GPS Activity Trackers – Surge vs Vivoactive HR

Forerunner Evolution

I’ve always been a fan of fitness gadgets and during my running life I have followed closely the Garmin Forerunner evolutionary path, seeking ever more specialist and techy running gear. This culminated with the world-class triathlete standard, Forerunner 910XT.

Forerunner Evolution
Forerunner 305, 405, FR60, 310XT, 920XT.

Now, as extremely loyal followers would know, way back in 2007 I competed in a pool based sprint triathlon and am therefore entitled to call myself a triathlete. I have however, begun to face facts relating to my world-class status in the sport and it has led me to question the need for such focus on multisport functionality. Even with running as my mainstay, I couldn’t really find a use for my stride length and vertical oscillation stats.

Besides, what all these watches lacked was 24/7 heart rate monitoring and that is of course essential in this day and age. I could have looked to the new range of wrist based HR mounted forerunners such as the Forerunner 735XT but it is still a world-class triathlete watch at heart. Feeling more comfortable with my amateur athlete status I looked to the activity tracking world where a few devices have been emerging with GPS functionality on the side.

Fitbit SurgeThe Fitbit Surge

Although its been around for a while now, the Fitbit Surge stood out from the crowd.

It’s a neat wrist watch that doesn’t draw attention to itself, includes a GPS unit and is built on the Fitbit infrastructure which is truly outstanding for activity and sleep tracking as well as social interaction.

The Fitbit Surge does feel a little bit dated now, it is black and white (or black and grey) and it takes a little getting used to the low contrast screen but the watch just works as its supposed to.

The GPS picks up quickly and the runs are recorded without fuss, the default running screen doesn’t tell me my vertical oscillation or position against a virtual running partner but I find I don’t use any of that stuff anyway. Nowadays I just press start, run, press stop, stop and I’m done. The Surge does that extremely well and then it syncs in seconds and if I like, it’s up there on Strava before I’ve caught my breath.

Activity tracking is of course brilliant with the Fitbit Surge and you don’t even need to tell the watch you are doing something. I use my eBike to get into work, it’s a pedelec which means I have to pedal and my Fitbit therefore recognises it as an outdoor bike ride, my heart rate shows this to be a relatively relaxed bike ride (due to the assistance) but it recognises the activity nonetheless. It does the same for my badminton sessions although it marks these as Other activity type for me to amend at a later date.

To be honest, if you gave me a splash of colour and a brighter screen, the Surge would almost be my favourite fitness watch ever.

Tooting Bec LidoBut then I took up swimming again!

For some reason I ventured into the Lido at Tooting and was completely hooked. The thrill of the cold plunge has given me an addictive buzz and a new activity to track which revealed a flaw in the Surge make-up.

It is not waterproof and will therefore not track swimming activities.

So, I could stick with the Surge and get a swim only watch (I’m ignoring the low tech option of manually recording my swims), or I could see what was available in the market for GPS activity trackers with swim functionality.

Enter the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

The Garmin Vivoactive HR

Garmin Vivoactive HRIt claimed to do everything that the Fitbit Surge had to offer but with so much more: detailed graphical outputs on the watch display – in full crisp colour, automatic activity detection, sleep tracking, golf and ski tracking (like I care) and the big one, Swim functionality.

DC Rainmaker seems to love the Garmin Vivoactive HR and quite neatly points out the disparity in features available:

Vivoactive HR vs Fitbit Surge: On a pure feature basis, there’s really no competition here.  While both units are priced the same, the Vivoactive HR has approximately 3,283 more features than the Fitbit Surge.  Ok, maybe just like 80 extra features.

It’s true, you can do stacks of stuff with the Vivoactive HR and you can do it all so beautifully. The watch is a miniaturised version of the Garmin Connect app and provided you have your specs on you can see weekly charts of all your main stats. It’s almost glorious.

But only almost.

When it comes down to the battle of GPS activity trackers, with the aged Fitbit Surge vs Garmin Vivoactive HR, the young flashy whipper snapper should win hands down. But Garmin is not getting my vote this time. In fact after 3 weeks trialling it, I’ve packed the Vivoactive HR into its box and sent it back to Amazon as a bad job.

