays (which give it structure) and its adjustable straps (which let you adjust your sitting position).

Chaheati Four-Season Heated Chair ($72)

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Best for: Cold-weather camping and ice fishing
Weight: 8 pounds

This all-season chair has a built-in heater that will keep you warm during those cool spring nights. It uses a lightweight lithium-ion battery (no cords!) that can be recharged in the car as you drive. The Chaheati, which can go up to 145 degrees in less than 20 seconds, uses a single button for switching among four heat settings. The best part? Its battery lasts up to six hours, so you can spend a whole day ice fishing next winter without worrying about a frozen butt. Do keep in mind, though, that this chair is too bulky to bring on a backpacking trip.

Lafuma Futura Air Shell Zero Gravity Camp Chair ($240)

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Best for: Car camping and stargazing
Weight: 17.4 pounds 

This is the perfect perch to watch the sky from. All you have to do is lean back to recline, and resistance levers keep you in position. The chair’s ergonomic design and extended leg support render it the most comfortable on our list. A single-thread weave of Batyline material makes up the breathable, durable mesh. For added comfort, there’s a mattress that clips to the chair and that, along with the 3-D mesh, can be removed and washed.

Eagles Nest Outfitters Lounger Chair ($120)

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Best for: Backpacking and camping
Weight: 3.37 pounds

Have you ever wanted to sit and read a book while hanging directly over a rushing backcountry stream? Then you might want to check out the Lounger. Eagles Nest, which makes some of the most popular camping hammocks on the market, has remained true to its history with the Lounger, a hanging seat you can set up just about anywhere. When teamed up with a carabiner and a strap, the Air Craft aluminum frame can hold up to 250 pounds. The adjustable angle-of-recline and dangling-footrest features let you customize whatever space you choose to occupy.

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The Pierre

This retreat on San Juan Island in Washington is set in stone. Literally.

Carved into the rocky outcropping of the sloped, grassy site, the 2,500-square-foot getaway is nearly camouflaged by its concrete walls and green roof. Heavy equipment—large drills, dynamite, hydraulic chippers—and the handwork of talented craftspeople made the two-bedroom home a reality.

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The open-plan kitchen, dining, and living area’s sidewalls are made of thick, poured-in-place concrete. Both end walls are floor-to-ceiling rectangular black steel windows. A glass-and-steel pivoting door opens to a terrace that’s notched and leveled into the rocks outside.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/pierre-cabin-washington-living-room_in.jpg","link":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/pierre-cabin-washington-living-room_in.jpg"}%}

Signs of the challenging construction are visible throughout the home and contrast sharply with the luxurious furnishings. The house’s entrance is a narrow niche carved from the rock. A powder room’s stone walls and arched ceiling show the effort and tools used to chisel out the space. A vertical shaft lets in light that’s reflected on a tall, thin mirror over the metal sink. Massive raw stone slabs were carved back and leveled for the hearths of the indoor and outdoor fireplaces. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/pierre-cabin-washington-bathroom_in.jpg","link":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/pierre-cabin-washington-bathroom_in.jpg"}%}

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