First Impressions of the 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

The Science of Fitness

It seems customary to invent Janathon exercises and as I’m not well enough to even rattle off two bed sit-ups, I’ve also created my own – the sport of reading sporty books. Preferably from under a duvet.

The Science of FitnessI was recently sent The Science of Fitness, Power, Performance and Endurance and it seemed like the perfect title for my new Janathon-ercise. Perhaps it would inspire me to create my new New Years fitness program.

It all started very well, it promised to be the most complete scientific exploration of fitness to-date, and stressed the importance of mitochondria (which I like), illustrated it with the impressive story of Greg LeMond and offered me the inspired sounding BEAST program to power my mitochondria and enhance performance.

It turns out however that BEAST stands for Bicycling, Eating, Avoiding toxins, Stopping self-destructive behaviour and Training with resistance, which as acronyms go, is just a bit too strained for my liking.

I had heard of Greg LeMond, although he was a bit before my obsessive Tour de France time, so I didn’t know his full story. He was a TdF winner in 1986, then almost had his life and certainly his career destroyed by an horrific accidental gunshot incident. He remarkably rebuilt his fitness levels and went on to another two Tour de France victories only to suffer an embarrassing decline as the lead from the gunshot pellets, still lodged in his body, started to leach out and destroy his mitochondria

So we are back on to mitochondria, the unsung heroes of athletic performance. I’m particularly interested in mitochondria and their role in performance and health after following the work Dr Terry Wahls who has had incredible success treating progressive MS by adapting her diet to one that is high in micronutrients that target mitochondrial health (see The Wahl’s Protocol). Here’s her famous TED talk on Minding your Mitochondria.

The Science of Fitness is a hard book to recommend as I can’t decide who it is aimed at. It reads like a school biology book and throws in a bit of Newtonian physics for variety. I can only imagine that the sort of person inclined to spend the afternoon reading school textbooks would probably already know this stuff and everyone else would be bored to tears.

I persevered and ticked off the chapters, admiring the citations which were longer than the chapters. I wasn’t too impressed by the nutrition section which opted for very safe advice, came down on the side of the “Mediterranean Diet”, whatever that is, and cited three papers from the Diet Heart health study.

Now if you want an interesting read that discusses the history of nutritional studies and the shocking way that scientists can gang up to prevent true exploration (the diet heart studies being a great example) I would strongly recommend The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. You’ll also find an interesting angle on the “Mediterranean Diet” in there too.

Anyway I did read all the way to the end although I have to admit to skimming at an ever increasing rate. I expected the final chapter to detail some training programs for the BEAST program but it just fizzled out and left me with a rather tame, yet wordy, bullet list which I will summarise as follows:

  • High Intensity Interval Training multiplies mitochondria
  • Regular (at least alternate days) to stop mitochondrial decline
  • Build a base level of endurance
  • Strength training to build muscle
  • Avoid overuse training
  • Balanced diet
  • Enjoy it
  • Aim for iterative improvement

All in all, a tame and uninspired way to achieve BEAST status. I will be looking to the Unbreakable Runner to source my new program from, it follows a similar strategy but feels so much more gutsy and deserving of a BEAST acronym.

Helly Hansen and Pistols at Dawn

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It’s the middle of the day, the middle of a work day. I am focussing on this jumble of numbers and easing my way towards a stress headache when my phone vibrates to alert me to the fact that JogBlog has been running. Again.

Since I accepted her Helly Hansen Winter Duel Challenge 3 days ago JogBlog has run twice for a total of 15km.

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I find this particularly smarting because although I have been a lazy lard arse for much of 2014 I have actually been out for a run this week and I swear it was longer than the registered 1.07k. Not much longer admittedly but I’m going to find it hard to beat the near ultra running JogBlog if the Winter Duel app is going to continue to curtail my efforts.

I went out again after work and ran around the block 3 times. On each circuit I checked the app to find it had crashed and so pressed the resume training button. This led to a slight improvement in the recorded distance but it still robbed me of a third of my efforts.

I have it on good authority that JogBlog will not have much opportunity to run this weekend, so I may have to take my chances with the dodgy app and knock out the odd marathon or two to catch up.