Problems with the Garmin Vivoactive HR

It’s not a great activity tracker for one and the auto exercise detection didn’t work for me once. You may say that e-biking isn’t real cycling and while I wouldn’t agree, Garmin obviously would. Despite the wrist unit registering my heart rate hovering around 120 bpm for the duration of my 40 minute ride into work, I arrived at my desk at about 9:30 am to find no exercise recorded and as a further slap in the face, the vivoactive HR was declaring me to be still soundly asleep. I think that’s pretty pants on both the activity and sleep tracking front.

Its next major failing and the nail in the coffin for my short life with the vivoactive HR was its swim tracking functionality. Firstly, its not very good at counting laps so I still had to keep count in my head. If you jostle during a length, perhaps to grab a wayward noseclip, or to sight the end of the pool, the watch records a new length regardless of whether that would generate a world record lap or not. I find that quite inconvenient although it seems to be a flaw shared by all the swim watches and one that Garmin make particularly tricky to correct post swim. In fact they don’t make it possible at all but you can use third-party apps such as the brilliant swimmingwatchtools to correct.

Secondly, the touch screen functionality of the Vivoactive HR makes it particularly unsuitable for swimming. I’ve managed to delete no end of swims, mid-swim, by unintentional screen swipes. I’ve pressed the button to pause the swim during a rest at the end of the length and then adjusted my goggles or swim cap only to find that the action has deleted the entire activity. Hopping mad doesn’t come close!

Surge vs Vivoactive HR

Surge vs Vivoactive HRAs a result I have deemed the Vivoactive HR to be wholly unacceptable for swim recording and therefore why would I not go back to the Fitbit Surge with its flawless execution, its superb app and its world domination of my friends list?

I can’t help looking for a fitness watch that would do it all and do it well though…….

Atlas wearables wristband review

Atlas wristband

The Atlas wristband is an activity tracker aimed at athletes interested in free and body weight exercises.

When it appeared on Indiegogo around 18 months ago, it looked like the bees knees to me. I had just started weightlifting using the Stronglifts routine and imagined I might also dabble with the Olympic lifts one day.

Frankly the Atlas wristband seemed to be the perfect next gadget for my wrist. Never again would I need to tax my memory counting to five (Stronglifts is a 5×5 rep and set sequence) and I could throw out a manic crossfit style wod in the garden with every move captured for future analysis.

I ordered it at great expense and then the wait began. It was over a year from order to delivery so I was very lucky that I was still dabbling with weightlifting – not many of my fads last that long. Even then I had to wait a bit longer as my original device was dead on arrival.

When a working model did arrive I rushed outside full of glee for a Stronglifts session.

It was a complete flop.

I had set up a custom stronglifts routine with barbell squat, barbell bench press and deadlift included. I thought it might help the Atlas wristband to detect the correct exercise if it only had 3 to choose from. It seems not.

While it did manage to detect my the squat, it couldn’t count them accurately and refused pointedly to recognise my chest press.

I tried a few more times and had more success using the freestyle list of exercises rather than a fixed routine. It seems that the more exercises it has to choose from the better. It’s not that the Atlas device gets more accurate but it is more likely to register some form of exercise that can at least be corrected to the right form, either on the wristband or afterwards within the app.

If you can’t get the Atlas to register at least one of the exercises you can’t manually add it at a later point. I actually took to writing down my routine so I could alter the recordings after the event.

That was the last straw really, I had a perfectly good app for recording my Stronglifts routine and I didn’t see the benefit of creating yet another logging chore. The Atlas wristband went into the bottom drawer to await a firmware update or two.

Today I dragged it out again to see if the device was now working in a fit for purpose fashion.

Here are my squats, or are they actually deadlifts?

That still strikes me as a big fail.
It recognised the next set but only counted 4 of my 5 reps.

If you look at Amazon they have a mixed bag of reviews but on the whole people seem to be impressed. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong but as far as I’m concerned this device needs to go back into the bottom drawer or better still, eBay.

