GPS Activity Trackers – Surge vs Vivoactive HR

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…….

Fitbit and Resting Heart Rate

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

Gadgets

I’m a self-confessed gadget freak and another close shave with eBay and a ridiculously expensive but absolutely essential running watch has triggered the creation of this page – my homage to sports gadgets (mostly running gadgets), gear and utilities that you can almost not afford to live without.

There is a link to most of my gadget reviews on the side bar but here are my top picks for essential running, swimming and strength equipment, software, books and resources.

Some of the product links are affiliate links, if you use these and then buy a product it will help towards the upkeep of my blog and make me grateful. A lot of the products have been sent to me to review but I also spend a lot of my hard-earned cash on gadgets, I try to indicate the source of the product in my gadget reviews but rest assured I will tell you the truth about product regardless of the source.

Activity Sports Watches

The sports watch seems to be my running gadget of choice and to date I have tried and reviewed many from the likes of Garmin, Polar and Timex, ultimately settling on the Garmin Forerunner series as the de-facto runners watch.

Forerunner Evolution

I’ve been through all of the above (and more) but as a stat loving but frankly useless runner, I’ve recently decided that the latest breed of activity trackers with GPS suit my needs very well. They blur the boundaries between lifestyle and athletic watch in my favour.

Garmin Vivoactive HR vs Fitbit SurgeIt was a close battle between the Fitbit Surge and the Garmin Vivoactive HR but if running and activity logging are your main requirements, you can’t go far wrong with the Fitbit Surge. It’s not as flash as its younger Garmin challenger but it does the job perfectly and Fitbit is undoubtedly the most socially connected platform around.

If you are a more serious runner, you are likely to be more tempted by the high end forerunner series. Whether you opt for Forerunner 630 or 735XT will depend on how seriously you take other sports such as swimming and cycling (and your bank balance). It’s well worth checking in with DC Rainmaker to read his extremely in-depth reviews on the latest available gadgetry before making your final choice.

And if you are and outdoor rugged type who hikes or climbs as well as everything else you may consider splashing out on the hugely expensive Fenix 3 HR. That’s where my gaze is cast at the moment.

Running Shoes

I’ve trialled a good many shoes over the years and ridden the waves as fads come and go. I started out with the traditional Asics Kayano but then moved through barefoot, to minimal to maxi-minimal, to plain weird and I am now stuck somewhere towards the middle of that journey, wearing a pair from each genre depending on the conditions.

Maxi-minimal running shoes

On the treadmill I wear Cloudflyer from On Running, the soles have strange rubber ‘clouds’ and they seem to offer the perfect level of spring. For serious mud running and OCR events I wear Inov8. In hot weather and holidays I tend to pull out the super-minimal barefoot shoes, such Vibram fivefingers and my goto daily wear are Hoka One Ones.

Hoka One One

In the photo above you have two pairs of Altras followed by three pairs of Hokas. Between them the two companies have owned maximal running technology. The first pair of Hokas I owned were Hoka Mafates and I loved them with a passion. Huge, heavy and deeply, joyously comfortable. They are not for everyone, they have relatively tight toe boxes and don’t last very long but I still love for the protection they offer my quads on downhill runs.

Hoka have expanded their range and no offer much lighter weight versions but I think they lose the essence of Hoka-ness and I avoid them. If you prefer a much more roomy toe-box, try the Altra. The shoe on the left is the Altra Torin 2 and is a shoe I literally live in. I walk everywhere in these and I’m sure the flat soled comfort has improved the strength of my feet.

Inov8

For trail running you can’t go far wrong by sticking to inov-8.

These are sturdy shoes designed for the British countryside and all it has to offer in the form of mud, wet and tears. I particularly like the inov-8 roclite 315 (wiggle) which is a unisex model designed for all terrain types (except road).

I’ve also tried the inov-8 mudclaw but I found the shoe a little too narrow. The Roclite 295 (wiggle) is another great trail running shoe and has a softer upper and wider fit for a greater level of comfort with no need to break the shoe in.

Vibram FiveFinger

I’ve caught the barefoot running bug and have now built up an armoury of minimalist shoes.

I don’t recommend that the inexperienced barefoot runner throws away the standard running shoe in favour of either skin on tarmac or minimalist shoe running but there is a place for barefoot running in most peoples training routine. Just take it slowly to avoid injury and you should reap the benefits of increased foot mobility, strength and better running form.

The defacto standard barefoot running shoe is the Vibram Five Finger and my particular favourite is the Vibram Five Finger Speed (wiggle) with its cool laces – perfect for attaching a foot pod.

Softstar Run Amoc

Barefoot or minimal running can become almost a spiritual experience where you begin to feel part of the landscape and the track you are running along. It’s a much more involved and gentle way to interact with the trail.