Maxi-minimal Running Shoes – Can Altra replace Hoka

Having been a committed, t-shirt wearing, fan of Hoka ultra-cushioned running shoes for more than 2 years, I’ve recently started to consider the options and allowed my eyes to wander. It’s not that I’ve become disillusioned at all, in fact I want to find something very similar to a Hoka, just perhaps, a bit better.

Hoka Mafate 3

By better I mean:

1. Cheaper than a Hoka
2. More durable than a Hoka

But I want to keep the similarities, so they must be:

3. As cushioned as a Hoka
4. As comfortable as a Hoka

When I first came across the Hoka they were these uniquely outlandish clown shoes. They seemed to be completely against the trend for minimal barefoot shoes (even though they had minimal heel to toe drop) but now we have a host of thick soled running shoes to choose from. I call them maxi-minimal running shoes to describe the huge soles with barefoot style, minimal, heel drop.

Maxi-minimal running shoes

Ranking of cushion thickness

Maxi-Minimal Running Shoe Comparison

I’ve shown the RRP for each of these shoes but Hokas are increasingly available in the UK with good discounts available. I’ve been impressed with Millets who seem to stock the full range of Hoka Ultra running shoes.

Despite loving the feel of running in Hokas, I was becoming alarmed at the amount of money I was spending to accumulate a mound of worn out platform shoes. The Hokas are the most comfortable shoe I have ever run in and enabled me to run free of the fear of knee pain but they do have a tendency to wear out at a shocking pace. My first pair of Hokas had to be sent back within a month because I’d left half the sole on the streets of San Francisco – blog link and the while the later versions had more durable soles they started to wear very quickly on the heel tab and this resulted in heel blisters long before the shoe ought to need replacing.

When I looked at the alternatives the only real competition seemed to come from Altra. Sketchers and Adidas both do a highly cushioned model but the Sketchers has a massive heel to toe drop and the Adidas Boost was an entirely disappointing shoe that gave me none of the liberating joys associated with the Hoka range.

Looking at the price point of the Altra shoes, I’m surprised I went ahead and ordered them, they barely come in any cheaper than the Hoka. In fact when I opened the box with the Altra Olympus I nearly sent them straight back as they have a very cheap feel and at £125 I don’t think that’s warranted. The Altra Torin was much more pleasing from the outset, they didn’t necessarily look like Hoka competitors but they were cool looking.

Altra vs Hoka

Altra Torin Maxi-minimal running shoeAt the outset I said I was looking for a similar shoe to the Hoka (Mafate 3 for trail or Stinson for road use) that was preferably cheaper and more durable. The Altra Torin doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the similarity requirements, I don’t see it as a maximal shoe at all. It is however incredibly comfortable, it has a firm sole and a roomy toe box and its actually the shoe that I now spend the most time in. I don’t run in it very often though – it is too barefoot style for me nowadays but I do walk in it everywhere and its holding up remarkably well to the abuse of the daily commute. I pull them on and off without use of the laces and 4 months in, it is still showing no signs of wear.

Altra Olympus Maxi-minimal running shoeThe Altra Olympus ought to be a real competitor. The spec charts suggest that this model has a thicker sole than any of the Hoka range although it doesn’t feel like that on the foot. Like the Torin, the Olympus has an incredibly wide toe box which immediately makes you feel less constricted than in the Hoka range. I can’t say that it is a more comfortable shoe though. The sole seems to squirm underfoot in a quite a disturbing manner. You feel as though you are teetering on a mass of jelly and I can’t claim to have enjoyed my running experiences in it.

In terms of durability, I can’t yet call it. Despite having had both pairs of Altras for about 4 months I barely ever wear the Olympus – I’d much rather reach for any of my Hokas.

When they eventually wear out I will replace the Altra Torin as my near permanent walking and play shoe but I won’t be touching the Olympus again. The Hokas are still my number one choice of running shoe although I am still thinking about the perfect maxi-minimal running shoe that might have the sole of a Hoka Mafate but the toe box of an Altra Torin. I wonder if it exists?

For a great comparison of the Hoka range, showing cut away photos, see the excellent article on fellrnr.

Panasonic Action Camera meets The Wolf Run

The Wolf Run is becoming a bit of habit. We skipped summer but by the end of the year will have dragged our way across Woods, Obstacles, Lakes and Fields in 3 out the 4 seasons on offer.