It’s acknowledged that the device detects exercises based on the movement of the wristband through space. It attempts to recognise the 3D path from a library of movements performed to a set form. You are supposed to watch the video and amend your form to match and it could be that my rendition of a squat or a bench or a deadlift just bears little resemblance to good form. I would prefer the device to cut me a little slack and recognise or learn what my squat looks like and perhaps with a bit more development time Atlas will do just this. There is the suggestion that in the future it will be able to learn new exercises so it ought to be able to learn old ones too.

It would be a pretty useful feature to tell me that my squats are off so that I can work on improving them, better at least than telling me they are deadlifts….

I just don’t think I have the patience to wait for many more updates and may have to go back to counting myself.

Overview of the Atlas wristband

Pros:

  • One of the few activity monitors directed at weightlifters
  • Wrist based heart rate monitoring
  • A varied list of exercises
  • Potential to give useful trend information
  • Potential to improve form
  • Atlas appear to be actively engaged in the improvement and development of the device

Cons:

  • Atlas wristbandAtlas can’t count
  • Atlas doesn’t consistently recognise exercises
  • Without the two points above the stats such as speed are pointless
  • The heartrate monitoring is a bit hit and miss
  • Its ugly and bulky and can’t be worn with wrist straps
  • Its expensive
  • Its impossible to read in daylight

 

Fitbit and Resting Heart Rate

Fitbit Surge

Fitbit SurgeI’ve been so impressed by the Fitbit HR range of activity trackers that I’ve just posted my trusty Forerunner 920XT on eBay. I am no longer going to pretend that I may one day compete in another triathlon or go swimming more than say, once a year.

Instead I’ve opted for the Fitbit Surge and will be content with exercise auto recognition, continuous daily heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, step counting and GPS for my hikes and runs (when they start to happen again).

I am particularly bowled over by the auto exercise recognition. I don’t have to tell the watch I’m starting a session, it just seems to know. So my weekly badminton matches get captured and logged for the first time and my daily eBike commute is recognised for its gentle effort.

The one area that I HATE about Fitbit though, is its resting heart rate feature.

This should be such a useful feature for tracking wellness trends and readiness for training but Fitbit have decided to go it alone with the definition of Resting Heart Rate and have created a useless and erratic version that bears no resemblance to a true RHR.

Fitbit resting heart rateYour resting heart rate is supposed to be the lowest heart rate achieved while awake but at rest. So if I look at my HR while writing this slightly ranty blog post and my current heart rate is 64 but my Resting Heart Rate is 74, I know for a fact that 74 is not my Resting HR! My question is why doesn’t Fitbit know it?

This photo from Twitter illustrates the point nicely.

DC Rainmaker wrote an interesting article this week on continuous heart rate tracking and also commented on the disappointing, “conservative” approach by Fitbit to RHR monitoring.

The Fitbit help pages explain how they measure resting heart rate:

Your tracker estimates your resting heart rate by measuring your heart rate while you’re asleep and while you’re awake but still during the day.
For best accuracy, wear your tracker to sleep.  If you don’t wear your tracker to sleep, the tracker will still try estimate your resting heart rate while you are awake.

I find it hard to understand how difficult it can be to record the lowest heart rate while you are awake, especially if you don’t wear it while you sleep. The Fitbit does a very good job of detecting sleep and non-sleep so thats half the job done.

It feels to me as though they are taking my lowest HR during the day and then adding 10 or so beats for the heck of it.

If you haven’t already noticed, this annoys me. Fitbit have taken a fantastic fitness watch and then infected it with a great big flaw. I’d much rather opt for manual recording of RHR while ever their estimates remain so poor.

I do like the continuous heart rate tracking though:

Fitbit Surge continuous heart rate monitoring

Insomnia: The Activity Tracker Showdown

Fitbit sleep tracking

Many people will have gone to bed last night with a degree of melancholy angst. Like me they will have forlornly switched the alarm back on after the luxury of 10 back to back lie ins.

I fell asleep then woke, bolt upright at 2:30 am full of dread about my imminent return to work.

Two DotsI tossed. I turned. I got up and played Two Dots for 90 finger tapping minutes.

I contemplated cycling into work at 4am but thought better of it and dragged myself back upstairs where I promptly fell back to sleep.

Moments after, my 07:15 alarm went off and seemingly only seconds later the emergency 07:50 alarm blared.

