A gadget geek's workout

commentary Caroline McCarthy upgrades her jogging schedule to include the GPS-enabled Garmin Forerunner 305 and discovers that exercise is best left relatively tech-free.

I'd noticed a trend: a workout routine wasn't just about tossing a pair of sneakers into your backpack on the way to the office anymore.

"That Nike iPod add-on has changed my life," one of my friends enthusiastically told me this spring. "You can synchronise it with your friends so that you can, like, compete and see who clocks in the most miles. I actually feel like going running now."

"I've been putting weights on my wrists and ankles when I play Wii tennis," another one told me. "It's an even better workout than Dance Dance Revolution." Suffice it to say that she's excited to be trying out the upcoming Wii Fit game.

I just didn't get it. I might be a gadget geek, but I'm a purist when it comes to fitness. I don't drink any weird protein shakes, I don't know the difference between Coolmax and Drywick fabrics, and the watch I use while running cost AU$15 at Target. I'll take an iPod Shuffle with me, but that's it. Maybe it's because I've read one too many magazine articles insinuating that you can be the next Lance Armstrong simply by spending a lot of money on sports gadgets.

But I also like to think of myself as open-minded, so when my editor suggested I test out a fancy sports gadget and write about it, I opted to go all out. A particularly jock-inclined friend from uni recommended the Garmin Forerunner 305, a high-end AU$400-plus uber-stopwatch with a GPS receiver, a heart rate monitor, and the ability to store workout data and synchronise it to a PC. It's apparently the gadget of choice for elite runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes -- anybody who wants to keep the most meticulous track of his or her workouts.

And that's not all. With a subscription to Garmin's MotionBased online service, Forerunner users can keep an online training log, network, and share routes with other users, and even "race" each other. GPS, PC synchronisation, and online social networking; the only way this Forerunner 305 could be more geek-friendly is if it had its own Facebook Platform app.

So, thanks to the CNET reviews team, I promptly got my hands on one. It came with an intimidating lineup of accessories, from a heart rate monitor band to a USB adapter to a bike mount so that it could be used while cycling. Me, I was just planning to run with it, so I charged it up, turned it on, entered some age and weight data, and was ready to go surprisingly quickly.

Garmin Forerunner 305: a chunky, high-tech watch

Hard to miss on the wrist
The first thing I noticed when I strapped on the Forerunner 305 is that it's big. It's not all that heavy, probably lighter than a full-size iPod, but it still felt odd to have something 50mm wide by 75mm long (curved) around my wrist. One person at CNET's office even asked me -- no joke -- if I was testing out an '80s-style video wristwatch that got TV signals. Personally, I thought it looked more like a wacky sci-fi communicator or some kind of parole monitoring bracelet, and hoped no one who happened to see me running through the streets and parks of the city would mistake it for the latter.

The size wasn't the only thing that made the Forerunner feel like a surveillance device. Once I started running, quite honestly, I felt like I was being followed. A glance at the wrist would tell me instantly how quickly I was running, and keeping an eye on the Forerunner for a few seconds would inform me whether I was speeding up or slowing down. Ultimately, I was probably running faster than I should have been, because I didn't want to see any embarrassing numbers on the Forerunner's black-and-white LCD screen. Then there's the whole "if you stop at an intersection" thing, which happens a lot in the city, even along the park paths. It doesn't help your self-esteem to see the satellite data change as you stop moving.

Relying on GPS data for workout logs, I should note, is not always ideal when you're in an urban area. Tall buildings can block the satellite signal, as I learned when it took a full five minutes for the Forerunner 305 to communicate with the satellites as I got ready for a run through skyscraper-heavy section of town. Additionally, the friend who'd recommended the Forerunner to me in the first place told me that power lines can occasionally interfere with the signal, but I never encountered this problem.

So there I was, jogging around the city, feeling like the gadget on my wrist was prodding me into a more stressful, less pleasant workout, and I longed for my AU$15 Target wristwatch. Then I arrived home, affixed the Forerunner (now moderately drenched in sweat) onto its charging dock, and plugged the USB adapter into my computer. That's when I saw why hard-core athletes rave about this thing. Almost instantly, my workout data was visible on my screen. A map showed precisely the route I'd run, and a graph gave me the option of instantly charting a number of factors (speed, heart rate, time, elevation) against one another. I could even see, thanks to the charts, exactly where and for how long I'd had to stop at intersections to avoid oncoming traffic.

Technology, I was reminded once again, is a beautiful thing.

If you're training for a race or vying for a lofty workout goal in the absence of a formal coach -- a marathon, triathlon or Tour de Someplace-or-other -- the Forerunner 305 must be a godsend. It takes all the inconveniences out of logging your workouts by automatically tracking everything from altitude to heart rate, and with the MotionBased synchronisation, you can engage in friendly competition with fellow megajocks around the world.

But this device, as its price may indicate, isn't for the casual runner. It's simply too functional, and has a high potential stress-out factor. Big Brother, after all, is watching you sweat. It's not going to turn you into a better athlete or help you lose 15kg unless you've got a real reason to be driven, reminding us all that you can't improve your fitness level just by shelling out a lot of money on new toys.

Me? Despite my adventure in the wild world of high-end sports gadgets, I still prefer to keep it simple. Just give me a good pair of sneakers, a decent iPod playlist, and an afternoon that's 20 degrees and sunny.

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DelBoy posted a comment   

I have a Garmin Edge for cycling which seems to have the same problems (and advantages) as the Forerunner. I just recently bought the new Nokia 6110 and it actually works much better than my Garmin. It comes with simple fitness software which allows you to log your training complete with altitude, time and speed and logs all exercise in the phone memory which can then be downloaded or blue-toothed to your PC or laptop.

 

Derek Fung posted a comment   
Australia

Hi Anome,

Thanks for picking that up. I've fixed it up now.

It'd be pretty comical wearing such a large device on your arm. And I'd think you might need arms of steel to run with it strapped on.

 

Anome posted a comment   

"50 cm by 75 cm"? That's longer than most people's arms. I suspect you mean "50 mm by 75 mm". That would be large enough, but still wearable on the wrist.




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