Fitbits and garmins and strava, oh my! (Guest post)

img_0252I went out on “black friday” to take advantage of sales to upgrade my phone.  I got a free phone but also ended up buying an expensive pair of wireless headphones that will not remotely stay in my ears while running, and a $75 programmable robotic ball I thought would entice my cat to run around more.  She’s terrified of it.  I’m trying to use it to teach her to code now.

I tell you all this because I currently own more fitness related tech than ever before — and I’m dissatisfied with most of it.

There’s a long history to this.  My relationship with technology can only be described as “it’s complicated.”  I have a reputation for dropping things, losing things, and exploring the limits of how wet my technology can get without sudden death. Over the past two decades, my water/coffee spilling habit has killed three computers, at least three iphones, a client’s fancy speaker phone, a first generation $600 ipod, and pretty little red nano. The nano death was a spectacular episode of clumsiness where I somehow caught my earbuds in my hairbrush and swung the ipod into the toilet when I was taking off my running clothes.

I suspect I have some sort of undercurrent direct signal to apple as “client zero,” with a task force taking in all of my data to continually innovate for the chaotic user.  And tech HAS caught up to my abuses — a few years I dropped my iphone4 off the simg_9010_2ide of a boat into a lake in Myanmar, where it drowned for several minutes before the boatman kindly dived for it; about two hours later, it gently just came to life.  Six months later, I dropped the same phone while walking on a stunning beach in South Africa.  An hour later I found just the corner sticking out, submerged in sand and the sea as the tide rolled in over it.  I picked it up, shook it hard to get the sand and salt out of the ports and tossed it in the boot of the car.  Two hours later, I got a text from my sister.  Someone said at the time “I think that phone is… getting… stronger.”

Now my relationship has evolved in a different way. I destroy fewer things, but I seem to keep buying more things, and they do many more things, and they get more complex, and they never make me happy.  Especially around fitness.

41jqq8vh3xl-_sx300_I’ve always run with some kind of headphones.  For years, I had this little “sports walkman” that strapped on my arm and got me the CBC.  I did endless long runs listening to whatever happened to be on — even the hated Cross-Country Checkup.  I had a watch that kept track of the amount of time I was running. I’d write it down and estimate distance based on my rough pace.  That was it.  For years. It worked.

A few years ago, I “upgraded” to a simple garmin watch with GPS, that gave me distance aimg_0278nd pace.  I didn’t really ask the right questions when I (impulsively) bought it, and didn’t realize until I used it that I couldn’t upload the data.  I had to write it down  But that was fine. For a few years, I ran with this second generation basic tech:  music or podcasts via iphone with the earbuds that came with the phone; basic garmin watch.

This all functioned… okay.  I was never really satisfied.  The watch didn’t hold a charge very long — it couldn’t seem to do more than 7 hours of GPS, which meant it was useless on a long bike ride. It took forever to sync to satellites when I turned it on.  And I noticed that although I’d trained well and run hard for years with very little info, I’d get edgy at not having more information. This tech created an insatiable appetite for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

Last winter, I got caught up in the social media swirl of tracking my runs and rides through a strava app on my phone, feeling satisfied as cycling distance added up over the year, enjoying the kudos and “thumbs up!” from my friends, a facebook contact I haven’t seen since I was 20, and even — weirdly — my bank manager.  I don’t think anything actually changed because I was recording and sharing this info, but I sure felt virtuous every time someone patted me for getting out the door.

Around the same time, my unsatisfying garmin watch died.  I had a cheap analogue computer on my bike that measured distance based on wheel rotations, but when the watch died, somehow the conflation of strava, the fitbits and step-counters dangling from everyone I knew, and shininess of fancy bike computers everyone on my bike rally team seemed to have made me decide that not only did I need a new running watch, I also needed a bike computer.  And maybe a fitbit.

I am really bad at deciphering tech stuff before I purchase it.  I seem to need to use it before I know if it will img_0364work for me or not.  (I had an ex who thought a romantic and practical gift for me was a subscription to consumer reports.  I did not appreciate it). This time, I posted some questions on facebook about what kinds of tech people used and why they liked it, but the answers didn’t really help.

