French Bloke Runs

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Tag: Gadget

Gear: the useful and the useless

After almost a year of running and quite a bit of money spent in various gear and gadgets, I now have a well formed opinion on what is useful and what is useless.

Running top

An absolute essential. Don’t run long distances with cotton t-shirts, definitely buy tops made of a technical fabric such as blends of polyester and elastane. My favourites are the ones from Tribesports (I have no commercial agreement with them, they’re just really good). If cotton is absolutely prohibited, I also recommend against running with the t-shirts given at races because they’re usually very loose. Don’t follow this advice and you’ll risk nipple chafing, you’ll be warned: Jack of all trades learned it the hard way in the Bordeaux half-marathon.

Running bottom

Arguably, it’s not as important to have good running shorts as it is to have good tops but it’s so much better to run with very light shorts and I think they’re worth the extra quid. Then again, cotton will provoke chafing inside your thighs, so avoid at all costs.

On cold winter days,  tights or leggings are really appreciated but I found that even the cheapest ones were good enough.

Socks

Don’t waste your money there. Pricy technical socks are utterly useless. I can’t see the difference between my £2 pair of low-cut Decathlon running socks and my £15 pair of double-walled, padded pair of Mizuno running socks. If you want to avoid blisters and black nails, the solution is in the shoes, not in the socks.

Accessories

I haven’t tried all the accessories yet but I think most of them are useless (ok, maybe a water bottle is a good thing to have during a long run or a trail). The one accessory I bring to all my races is a wrist sweatband to wipe off my forehead and avoid sweat dripping in my eyes.

I don’t have an opinion on compression gear yet. It might be useful, but to recover and avoid muscle pain, I think nothing beats a long session of stretching after running.

Gadgets

Then again, I’m a big fan of gadgets but I have to admit that most of them aren’t really useful. I would say that the watch is the only one that will help improve your running and at a beginner level like mine, it’s mostly about the timer and the pace: the value of a heart-rate monitor is debatable at best. But I think runners definitely don’t need a phone or an mp3 player. Some will argue that if you need music to run, it’s because you don’t like running.

Shoes

I’ll finish with the most important piece of gear: the shoes! Of course they’re useful, it is essential to have shoes that fit you and your running style – as you know I’m a strong advocate of minimalistic shoes and barefoot-style running. My piece of advice is to always buy one size above your real size, it will save you from blisters and black toenails, especially if you have a Greek foot or a Celtic foot like me.

Now, I want to make the case that shoes are actually useless, and I’m slowly making the transition to barefoot running (I’ve tested some pretty minimal stuff already). Hopefully in a few months or years, I’ll be able to race barefoot!

Tired shoes

Tired shoes or why it is important to buy new shoes before they reach 800 km

Test: Fitbit Aria

By now you should know that I initially took on running to lose weight. Even though I wasn’t a couch potato, I still needed something to keep me motivated and I found out that for me, numbers are a great motivation. Numbered objectives and metrics are a simple way to help you achieve your ambitions (more on that in a later post). But I also like myself a good gadget so I decided to buy a scale that would help me doing just that.

The choice

I could have bought a simple scale for a tenner at my local corner shop, but I wanted more than that. I wanted a nice gadget with all the bells and whistles, a useless app, plenty of metrics and fancy stuff that I would never use. I also though that it would be cool if it could be part of an ecosystem and use the same app / web interface as the watch I would buy later. So naturally, my first thoughts went to Withings. I was already eying on the Withings Activité, a classy activity tracker that looks like an analogue watch with all the trimmings: a leather band, stylish face and hands, and great features. Withings offered 2 models of smart scales: the WS-30 Wireless Scale and the Smart Body Analyzer. They also had the added advantage of being a French company. But as awesome as they are, their products are just too damn expensive. Anyway, I realised that I would probably want a proper running watch rather than a simple activity tracker so I had to give up on my idea on relying on a single ecosystem.

So I went for the Fitbit Aria. Fitbit has shedloads of different activity trackers that are all uglier than the next (despite what they say) but their smart scale is surprisingly as elegant as the ones from Withings and was much cheaper at the time.


Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scales – Black

Using the scale everyday

Yes, I do use the scale everyday. Yes my weight sometimes vary wildly from one day to another, even though I always weigh myself at the same time of the day (first thing in the morning, before eating or exercising). The difference can sometimes be up to 1 kg from one day to another and this is not due to the scale but to the nature of human metabolism, which is why I weigh myself everyday rather than once a week like most people recommend: it allows me to calculate my average weight over the week.

Configuring the scale wasn’t too hard, although it didn’t work on the first try (the initial pairing process via the computer was a bit flaky). The scale now sends the data without a problem even though WiFi signal is really weak in the bathroom. I haven’t changed or recharged its batteries since I bought it nine months ago, which is also a good point. In terms of features, it allows multiple users in total confidentiality (and recognises them automatically), measures weight and fat percentage and offers a user-friendly user interface on the website. It gives you charts of your weight, fat percentage and BMI over your selected period of time. If you have a Fitbit activity tracker and/or if you synchronise your Fitbit account with a running app (I sync it with Runkeeper), it will give you even more data regarding number of steps, calories spent and sleep tracking.