Aargh. I need a new job. Should anyone have a spare job which would allow me to work from home and play with spreadsheets, I will take it.

Looking at the stats for my night I see there is a stark contrast between my two activity trackers of choice. On my left wrist was the Garmin 920XT on my right, a new Xmas treat, the Fitbit Charge HR.

Sleep according to Garmin

I think from my intro, I’ve made it clear that I did not have a great nights sleep. Why then would the Garmin declare this to be one of my best kips ever?

9 blissful hours asleep with only 18 waking minutes in the middle. What happened to the Two Dots interlude?

The Fitbit on the other hand appears to be a master at sleep tracking and insomnia detection.

It ascertained that I had completely given up on sleep as a concept and split my night completely in two, which is just as I remember it.

Fitbit sleep tracking
Insomnia according to Fitbit

Fitbit knows its sleep! Garmin is pants!

BSX Insight Review – Lactate Threshold Testing at Home

IMG_6647.JPG

I’m a attracted to the technicalities of training more than the actual training, and I’m always on the look out for a gadget that might reduce the need for the latter.

I was immediately attracted to the BSX Insight campaign on Kickstarter, not only because it’s a cool new sporty gadget but also because it offers insights that should enable me to train smarter (where training smarter means training less). Perhaps not less than I currently train but less than a very eager, yet clueless runner. 

BSX Insight Review

BSX Insight is a small sensor, worn in a tight calf sleeve, that monitors muscle oxygenation in order to estimate your lactate threshold. It apparently has a high level of accuracy when compared to the industry standard lactate testing methodology, which involves multiple blood draws to measure the increasing concentration of lactic acid in the system. For the first time, lactate threshold testing has been opened up to the masses, for home testing without invasive blood tests.

What is Lactate Threshold

In everyday practice, the most common use of the term is the intensity at which your body can no longer sustainably keep up with the energy demand. In other words, it is the highest intensity, or the fastest pace, that you could maintain without a steady increase in blood lactate.

In practice, it represents the highest workload that can be maintained for an extended period of time, usually around 45-60 minutes.

BSX Blog

It’s still early days with the development of the BSX Insight and at the moment you can only perform LT assessments with it. In time you should be able to use this in daily runs to monitor muscle oxygenation in real time.

Lactate Threshold Assessment

You start with the BSX Insight app which requires you to answer a few questions relating to your current conversational and 10k pace.

Note that this is a gadget for elites and slow pokes alike. If your conversation pace is 10 min/km or 5 min it will still take you through your paces and deliver results for you. 

The app then indicates the pace zones it will take you through, aiming to have taken you to exhaustion after about 30 mins of progressive running.

The app then connects (via Bluetooth I think) to the BSX sensor which in turn connects to your ANT+ Heart Rate monitor. I used the HR strap that came with my Garmin 920XT and had to hold the BSX sensor next to the strap to cement the initial connection. Having made the connection it held it for the duration of the assessment.

Once the setup is completed it is time to get on the treadmill and hit start. You really need to use a treadmill for the assessment stage as you are required to maintain a consistent pace for 3 minutes before it bumps you up by perhaps only 0.1 kph for another 3 minutes. It would be extremely hard to hit that level of consistency if you were running free.

During the run the app indicates your current instructions, either a pace or speed target to maintain, along with your heart rate and current muscle oxygenation levels.

BSX Insight Muscle Oxygenation

I imagine that when you reach true exhaustion the muscle oxygenation level will begin to drop off. Unfortunately I have to imagine this as I’ve done the test twice now and think I have bailed on both occasions, just before my lactate threshold was reached. It didn’t seem to harm the experiment though, and so long as you run for at least 20 minutes I think the app will be able to estimate the LT.

Results of the Lactate Threshold Home Test

The results are calculated almost immediately and your results are compared to any previous assessments you’ve completed.

Probably the most useful feature is the display of your personal training zones. And that’s personal as in truly personal and not just calculations based on 220 – your age. You can view your training zones as either pace based or HR zones.

The trick now is to take these zones and design a training program which utilises your new found insight, to push the boundaries and increase your fitness so you reach your Lactate Threshold at a faster pace.

