Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Sorry State of Fitness Equipment

It's been ages since I've written anything. I can blame that on any combination of a hundred different factors. In the time I've been away from the blogosphere I've changed in almost as many ways. For example I'm adapting more to a Chicago lifestyle. That doesn't mean I'm anywhere near where my wife wants me to be but I'm making inroads. Also, my exercise burnout is waning away. I'm beginning to approach exercising from the joyous point of view I enjoyed prior to moving to Chicago. I'm not 100% there but taking some quality time away from sporting and enjoying other things in life such as reading and relaxing are starting to pay their dividends.

This time away also brings me to the core of why I'm posting. In my heyday of exercising I really enjoyed recording my workout metrics and making them available for the world to see (though I'm confident the world doesn't care). I used to do this by wearing my HRM along with my trusty Garmin Forerunner 310XT. After working out I'd connect the Forerunner to my computer, fire up a web browser and Garmin's Training Center and upload my data locally as well as Garmin Connect and Training Peaks. Finally, from Garmin Connect I'd often share the workout on Facebook. Now that I think about it the whole point of my sharing a workout was so others could have access to the route I took in case they wanted to try the route.

Thinking about this now I can't help but think about how insane that whole process was. That's a lot of steps and time to be able to perform some rudimentary data analysis and sharing. That got me thinking: there must be an easier way to make all this happen.

Lo and behold there is: iPhone. Via the iPhone and any one of the great fitness apps available for it (I personally chose RunKeeper but Endomondo looks pretty killer) I can pair a Bluetooth HRM to it and get all the same metrics as the watch gives me. But more importantly it's one button click and my workouts are sent to Facebook, twitter and RunKeeper for analysis. Maps of my route are provided on GPS. I get turn by turn directions, audio feedback of my pace, total distance and HR every 5 minutes, and all of this on my sleek phone. I've been running with my iPhone and RunKeeper for all these winter months and have thoroughly been enjoying it. I've even put my Forerunner 310XT on Craigslist.

Of course the phone is not without its drawbacks. First and foremost it's not waterproof. Anyone whose been caught in the rain while out cycling knows that horror story. Secondly, it's battery comes nowhere close to the 10+ hours you can enjoy on a Garmin Forerunner or Polar model. Lastly, and most importantly, if your training is heart rate focused then the phone simply doesn't cut it. You need constant feedback to know where your HR is relative to your goal heart rate. A phone is clunky to carry and unless you only want feedback once every 5 minutes you need to unlock the screen each time you want to check where you are. Obviously the answer to this problem is a watch which brings us full circle to the original problem.

Unfortunately it seems the watch market itself has stagnated. All solutions I find are either attractive but feature lacking or have great features but are clunky and hideous.

So what's the answer? As of today one doesn't exist. I've spoken with a number of technology and fitness enthusiasts and they all concur that I have valid concerns and desires but nothing addresses them all.

Here's what I would like to offer: feedback on future product designs and enhancements. I want no royalty, commission or any other monetary compensation. Anyone is free to take this and run with it. The only thing I want is the knowledge I helped move the state of affairs forward. I would, however, appreciate the device to be available to market in 2013 at Apple level quality.

  • The screen should be large and readable but also unobtrusive. Polar's RC3 GPS and Garmin's Forerunner 910XT both have decent screens. They're not iPhone caliber but it is what it is. Start there and move forward. Color and fully featured without being crowded and complicated is the goal.
  • Connectivity: at least have wifi. Heck, even my thermostat connects to the Internet. This should be obvious. The moment I'm within my wifi or a free wifi hotspot the information should upload to the servers. I should also have the ability to sign up for pre defined workouts or training schedules and they should automatically sync to the watch.
  • Heart Rate: again, a no brainier. But take it a step further. If we still have to wear those clunky chest straps then provide some extra features. Polar offers a great way to estimate your fitness level and heart rate zone values by doing a resting test. Include stuff like that in a user friendly interface and you've got a killer feature.
  • Bluetooth: This should also be a no brainier. Bluetooth 4 is low power, offers a great signal and is being universally adopted. One strap to use with everything. Enough with this Ant +, Wind and other proprietary nonsense.
  • Battery: long lasting, reliable and rechargeable. Make the charging cable and power connection as minimal as possible. The battery should be at least equal to where it is today. If your engineers say they can't make it happen, fire them and get a smart team of engineers who will deliver.
  • Form factor: probably your biggest challenge. Incorporate all suggestions here into an attractive, low profile design. I should WANT to wear the watch. I should be excited to use it.
  • Waterproof: I should be able to keep the watch at the bottom of Lake Michigan for a week without it skipping a beat.
  • GPS: strong, reliable, accurate and quick connection to satellites.
  • Cost: charging more than $300 would be criminal.

There are probably many other things I'm not thinking of but the state of fitness devices is embarrassing. These companies (Garmin, Polar, etc) should be ashamed for not pushing the state of the art past the boundary. Until I see units moving into the 21st century I cannot justify these companies getting my money.