Last weekend was The Autumn Wolf and it didn’t disappoint – muddy hilarity for the whole 10k.

Despite being held in the same location as The Spring Wolf the organisers had managed to shake things up a bit. The obstacles were tweaked, with some new additions and the sunny weather turned the trail sections into runnable tracks rather than the quagmires of Spring. It felt like a totally different event.

Panasonic HX-A500 Action CamI was sent the latest wearable action camera, the Panasonic HX-A500 to try out on the day and it held up to one heck of a battering and still managed to produce some fairly impressive footage from the day. I had considered buying the GoPro but I didn’t like the idea of having it attached to a chest harness. The Panasonic action camera, comes in two parts with lens attached to a light headband which is then attached by a cable, to the camera sitting in an armband. I found this to be the perfect setup. It felt really comfortable to wear and the camera was easily accessible so I could switch the recording on and off for every obstacle.

The Panasonic has a load of different settings of ever increasing quality, culminating in the headline 4k. I don’t really know what that means other than its a lot of pixels and I’d need some special viewing device to take advantage of the ultra HD-ness. I shot my footage of The Wolf Run at Full HD instead, so I didn’t risk filling my memory card before the event was over. The camera is waterproof to 3m but I didn’t really imagine it would stand up to the battering of this sort of event. It’s repeatedly submerged in muddy water and gets bashed, a lot.

The footage from the turbo charged water slide makes me flinch every time I watch it but its a good example of the battering the camera had to endure (and me and the poor woman I hit).

The video capture from the entire event was fantastic with realistic colours, crisp images and a relatively steady shot. See what you think of both the camera and the event by viewing our footage from the day. Video was edited by Rubysmileslikeanerd.

Panasonic HX-A500 Action Camera
Pros

  • Excellent quality footage
  • Eye level lens so you shoot what you see
  • Hands free design so it doesn’t interfere with obstacles
  • waterproof and mudproof
  • battery survived for longer than the 2.5 hour event
  • incredibly easy to use while on the run

Cons

  • Quite hard to clean – need to ensure all the grit is clear before closing or the seal may be damaged
  • At £379.99 it’s expensive

Bluefingers Labs Wearable Audio

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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Revealing AutoImmunity

I love collecting data, in fact if running didn’t lend itself so well to data collection and analysis I may well have made a different choice back in 2005 and taken up watching baseball instead.

I’ve jumped onto every method of self quantification since taking up the sport – gps, pace, heart rate, weight, body fat, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, almost all of which have required the purchase of some whizzy new gadgetry. So when I was offered the chance of looking a little deeper to understand my performance, or lack of it, I jumped at the chance.

Curoseven seem to be one of the few practices in the UK that offer functional blood testing for performance and recreational athletes. They have a fairly flexible approach and can provide a number of packages with a range of blood markers. I opted for the weight management package, just in case it revealed any top secret clues that could help me shift a few stone.

A standard performance screen would differ slightly but you would expect to see a variety of biochemistry and hormonal values reported against functional ranges (different to the disease ranges used by your GP) alongside a report that indicates any areas of concern along with recommendations that may include dietary, supplement and/or exercise advice. The tests are quite expensive, ranging from £299 – £599 but as yet I haven’t found a cheaper way to access my blood results.

Dr Tamsin Lewis (@sportiedoc) is one of the founders of Curoseven and as the Ironman UK Champion and medical doctor, she is appropriately qualified to advise on performance.

I was keen to set this first test up as a benchmark from which I could monitor changes in any future test, so I nipped into London to have my blood samples taken at an extremely efficient Harley Street clinic and was out again in about 15 mins.

Hashimoto's blood resultsThe results took about week but when they arrived I was rather surprised to discover that I’d acquired a disease. Apparently my immunology results revealed that I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. My body is slowly attacking it’s own thyroid and not surprisingly this doesn’t help my performance.

I wasn’t really expecting that sort of news, although in retrospect I have been able to remember all sorts of symptoms and ailments that I can now pin on my new disease. The fact is, if I had not been fascinated by the thought of collecting my own blood data, I would not have found out about this for a long time.