To me, these RunAmoc moccassins (Sofstar link) from SoftStar are the perfect “at one with nature” style of barefoot running shoe. They are hand-made in America and can be customised to your preferred colour scheme. I opted for the plain black version but asked for a slightly thicker sole (still only 5mm though) so that I could use it for trail running.

I really do enjoy running in these shoes, I may look a little bit crusty in them but I feel free.

 

Running Headphones

I’ve worked my way through a fair number of headphones in my running career, I’ve tried in-ear, over-ear, banded, wireless bluetooth and mp3 earpieces. For the last few years though I’ve always returned to the same manufacturer and have now settled on a specific model which I can happily declare to be the best running headphone ever!

Sennheiser PMX 680i Rugged Neckband Headset with Integrated Remote and Mic

I first came across the PMX680i when I was at an Adidas miCoach launch event. Adidas have paired up with Sennheiser to produce a branded product that offers significant improvements over the earlier Sennheiser models. Note that there are two Sennheiser PMX 680 models, the PMX 680 and the PMX 680i, the addition of the i does add nearly £14 to the product but with the addition of a microphone in the volume control it adds so much versatility. I use mine to take calls while out on a run, I can press the yellow button and chat away without breaking stride (admittedly I can be hard to understand while puffing away). I can press the yellow button for a little bit longer and trigger the voice control feature of the iPhone which then enables me to control the gadget remotely – “Play Amy MacDonald” and it usually does, “call Lynn cos I’m tired and need a lift home” usually results in the iPhone lady telling me “calling Charing Cross A&E Department”, which is sometimes more appropriate.

I was really upset last week when my first set of PMX680i headphones failed on me, it was hardly a product flaw though, I tend to leave them dangling from the treadmill and the cats can’t resist chewing on the cable. With visible gnaw marks and loose cabling the sound quality was somewhat impaired and it was time to buy another pair. There was no question of me buying a different set, these are the best I’ve ever come across, they fit extremely well, they don’t cause any discomfort, sound quality is excellent (so long as you keep them away from the cats) and they are waterproof. The volume control and mic unit is very light as well which means you don’t suffer too much with an irritating  unit that bounces on your chest as you run.

The only downside that I can see about these headphones is that headband style does restrict your headwear options, so they aren’t any use under helmets or headbands.

Running Books

I’m always on the look out for running inspiration and I devour running books at a blistering pace. Here’s a selection of my favourites but if you need more I usually have an Amazon recommends list on the sidebar where I add other books I’ve enjoyed.

Born to Run

This book filled me with excitement and has obviously had the same affect on many others as it’s often cited as having inspired the world’s obsession with barefoot running.

In parts it’s a hugely exciting tale of ultrarunning adventure, in others it’s an evangelical barefoot bible.

Here’s the link to my review for a full synopsis of Born to Run.

Running on Empty

I’m drawn to ultrarunners, I find their pain so intoxicating and it certainly helps me put my 5km woes into perspective.

Running on Empty (amazon) is hot off the press and covers Marshall Ulrich – the 57 year old guy who surgically removed his toenails as they were getting in the way of his running – as he runs across America. 3063 miles in 53 days. Nuts!

It’s a fascinating story though and there’s a bonus at the end as its polished off with details from Ullrich’s training and nutrition diary. I love that sort of thing.

Run Less Run Faster

This isn’t my usual inspiring read but anything training plan that suggests I can run less is going to attract my attention and this particular book is a nerdy runners dream.

The Furman Institutes (FIRST) method is based on a 3+2 schedule called Run Less, Run faster(amazon), not to be mistaken with “Train Less, Run Faster” because although you only run 3 times a week you are supposed to take part in some fairly energetic cross training on 2 other days in the week.

The key to the success of the FIRST plan seems to be related to the nature of the 3 runs. Each one is very specific and targeted at improving a key element of your running fitness. Key Run 1 is a track repeat session, ideally suited to treadmill workouts, Key run 2 is a tempo workout and Key run 3 is the Long Run a familiar staple of any marathon plan.

I’ve put together a whizzy spreadsheet that will spit out personalised FIRST trainings schedules for full and half marathon distances and is based on 5km paces from 15 to 40 minutes, so even the slow runners are catered for here.

Running Software – PC, MAC and iPhone

SportsTracks (PC)

sporttracks.jpg

If you’ve got a gps unit then you need SportTracks, don’t worry, this one is free so you definitely can afford it. Even it you don’t have a gps I reckon its still worthwhile having as your dedicated training log – it just won’t look so pretty without the route maps.

This screen shot just shows the basic activity screen but there is stacks more hidden away – weekly, monthly and yearly reports; splits; athlete stats including weight and injury/illness status. Again the blog is littered with examples.

Unfortunately it is not mac compatible so I’ve had to move away from the best training log available *weeps*.