I ended up going to MEC, which I thought had the best selection and prices, and bought a (pricey) mid-range bike computer (Garmin Edge 520) and a garmin forerunner 15 watch. The guy helping me didn’t really understand the tech that well, and I got the watch home and discovered that because it didn’t have bluetooth, I have to actually physically clip it to my computer to upload any data.  But hey, if I wear this clunky watch all day instead of my pretty european “timepiece,” it gives me steps!  Which means… something, right?  (Nothing. It means nothing to me. I don’t change any behaviours because of this).

The Edge was a bit fussy to figure out, but once I got the hang of it, I mostly like it.  I did spend one whole 105 km ride with the display shouting OFF COURSE! at me.  People keep mocking me for leaving my $30 wheel-rotation counter on the bike as backup, but I was grateful for it that day.  But the Edge does what it’s supposed to do, and when I sync it with strava, I get a certain satisfaction in looking at my kilometers add up over the year, looking at speed, tracking my mastery of Brimley himg_0243ill.

The rest?  Sigh.

Like the older generation Garmin watch, this one still takes forever to sync to satellites — at least 5 minutes in front of my building.  Which is a significant chunk of time to bounce around waiting to start a 20 minute run.  It doesn’t have a lot of storage space, so I have to physically hook it up to my computer frequently. And Garmin seems to upgrade the software constantly, and an occasional upgrade seems to render the GPS sync impossible.  It’s… fine.  But not joyful.  (And I can’t be the only person who doesn’t understand these limits based on the specs on the website).

And then there is the whole matter of headphones.  Back in the sony walkman days, I had the little set that fit over my head, never fell off and gave me tinny but reliable sound.  Which was fine for the radio.  This current generation of headphones has excellent sound, excellent noimg_0369ise-cancelling properties, and hefty price tags.  And I need good headphones because I’m on conference calls for my job half the day, so they are dual purpose.

But here’s the thing.  The in-ear ones don’t stay in your bloody ears.  And when I got my new phone, I got an iphone6, not a 7, for price and specifically because it still has a headphone jack.  But the sleek, waterproof case I bought for it means that I have to add this … clumsy, inevitably-lost extender thing to use wired headphones.  (I’ve already had to replace a lost garmin watch charger once).  Again, this wasn’t clear until I pulled it out of the box.

img_0281So now I’m in the land of expensive wireless headphones. And when I bought the phone and cat robot, I bought a fancy set of Bang and Olufson wireless headphones that will NOT stay in my ears unless I’m sitting at my desimg_0232k.  (You can’t try out in-ear headphones before buying them.  Like underpants).  They also have a pretty touchy battery life. So a week later I ordered a set of wireless powerbeats with over-the-ear clips. Miraculously, these work beautifully for work and running, and have a pretty solid charge time, but they are also hard to whip out of your ears quickly, so if you have to interact with other human beings, there’s a buffering time. Also, another $225.

So now my mobile tech looks like this.


IMG_0371.JPGThis doesn’t include my mini-ipad and the analog computer still on my bike. I have to constantly track whether my phone, watch, headphones and bike computer are properly charged. (They all have different chargers, of course). And then there’s the mystery of itunes and icloud continually, unexpectedly booting my running playlists off my phone.  It’s all Beyonce, all the time now.

Technology makes all sorts of things possible.  But it also adds this crazy level of anxiety, mental tracking, irritation, dissatisfaction and unnecessary expense.  That stuff up there?  Not simple.

When I made my FB post about which running watch to buy, one of the guys I knew said “Don’t buy any.  Just run. Run naked.”  I keep hearing his voice when I pace around waiting to start a run because my GPS hasn’t shaken hands yet or wanting to throw suddenly dead headphones on the ground.  And wondering what this really is doing to my brain.  I know what it’s doing to my bank account.