The usual progression in Hashimoto’s is for the thyroid to be increasingly damaged by the bodies own immune system. It responds initially by working harder to produce thyroid hormones until eventually it can’t keep up and you go hypothyroid. I currently have very low level symptoms but my level of inertia would have meant my thyroid would have been pretty much eradicated before I decided to see the GP. Then I would have had to factor in further delays while they fathomed out what was up with me.

Thanks to this blood testing I now have the opportunity to research the condition and take action to hopefully prevent the decline in my function and possibly arrest the autoimmune response. As it happens, conventional medicine isn’t in any great rush to treat Hashimoto’s. They tend to ignore the autoimmune element and wait until the disease has wrecked your thyroid so they can top you up with replacement hormones.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the heads up on this. I must have been given months (possibly years) of a head start and I’m making the most of it by adjusting my diet to reduce the inflammatory response and I’m just about to go and get a second blood test to see if a month of going gluten free will have had any impact on my antibody levels.

Here starts a whole new world of n=1 experiments (aka self experimentation). I’ll document most of these on one of my other blogs: coolmoxie.com

Infinitely Hard Eggs

Soft Boiled EggI am a big fan of eggs. They are nutritional power houses and are one my staple foods at the moment. I’m in the middle of a paleo-style detox (Whole 30) and so my current diet consists pretty much of eggs, meat, fish and vegetables.

In order to keep up with my voracious egg consumption I’ve been trying out the Severin Titanium Electronic Egg Boiler. I am not particularly adept at the perfect egg boil, so I thought an electronic gizmo might save the day. I was a little concerned when I read the instructions, which had been translated into an impressive array of languages, and informed me that I could achieve an infinite level of hardness with my egg, just by turning a dial.

I have problems with infinite hardness, not least because I want a dippy egg but mainly because I am sure the egg would self-combust before it approached anything near infinite hardness. After trying the gadget on umpteen occasions and having failed to soft boil more than 24 eggs I would now concede that this is a device that is focussed on it’s goal of achieving at least brick-like hardness.

This morning, in a bit of a strop, I turned the device down to its lower setting and tried again with a rather special Organic Burford Brown Hen egg, complete with the Red Lion stamp of quality and Britishness. The gadget beeped after a mere 30 seconds (or so), the water had not boiled and the egg had not even warmed through. I picked it up, shook it to reveal a fluid centre and then cracked it on the side of my frying pan and went back to the good old fashioned way of cooking a breakfast egg.

The British Lion Eggs website is a really useful resource for eggy related info and detail on egg nutrition. This page on eggs and cholesterol, although voluntarily restricted to health professionals provides some research backed evidence to explain how the cholesterol raising misconception arose.

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.

The RooSport Running Pocket Review

I regularly run loops of the neighbourhood, alone and under cover of darkness. At these times I am acutely aware of the hugely expensive iPhone strapped to my arm, often lit up by the latest status update from my running app.

So I often run late at night and often feel vulnerable.

Last night I ditched the armband in favour of a RooSport running pocket that I’d recently been sent to review. It is a small pouch designed to replace the pocket that was no doubt omitted from your running tights.

Its a soft fabrich pouch with integral zip pocket and a small flap with a killer magnetic closure.

You stick the pouch inside your waistband and take the flap up and over. The magnet holds everything extremely securely and if you don’t get your fingers out of the way quick it will secure those to your trousers too!

RooSport

I didn’t expect to like the RooSport, I thought it would flap around my midriff and cause an unsightly bulge on my already unsightly bulge.

How wrong can you be? I loved it.

I was wearing it with reasonably tight running leggings and after I’d secreted my pouch and pulled my t-shirt over the top there was no bulge and more importantly, no fancy hardware on display.

The RooSport is super discrete and I was able to run without worrying that I was about to be accosted.

I’ve taken to using the RooSport everyday now. I walk into work and because I use a rucksack rather than a shoulder bag I tend to carry my iPhone in my hand. I now put it in the pouch and snap it to the inside of my work trousers.

I’ve become so accustomed to having one hand tied up with my phone that I stopped dead in my tracks this morning, panicking that I’d misplaced my phone, despite being in the middle of listening to an audiobook.

RooSport have currently got a Kickstarter campaign on the go, crowd sourcing for version 2.0 of the RooSport pouch. I don’t really feel that it needs much improvement but I’ve got one order anyway – I rather foolishly promised this one to Lynn before I became so attached to it.