Running’s Wearable Tech Boom

Analyzing your body in real time is the next frontier in running technology, with the power to permanently transform training. And the first generation is already here.

Run technology in 2015 has a major deficiency: The most popular training metrics don’t actually measure your fitness or technique—the crucial factors that determine performance. There is still no way to track most of what the body is actually doing. GPS-based speed is an incredibly valuable training tool and modern watches provide exceptionally accurate data, but a slight grade can turn a runner’s easy pace into full-blown race effort. Heart rate provides useful insights into fatigue and workload, but changes in pulse are loosely linked to intensity. And real-time stride efficiency analysis is in its infancy.

In other words, popular training tools are all substitutes for the information with the potential to make training as precise as possible. A new wave of running tech has emerged that eschews proxy metrics for figures that directly quantify specifically what’s happening in a runner’s body while running. Power meters and wearable lactate meters will eventually allow all runners to train or race at the precise effort level regardless of experience. The biggest benefit? Ultimately, it could mean a drop in injury rates as data collected from stride monitors reveals the true cause of many of the injuries plaguing runners today. As technology continues to advance, today’s popular running bugaboos will become a thing of the past.

Running Tech 1.0

Polar launched the first widely available heart rate monitor for athletes in 1982. The idea was to track effort by reading pulse rate. The thinking went like this: If a person’s heart beats faster, his or her cardiovascular effort level is likely to be higher. This is partially true. While there is a strong link between heart rate and intensity, a slew of other factors—fitness, biomechanics, caffeine, sleep, hydration—influence heart rate. While the monitors themselves are far superior today compared to early-’80s hardware, the gap between heart rate and effort level cannot be overcome. The metric is innately limited. GPS is another substitute for directly measuring running effort; there will always be a gap between speed and intensity level. There are better options.

RELATED: 2015 Running Gear Guide: Wearable Tech

Exercise physiology researchers had already developed more accurate ways to measure running effort way before Polar released its first heart rate monitor. In 1959, German physiologist Wildor Hollman demonstrated that the quantity of oxygen consumed and concentration of lactate in an athlete’s blood can each reliably indicate effort level. Five years later, American researcher Karlman Wasserman coined the term “anaerobic threshold” and popularized the methods used by Hollman stateside*. The machinery for these tests was bulky, invasive and limited to the laboratory. Most exercise physiology facilities in universities and hospitals now have the equipment—but it’s still clunky and no less intrusive, involving repeated needle pricks or running with a gas mask. A number of entrepreneurial engineers are for the first time approaching solutions to generate equally reliable data about the body’s direct response to running for use on roads and trails.

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