Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Toys and my travails with exercise electronics

So, I've been fascinated by the Suunto exercise computers, aka sports watches. I learned of them from @TriBoomer, and then learned the host of Zen and the Art of Triathlon (@zentriathlon) uses one. For triathlon training, you kind of need serious equipment. The casual shopper can easily end up paying about $600 for all the goodies. (I can just imagine it too, once you've paid $2k to 4k for a tri bike, you're going to accessorize it with all the stuff at MSRP.) Well, while I'm not exactly budget constrained, I do look for a value, especially since I'm in no danger of breaking any AG records any time soon. No sense looking for state of the art, when for the most part, off the discount rack will do the job.

Not wanting to spend on expensive equipment has meant I've compiled hodgepodge of equipment I use. Swimming doesn't have too many accessories, so a simple stop watch does the job there. Up until today, I used a basic Timex Ironman, 50 lap counter ($49). I used the lap counter to, well, count laps. I used to do 50m, i.e. there and back, but some of my workouts are too long for my watch memory, so now I measure 100m laps. I could have used my 30 lap timex, but the velcro strap doesn't stay on in the water.

For riding and then running, you start needing some exercise computational power. A heart rate monitor is a key component, so I purchased a basic Timex "wellness" HR monitor which cost me $45. I've not gone the full monty with HR calibrated training sessions yet, but this device has been found suspect as it was interfering with my Bike computer and vice versa.

To measure distance on the bike, I use a Trek computer that I got with my bike (cough) 6 years ago, and up until the interference issue, this was a trooper (I probably paid about $80-100 for it). It gave me average speed, odometer, trip distance, and gave me a readout of my current speed. I liked my bike workouts, because I felt most confident in the distances recorded. Well, since the interference, it would appear, the bike computer is under recording my distances. I could trouble shoot it, but essentially, I can't use my cheap HR monitor on the bike.

For running distances, I used to use the Nike+ connected to my iPod Touch, and now my iPhone. This worked really well for a long time. It helped me train for my Marathon, and the website log was fun. But, when it starts crapping out, there aren't many options to trouble shoot it. It started crapping out on me and I can't tell if it was the sensor (I went through 3 @ $20 in less than 1000 miles), or the software. I think Nike and Apple have missed the boat on really leveraging the popularity of the iPhone to provide a really useful exercise tool. I guess, there wasn't enough revenue to keep them interested. After I gave up on the Nike+, I started using Runkeeper Lite, because, well it's free. Runkeeper is based on GPS in the iPhone and is a great product. Unfortunately, and I'm not sure if because it's free the GPS can be a little sketchy. I've run the same route multiple times and get different readings on the run keeper. My basic 10k (6.2 miles) route has been measured as 5.8 miles and 6.5 miles. A little too inconsistent for my liking. Don't get me started on using it for cycling. It's been way off a circuit that is shaded. Plus it sucks down the battery on already "mature" iPhone battery, if you know what I mean.

So, picture if you will the following. If I'm riding, I have my stop watch to measure laps of the circuit I ride and elapsed time, my chest strap and HR monitor (on the other wrist), the bike computer for real time speed, and a belt with a pouch for my iphone which measures distance just in case the monitor screws up the bike computer. When I run, I have both wristwatches, heart strap and the pouch with the iPhone.

Well, I knew someday I'd consolidate. But researching didn't tell me clearly which way I'd go. My options were Polar, Timex, Garmin or this little known brand (for me), Suunto. I was initially biased toward Garmin. An online running friend bought a Garmin 350 which is actually quite affordable ($165). The issue for tracking triathlon training is that you want something that will consolidate all the statistics from all your workouts. (Actually, you want something that will ideally interface with software or a website that consolidates your workouts.) When you add up all the accessories, namely bike related stuff, you're in the $400 range easy pretty much regardless of what brand you choose.

Well, from my history, I knew I wanted something that would measure/track my bike speed/distance. I required it use a pedometer based sensor, as opposed to GPS, for distance on the run, and would have a wireless HR monitor that wouldn't interfere with other devices, or more importantly be affected by other devices. The Garmins that were in my price range look like a brick on people's wrists and I'm sensitive to that. (I can't use my iPhone in an arm strap because it gives me back pain, seemingly from the imbalance from running with too much weight on one arm. Thus the belt and pouch. Yeah, I'm that sensitive apparently.) The Polars are actually pretty attractive, but still on the large side. I really didn't look at Timex, although now I realize they're pretty affordable. The problem I've had with Timex is that well, they're just too basic. No frills and aesthetically, the equivalent of a Chevy Malibu.

That brings me to Suunto which has a novelty not unlike Saab and Volvo did when they first came to the US (at least for me). Well, I've been researching the Suunto, and their newest offering is the T6c. I've learned not to go for the latest greatest since that is at the highest price points. Being the highest price doesn't guarantee remarkable functionality not available elsewhere. Much as I hate to say it, while the T6c is gorgeous and has a couple of nice features (basically compatibility with software pretty much right out of the box and configurable display), I don't think it justifies the premium.

So to make a long story, only a little less long, this afternoon I found myself at Whole Earth Provision, directed there by the Suunto website, looking at a T3c and T4c. They didn't have the T6c, so I wasn't even tempted to spend approximately $100 more for it. I probably would have just taken note that both of these models do the job for me and shopped online, but the clincher was they had a special on the foot pod. Evidently they're being upgraded, so the old inventory has to go. Regularly about $100, I could get it for $50. I couldn't figure out the difference between the T3 and T4 other than nicer aesthetics so the price made me choose the T3c ($165).

I ordered the bike Pod online ($50) so essentially, I've cobbled together my "triathlon" package for less than $300. I'm kind of proud of that. I think this kit is essentially a bridge until I potentially get more serious about Triathlons (namely take on an HIM) and then I'll actually know what a power meter can do for me.

I'm having issues getting the foot pod to work, but I'm pretty stoked at this new purchase. I can't wait for my first run tomorrow with it. I'll keep y'all posted.

Feel free to tell me what equipment you use and what you do and don't like about it.

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