12 thoughts on “Fitbits and garmins and strava, oh my! (Guest post)

  1. Thanks for this great blog – you’ve captured so many of my feelings over the last 10 years or so. It’s kind of reassuring to know I’m not the only one who buys tech on a perceived need only to find it doesn’t do what I want.
    For the record, I have been training for one sport or another from being about 12 years old to pretty much the present (although I hesitate to call it training now) and have training logs that go back to my teenage swimming days (thanks Mum, for keeping them). ‘Monitoring’ started when I began cycling seriously in the 80s. Talking your resting pulse on a morning became the ‘thing’ to prevent over-training. I was fascinated by the fluctuations and, as soon as I could afford it, I bought a heart rate monitor to go with the bike computer (a lovely little solar-powered Avocet) that was my first dabble with tech. These pretty much did everything I needed, nothing was recorded unless I wrote it down but you could train using HR zones and keep track of average speed over fixed routes. Next came Polar HRMs which not only included the bike functions, they were downloadable too. So you got nice graphs of rides including speed, HR and ascent – although it was a pressure-based altimeter so depended somewhat on the weather. But being software-based, the records require that you keep an appropriate computer system, and Polar didn’t support Mac OSs. Now I’m Mac-based, all those records are gone. However, the basic wrist unit is still my go-to device for long Audax rides (> 10 hours) as the battery-life far exceeds all Garmin devices and the organisers of events send you a set of route instructions (now usually as well as a .gpx file) which, with an accurate tally of distance get you there. The number of times I’ve had ‘hangers-on’ riding with me because their Garmin batteries have gone and they have no idea where they are in terms of the paper instructions (which are of the ‘600m, take left; 50m small road by pub on right; etc.). The Garmin Edge 800 I bought with high hopes but, like you I’ve not been overly impressed – I can’t even get it to talk to a Garmin cadence sensor, although it does seem to like the speed sensor on my turbo (non-Garmin!). Most recently I got an activity tracker – Polar again – which can be used as a HRM. But all records are uploaded to the Polar site, so even less of a permanent log than the old device. And, while it’s sleek and functional, it’s not as pretty as a ‘timepiece’ as you say, so any days when I want to be dressed a bit smarter, it’s left on the bathroom shelf, which rather defeats the object, I guess. And it doesn’t get me to change habits, it just reminds me when I’ve been working for an hour (‘time to move’ prompt), so I get up and make a cup of tea.
    So far I’ve not uploaded anything to Strava (fear of another time-wasting endeavor) or tried Zwift virtual training/racing, although I have got the aforementioned smart indoor trainer that links to my ipad (I’m not a smart phone user), so this is a future possibility….or maybe I’ll just ride my bike out in TRW.

  2. What a great post (reads like a confession). Fitness tech is a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s crap yet we rely on it to tell us “how we did” or how we “are doing.” I shelled out for the Garmin 520 Edge (after shelling out $2000 for a bike I absolutely didn’t need and don’t want anymore). I don’t even know if there is a resale market for year old bike computers that have hardly been used. And my Garmin forerunner is taking longer and longer to lock on to those satellites. And for what, I ask? I don’t even wait for it anymore!

  3. Love my Garmin bike computer. The loading maps and turn by turn directions are wonderful once I learned how to use them. I think that’s the thing with some of it you do need to invest time to make it work. For me though it’s tied to having a coach review files, heart rate etc and make recommendations. There’s a lot of information there but you have to want to use it, or have a plan for using it. No such luck with running watches though! And yes, Tracy there’s a market for old Garmin bike computers.

  4. Also, loved this story Cate! I’m surrounded by tech people who scout out stuff for me. Hi David! Hi Jeff! Not sure if I’d do so well on my own.

  5. Gosh…and I’m someone who hasn’t mounted her cyclometer on her bike in the past 15 years. I just bike and vague idea of my mileage. It’s all foggy and I don’t care.

    My partner has been hooked his bikes’ Garmins for past 10 years. It’s helped a lot for solo touring in Canada, U.S. and Europe. He does load up some maps in advance to wayfinding.

  6. Cracking blog! Thank you for confessing! I’ve just bought a second hand Garmin and the damn data is more addictive than crack – I’m checking my step counter and heart rate on an hourly basis!

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