BSX Insight do offer a free training program to help with this but in a nutshell, I will be keeping the bulk of my runs in the Zone 2 Aerobic Threshold with twice weekly interval sessions where I push to Zones 4 and 5. It’s these higher zones that will work on improving my LT.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops and perhaps integrates with other services. At the moment I can see the results of my assessment but I don’t seem to be able to access the data. I’d like to be able to view the muscle oxygenation and HR charts as shown above but at the moment they appear to be locked down.

Running with Light

IMG_6385.JPG

I’ve had a few weekends away in the sticks and at this time of year I always wonder how I could keep up my running habit if I moved to the countryside where pavements tend to be optional, as does the street lighting, and where running either side of work means running in pitch darkness.

Nathan Zephyr 100Running through London, my requirements are more about being seen than lighting up my way. Street lighting is sufficient in most areas to prevent me from running blindly into a wall or fellow runner but I do feel more comfortable knowing that drivers have spotted me and are less likely to turn up side streets without indication and so on.

I was sent the Nathan Zephyr 100 running torch to review and was immediately impressed. It has an ingenious strap design that makes it so easy to hold without gripping. I’d use this on my next overnight walk as it would be such a relief not to have to focus on holding a torch for hours on end. It’s ideal for running too, you can set it to a bright solid beam or switch to flash mode which I think is the best option for being seen. This video clip demonstrates the flash mode – sorry it wasn’t really dark enough to warrant torchlight.

Nathan Zephyr Fire 100

A video posted by 💪 @warriorwoman #strength (@warriorwoman) on

First Impressions of the Fitbit Flex

Fitbit Flex

I have an obsession for activity trackers. It’s the tracking that absorbs me and not the activity, unfortunately.
I’ve worked my way through 5 different makes and models, often wearing two at a time but at the moment I am taking the Fitbit Flex (donated by LV=) through its paces.

Fitbit Flex

Out of the box, I have to admit to feeling a little underwhelmed by the Fitbit, it’s not exactly stylish. It reminds me of one of those magnetic locker fobs you get at the local swimming pool and they are hardly a fashion statement.

It does have a display though, unlike the swimming pool locker fob, but it is only one row deep which means the visual feedback is limited and fairly uninformative.

It does do a pretty good job of counting steps though and its sleep monitoring is the best I’ve seen so far. It is admittedly quite hard to put to sleep, a double tap is supposed to do the trick but I find it requires a manic tap-tap, tap, tap, tap before it switches to sleep mode. This action is then reversed in the morning to inform the gadget that I’m up and ready for the day and by that time I tend to be frowning in frustration.

The sleep tracking results are immediately available on the Fitbit app thanks to the wonder of Bluetooth and I find the interpretation to be particularly clear. It splits your sleep into coloured zones relating to sleep, restless and awake and then lists out the time in each category and the number of individual episodes. This qualitative categorisation is particularly useful for comparing days and is an improvement on the offerings from Garmin, Up and Withings.

itbit Sleep MetricsAlthough I’m very happy with the sleep aspect of the Fitbit app, the overall display is quite stark with an awful lot of blank space and it doesn’t feel as exciting as either the Up or Withings apps.

Another stand out feature for the Fitbit Flex is price. At £79 it is a lot cheaper than any of the other trackers I’ve tried so far and is a great way get onto the activity tracking bandwagon.

Fitbit AppPros

  • Lightweight, comfortable fit
  • Excellent sleep statistics
  • Excellent value
  • Good battery life (about 5 days)

Cons

  • Not very stylish
  • Uninformative display on the wristband
  • No button on the wristband and it doesn’t always respond to taps
  • Minimal design to the app

Move! The Cheek of New Gadgets

Garmin Forerunner 920XT

The arrival, this morning, of a new and exciting watch encouraged me to ignore my rapidly filling sinus cavities and venture out for a tentative jog.

I opted for a trail run around the local mud common and as anticipated it was tough and wheezy. I was so excited by the finish alert from my new wrist watch that I promptly slid over in the mud and lost myself a few seconds before I could reach the stop button.

On arrival back home I had to faff with running kit, now plastered with Mitcham clay and have only just managed to slump into my post run sofa pose. I’ve maintained this for all of 15 mins, just time to polish off the last glass of xmas Chardonnay when my new watch beeps and offers up the message “Move!”

