Running is for criminals. I've always detested it. It's not that I can't take exercise or sweating (I love biking, hiking). I loathe the constant exertion of jogging, the pounding of the feet, and the nagging suspicion I'm always doing it wrong. In college, I split my time between the beach and treadmills, and preferred the latter, even though running inside hurts my soul. In retrospect, I assumed forcing a machine to do the pacing was the appeal. Lazy dude, unforgiving machine. Turns out I was wrong. It wasn't until I strapped on the GoWear Fit -- an arm/wristband system that tabulates distance (in steps) and calories burned over time -- that it all clicked. It's not the treadmill's pacing I was after. It's the feedback. The data. All that time I was running blind. No wonder I hated it. After the jump, hear how I learned to stop worrying and sort of, actually, kind of, almost love the run.
As much as I hate running, I love dieting. A lot. A year into my first desk job, my midsection ballooned thanks to the three b's: burritos, beer and the Bell (specifically the fourth meal). My girlfriend at the time (now wife) diplomatically suggested a diet: calorie counting. It worked. Quite well. Dropping 20 lbs. in a couple months emphasized just how dead-simple the science of hacking your body really is.
A quick primer for metabon00bs: Your body burns a specific number of calories every day, on its own, no exercise necessary (my BRM or basal metabolic rate is 2400 cal). Every piece of food and drink that goes in has a calorie count. An average banana is 110. So is a Bud Light (it's less filling; don't start). If everything you consume adds up to your BMR, you'll maintain your current weight. Consume less than your daily burn, you'll shed pounds faster than a bachelor party at a London gentleman's pub. Cutting roughly 500 calories below your BMR can help you drop one pound a week.
Add in exercise: you can either lose weight quicker or do what I'm super into: continue losing/maintaining weight at the same rate, but add back in whatever food/beverage(s) total up to the burned amount. Again, simple addition, self-control and a basic regimen. Over a week or so, I ran four times (not much, but that's 400% more than what I did in 2007-2008).
Day 1: Control
Lisa and I reluctantly jogged 3.5 miles (Google Mapped before) in Golden Gate Park without any added technology or knowledge about our pace, heart rates, calories, etc. I felt sore and stiff. It sucked, mostly (and I had a gnarly sneeze fit after). I looked online afterwards and tried to estimate how much time we spent over the distance, and therefore the calories I burned. Guesstimating really hinders the ability to have a guilt-free beer.
Day 1 Results:
[image via Vitonica]
Day 2: It knows who I am?
Same location, same run. Cold morning. Sync watch to armband after registering online (height, weight, age). "Welcome Steven," the watch greets me. I begin fiddling with the buttons as we run. Then tightening the armband strap, loosening it, and back. Checking calories, obsessively at first. After settling into a decent stride, the first alert comes: "moderate level achieved." Alright!!! ...Wait, what does that mean?
The GoWear Fit is not a heart rate monitor, so you can't expect marathoner data: no target or max heart rates. And you won't get speed over time either (just calories burned). The device is intended to be worn all day long, so you get a more accurate count of what you're burning -- and not just while exercising, but walking to the bus, grocery shopping, and even at rest, typing... not a major source of caloric burn, btw).
Using an accelerometer and thermometer in the armband, the system purports to measure the following: motion and steps, plus temp, heat flux and galvanic skin response (GSR) or electrodermal response. The armband has a plastic case you pop the unit into. On the back are two medal pads (the GSR sensor). All of these measurements are crunched by two basic algorithms ("running" and "resting"), which account for your stated age, weight, height, gender. What this means: you can't just sit in a sauna and expect it to tell you you've lost the same calories you would while running. It's not exclusively body heat or steps taken, but a combination of heat, exertion, the vigor with which the accelerometer shakes, and a biological profile (so don't lie about your specs).
The system uses the data to classify the intensity of your fitness into "vigorous" and "moderate" (also based onthe desired caloric burn you've specified). I thought I'd find these alerts distracting and confusing, even annoying. Quite the contrary: while my racing heart's saying "This sucks. Time for beer?", the watches reminds me I'm doing good, and I should keep it up. With the push of a button, you can see how many calories you've burned thus far at "moderate" and "vigorous" (roughly 200, 350 for me). After just a day of use the GoWear Fit proved easy and comfortable to use, though I didn't track or care too much about my daily totals. All the data from the armband is uploaded via USB or wirelessly to gowearfit.com, where its stored for your perusal or dissection. If you need, you can export to PDF or a neatly-tabulated XLS a basic summary of your performance for any specific week or number of weeks (up to 28 days). I tried this out, but didn't have much use for it. Remember, all I want is to know after each run, how many beers I can drink without concern for my weight.
Day 2 Results:
Day 3: Trail running = the devil
Hills. Panting. Stopping. Ugh. Worthy of a six-pack?
Day 3 Results:
Day 4: Miracle miles, five of them
Crisp, bright Sunday run along the path by the Golden Gate Bridge. I decide to add a heart rate monitor into the mix, just for kicks. There are tons of other runners of all shapes and sizes, including the type who wear spandex and look smug as they coast by. Still, I think I'm starting to get it. No regrets or embarrassment about the lightweight, polarized running sunglasses I'm wearing (they are great for keeping dust from disturbing your contacts). Armband is adjusted properly. Feet feel light.
The heart rate begins to distract me, though. I find myself speeding up to get it higher, not really knowing what it means. I spend about 1/4th of the 5-mile run (above) looking at the fluctuations: 170, 165, 160 (hurry up), 163, 168 (mmmmk), 172. Exhausting for a total heart rate amateur. I know my "max heart rate" should be about 197, but my friend Mat says a better estimate is too run 0.5 miles as fast as you can until, "You think you're about to throw up. Not feel like it, but close to actually throwing up." No thanks!
We finish a run that's 1.5 miles longer than the first one. My legs feel good. I'm not breathing as heavy as I thought I'd be. But I realize I'm going to leave the marathons to Lisa. As long as I can drink more beer, and not get a gut, that's fine by me.
Day 4 Results:
*not counting cool down, warm up
The armband, watch and 12 month account costs $250 (plus $6/month). Pricey. Honestly, if I were on a budget and interested in calories (not heart rate), I'd consider a Nike Plus. Of course, there are some downsides to spending less: the Nike Plus reading is less scientific (i.e. no GSR or temp/heat flux). Regardless of what that means in terms of the data (I plan to do a comparison), psychologically, I enjoyed knowing that my biology was playing a part. Additionally, you can't wear the Nike Plus with all of your shoes (unless you buy the $8 Shoe Wallet), and even then, you have to attach and detach it to different shoes (a hassle if you plan to track calories all day, as you can with the GoWear). While running, too, I believe it's easier to look at a watch and press a few buttons for instant feedback than it is either to a) carry an iPod/nano in your hand, or b) position your arm to read the nano screen strapped to your bicep.
All of these points could easily be moot in the next year. The amount of tools we're building and tweaking to take biological measurements of all kind is thrilling. The key with all of it is really to establish your end goal, understand the level of engagement you want/need, and find whichever pieces of tech fit that. In time, re-evaluate, upgrade, downgrade, etc. I barely got a taste of heart rate. I didn't even scrape the surface of GPS. But I'm more engaged with my body, and the chance I'll keeping this up seems good.
Eventually, too, I may even be able to upgrade to a decent beer, though I'll always steer clear of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot.