Magic beans and real solutions: Have we reached peak tech in running?

It’s the start of the new year, which means it’s peak season for casual running. Between increased traffic on the trails and the treadmills, the next two weeks are sure to be full of folks trying to shake that mom/dad bod and return from the holiday anti-diet.

It’s also the tail end of the gift-giving season, which means a whole new wave of wearables is on the market. New tech on the wrist. New data to ingest.

Don’t get me wrong. I was an early adopter of the original Fitbit, and after years of going without it, I was given one for the holidays. And it’s great. But as a serious runner, I can’t feel the love.

I ran competitively for about a decade, and can’t say much about the best race I ever had. I don’t know my splits. I don’t know where I sped up and eased off. Frankly, it was a blur. I was “in the zone.” And it was fantastic. Now, we’re in the age of data, and that’s all changed. I can’t imagine running at that level now without logging everything. Data overload is not a new revelation by any means. I’m nonetheless surprised questions haven’t been raised as to the necessity or the direction of it.

Two of running’s greatest attributes are its meritocracy and its independence. Meritocracy in that, with hard work, you can get better. (Take Beatrice Kamuchanga, part of DR Congo’s Project Kirotshe, who ran at the Olympics only four years after taking up the sport.) Independence in that, your results are nearly completely based on your own effort. Unlike team sports, you are almost completely in control of your opportunity to compete and succeed. You earn what you earn without another player dictating how many rebounds you have the opportunity to grab, or passes to catch, or hittable balls you see.

RunTechAccessibility is a major part of running as well. If you have shoes, you’re in. You can do it without knowing complicated play calls or strategies, speak a certain language or have access to a special training facility. And that’s where the wearable tech starts to lose me.

Where wearables companies go wrong is in making running a “golf sport.”

Like running, golf is a game of meritocracy and independence. Arguably, golf is even greater than running in those two elements. In running, genetics plays some role at the highest professional level, but golf can be for everyone, genetically speaking. Where running is taxing on the body after years of professional competition, many of the best golfers compete throughout their golden years. Look no further than Gary Player circa 2009.

But golf’s obvious flaws are in its inaccessibility and its alienation. The cost to play is prohibitive to some, and the cost to play well is simply impossible for most people. Culturally, it’s even more alienating. It’s filled with Dockers-wearing businessmen (and women) wasting exorbitant sums of money on equipment that all implies some unmatchable boost. They haven’t hit the links in six months, but that great new golf club is the one thing postponing their stint on the PGA Tour. If only they had the breathable pullover on when they muffed that chip shot on the 18th hole. Tech is the answer.BrooksShoe.jpg


This tech-centric philosophy is now edging its way into running. Take the recent 3D-scan-enhanced Brooks running shoe as an example. Brooks has leveraged 3D-scanning and created the ultimate custom-fit shoe, based on individual biomechanics and the latest analytics technologies:

“Brooks is committed to providing the fit, feel and ride each runner wants. The ability to give an individual a personalized shoe based on his or her unique biomechanics is a game changer. It is a compelling offering for the runner who is interested in tip-of-the-spear technology and a totally tuned experience,” Brooks CEO Jim Weber said in the announcement.

Weber hits it on the head here. It’s tip-of-the-spear technology. But what he’s not saying is that the best place to get a grip on the sport is on the handle. “Just the tip” is the type of thing you’d overhear at a country club bar as the punchline of some lame frat-boy joke.

Contrary to how this piece sounds, I’m actually not a running purist. I absolutely believe there is a place for tech in the sport, on every level. Wearable tech does make the sport more fun for some runners. I love seeing people embracing running more, and having fun with it.


Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 9.35.12 AM.png
Some people are having a blast with new running tech this holiday season (I won’t name names).

But technology isn’t the same as shooting technicolor dust and calling it a “Color Run,” or theming an event to make people feel like warriors before brunch. Tech is serious investment, financially and otherwise. Some parts of the market are certainly saturated. Some “tip-of-the-spear” enthusiasts may never be satisfied with the proverbial golf club that kept them from the Tour.

Some other parts of the tech landscape are still in need of innovation, like tech for blind runners. As of last year, IBM was finally working on a platform to help these athletes compete, but that project may have gone belly up, as the athlete behind the IBM project recently was trying out wearables by Brooklyn-based company WearWorks (though this could be due in part to his small equity stake in the business):

The company’s first product is a wristband — adapted as an armband for Wheatcroft — called a Wayband. It connects via Bluetooth with a smartphone and uses information from Google Maps, OpenStreetMap and proprietary technology to guide wearers to their destination by emitting patterns of vibrations instead of voice commands…

Also attached to a strap on his chest was an iPhone. On his right arm was a separate GPS device to provide more accurate positioning on the course and to save battery life on the cellphone…

The Wayband technology is not unlike that used by cars to avoid collisions and to park safely, except the sensors employ vibrations instead of beeps.

This technology was piloted at the New York City marathon this past fall, and worked – sort of. While it worked to navigate turns, it didn’t account for quick stops from those ahead of the runner, water stops, and the like. It malfunctioned, stopping the runner with alerts that he was going the wrong way (he wasn’t). The technology is new, and the company is only two years old – so my question is not why isn’t this working, but why are we only starting to tackle this technology now?

Just like a flashy ad for January specials at the gym, so much of wearable tech is geared toward people who don’t stick with the sport. Yet other runners are still trying to find ways to clear the path, so to say, and run with the pack.

Perhaps this year, wearables companies can focus less on magic beans and more to leverage tech to enhance the meritocracy and independence that makes running special. Call it a New Year’s Resolution.

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