Garmin Forerunner 920XTComplete with exclamation mark!

What a cheek. I’ve just run 5k and walked 11000 steps, surely enough to be rewarded with a sit-down. It only started me with a 5000 step target so what on earth is its gripe?

I intend to wander through to the kitchen to find the last of the Leffe beer now, I hope that will be sufficient to quieten the Garmin gods.

Bluefingers Labs Wearable Audio

Bluefingers Labs

Bluefingers Labs BeanieBluefingers Labs got in touch a while back and offered me a seriously cool beanie hat with integral headphones. Unfortunately I do not ooze the right level of urban cool to pass it off and so opted for the far more sedate baseball cap.

Bluefingers Labs produce a small bluetooth gizmo that they have stitched into assorted head garments. This enables you to have a fairly discrete and hands free audio experience.

Bluefingers Labs Baseball Cap

I’ve tried out a number successful ways to carry my iPhone securely while running but I still suffer with the flappy cable annoyance. This cap enabled me to run, cable free, while listening to my favourite tunes and allowed me to take calls while still on the move. I didn’t spot the integral microphone but it seemed to work well enough and apparently picked up my huffing and puffing very well.

I run hot and therefore struggle with hats. I like them to keep off the rain and the worst of the suns rays but I also like to avoid heat stroke. I therefore choose very lightweight breathable caps and this is not one of them.

The Bluefingers Labs baseball cap is a standard baseball cap and it isn’t really designed for the rigours of sport. The genius of the design is in the Bluetooth audio attachment and I’d love to see them build one into a running specific cap.

In the meantime I’ll be using mine for the daily walk into work but I’ll probably take the cap off before my work colleagues spot me, I don’t want them to think I’m down with the kids.

Benefits

  • Handsfree bluetooth
  • No irritating cables
  • Secure earbuds
  • Receive telephone calls
  • 60 remarkable hours of standby time

Disadvantages

  • Not running specific so quickly feels hot and damp

Check @BluefingersLabs out on Twitter and you might be able to pick up a discount code.

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Loxley Suspension Trainer

Loxley Suspension Trainer

I’m a big fan of suspension training and was delighted to be offered a Loxley Sports Suspension Trainer to try out. If you are not familiar with the concept of suspension training, it’s a highly adjustable form of bodyweight resistance training.

You attach extremely strong webbing to something sturdy and high, such as a tree, a goal post or even a door and then while you are holding onto it you perform functional movements which focus on strength, balance and coordination. By adjusting the length of the straps you can adjust the resistance so you feel more of your bodyweight.
Loxley Suspension Trainer vs TRX
The original suspension trainer was the TRX designed by a former Navy Seal for Total Resistance eXercise. I already have a TRX strapped to a pull up bar across the bedroom door. It cost me an absolute fortune (£190) but at the time I thought I was buying the original and therefore the best. Now that I have the Loxley Suspension Trainer and the TRX side by side I don’t think I was correct, they are almost indistinguishable and I certainly can’t discern any quality differences between the two brands.

I am extremely impressed by the quality of the Loxley Trainer, for £45 you have got an absolute bargain and an impressive tool for increasing your strength and power.

Loxley Suspension Trainer

The suspension trainer comes neatly folded into a small mesh bag which makes it convenient for travelling with or taking out to the park. As with the TRX, it comes with a cord attachment in case you need to wrap around something very large such as a tree trunk, and a door wedge that allows you to trap the cable at the top of a suitable door frame. This makes it the perfect bundle for taking away on holidays or work trips as you convert your hotel room into an accomplished gym.

Where the Loxley Suspension Trainer may be missing a trick is in the enclosed instruction booklet where it identifies only 5 of the myriad of possible exercise options.

I strongly recommend this bargain suspension trainer and I also suggest you pair it with this excellent iPhone app Virtual Trainer Suspension – Virtual Trainer that shows the exercises in HD video for only £1.49

Loxley Sports are a new sports brand and currently sell this suspension trainer, kinesiology tape and a set of barbell collars that I’m really tempted to buy. All 3 products seem to be offered at a really great price.

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