The web interface is rather pleasant and so is the mobile app, but even though it sounds like it gives a lot of data, it is actually kind of limited if you just have the scale like me. Also, syncing with Runkeeper is supposed to work both ways, but I have never managed to get it to push my weight to Runkeeper, only to receive my daily activities. The major drawback of this scale though, is that it will automatically add you an extra 2 or 3 kilos after Christmas, as you can see on this graph, and you’ll have to lose them again.

Fitbit Aria interface

Fitbit Aria interface (yes, I’m bragging a little bit)

Conclusion

I don’t regret this purchase at all, I still use it everyday after nine months, which kind of proves it is good! So I would definitely recommend to buy the Fitbit Aria, especially if you already have an other Fitbit product or if you intend to invest in one of their activity trackers. However, if you are concerned with privacy issues, then this might be a problem because the scale only syncs with Fitbit’s cloud (the computer is used only once, for setup) so you don’t know where or how your data is stored.

Test: Garmin Forerunner 225

For this test, I was tempted to reiterate my feat of comparing the Altra One 2 with the iPhone, and to stack up the performances of the Garmin Forerunner 225 against those of an artichoke or those of chair. But gadgets are serious stuff, so I’ll try to be serious here.

The choice

I didn’t like running with my phone, be it in my pocket, in an armband, or attached to my waist, it’s just cumbersome. And I don’t use my phone for listening to music while running either because running is entertaining enough by itself except on a firkin’ treadmill (and if I were listening to music while running, I’d probably use something like the Sony NWZ-W273S, which comes highly recommended by Brainy Owl). So buying a running watch was my best option.

I wanted something:

  • Light and convenient
  • Thought and made for running
  • Possibly with GPS tracking
  • Possibly with a heart-rate monitor but not attached to my chest

I had to exclude two very good watches: the Garmin Forerunner 620 (best features on the market then) and the Polar M400 (very good and very cheap), which both required a separate chest monitor. I also excluded activity trackers like the Fitbit Surge and the Withings Activité, even though the latter is a beautiful product, both of them lack a GPS and running-specific features.

My list came down to the TomTom Multi Sport and the Garmin Forerunner 225. Eventually I chose the Garmin, thanks to DC Rainmaker’s very comprehensive test. Even though the TomTom caters for running, cycling and swimming while the Garmin is only for running, the Garmin can also do some all-day activity tracking and seemed more reliable (better heart rate sensor, faster GPS).

Garmin Forerunner 225

Using the watch every day

I don’t regret my choice at all. I use this watch every time I go out running, although I don’t use the activity tracking and sleep tracking features (I like wearing my good old mechanical watch). You can connect it to your phone, but it also works completely independently, allowing me to rid of my phone when I run.

One of the great things of having this watch is that it helps me find my pace during races. It has been very beneficial so far since I have beaten my PB every time I’ve ran a 10K!

But it also really helps my daily running. Something I found extremely useful was the possibility to upload free training plans directly to the watch. The process isn’t very natural and the UX could be improved, but it’s OK once you understand that everything is done through the website (just don’t forget to “push” whenever you update your calendar, or at least every 45 workouts otherwise your calendar will be empty) and the app is just here for synchronising.

I chose a heart-rate based training plan, which is what you should really do, but the beginning was a catastrophe because I hadn’t configured my heart rate zone properly. My piece of advice is to set it to %HRR (percentage of heart rate reserve) rather than %HR Max (percentage of maximum heart rate), but you have to spend a bit of time figuring your max heart rate (usually 220 – age) and your resting heart rate (lie still for 20 minutes, then measure). This is really important and I lost 4 weeks of training for being too lazy to try and understand this.

Note: your Max HR doesn’t change that much over time (it slightly decreases over the years) but your rest heart rate will decrease if you train a lot, so keep these numbers updated.

Once your training is on the watch, you just have to follow what it says: “run for 10 minute at this pace/HR”, “rest for 2 minutes”. That’s really convenient for intervals for example, it will beep & vibrate if you run too fast or too slow and it will tell you when to start/finish your intervals.

Another feature I really like is the tracking of the cadence. This can really improve you running technique (aim for 180 to 200 strides per minutes). I wish it could measure oscillation and impact time, but you’d need the Garmin Forerunner 630, and that’s a hefty price to pay, knowing that you need to buy the chest HR sensor as well.

The downside is that the HR sensor can fail sometimes, you just have to re-adjust your strap (not easy to do while running) and the GPS is sometimes jumpy, so the instant pace isn’t always reliable, but it’s the case for all running watches.

Garmin app

Garmin app

Conclusion

I definitely recommend that you buy this watch. Alternatively, you can go for the new Garmin Forerunner 235, which is basically its replacement with cool new stuff (larger display, VO2 max estimation, race predictor, cycling-specific features, etc) but more expensive.

I also recommend that you take the time to run without a Garmin. Well, not literally, because you’re a data freak like me and you want to keep all this good data in Strava or Runkeeper, but sometime, try to run without glancing at your watch or even without thinking about it. Now, every time I go for an easy run or a long run, I don’t use the training plan feature, just the basic tracking, and I run following my feelings: I just want to run at an enjoyable pace without having to care whether it’s too slow or too fast. In short: to be free!

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