In his 2010 TED talk, journalist Gary Wolf popularized the phrase “the quantified self.” He noted that the data revolution has been good for changing systems but that the data also should be used to look inward and work toward self-improvement, concluding, “We have to get to know ourselves better.”
When it comes to fitness, getting to know yourself is becoming big business. Market research projects that wearable applications — known as smart apparel — shipped to consumers by 2016 will total 140 million units, with revenue nearing $2 billion. It seems everyone has some sort of device to measure their stats in walking, running or biking.
I use an app for the majority of my runs, but I don’t own a wearable device, and although I’m not a Luddite, I’ve always been skeptical about the quest to quantify every aspect of our lives.
Yet I wanted to know my quantified self, fitness-wise, and computing mechanisms are now advanced enough to take on that challenge. So I tried out two products, both pieces of clothing with sensors that provide real-time data. Check out Sensoria and Athos, just two of many products popping up these days for data-loving athletes.
As a runner, I want better feedback, more than just pace and distance. Enter Sensoria Fitness.
“If the garment can be the next ultra-personal computer, what do we need to do to make that happen?” said Davide Vigano, chief executive of Sensoria, which is based in Redmond, Wash., and started shipping its smart clothing last year.
He and his co-founders, former employees of Microsoft, have been working since early 2011 to find an answer. Sensoria has a variety of apparel for sale. I tried the socks, which is its main product, but it also offers shirts and sports bras.
The key piece for Sensoria is the anklet, which attaches to the sock. It takes a while to fully charge, but once ready to go, it measures key facts for a runner: cadence, steps taken and the percentage of steps landing on the ball of the foot or on the heel.
Sensoria’s app also includes a virtual coach, who would inform me if I was heel-striking or if my cadence was off. There’s also a feature to pick your type of running shoe, so Sensoria can let you know when it’s time to get a new pair.
Graduates of Canada’s University of Waterloo started Athos in 2010 to “take the tools elite athletes and those at the top of the pyramid, the trainers, use and make them accessible. We want to democratize them for everyone else,” said Jake Waxenberg, Athos’s director of brand strategy. The company’s smart shirts and shorts, which came out this year, take data and create a digital portrait of muscles at work.
Sensors in Athos’s clothing track the natural electromagnetic pulses the body produces. The core, an oval-shape device about the size of the palm of the hand, inserts into the shorts or shirt. The app shows both muscle usage and heart rate in real time. In a cool feature, the app “plays back” the workout and show which muscles were used at which point.
Although I used Athos mostly while running, Waxenberg said it’s really geared toward power workouts such as lifting or high-intensity interval training. Nevetheless, I found it to be helpful in measuring what muscle groups I was using while running. For example, I tend to favor my left side (I am left-handed), which meant I wasn’t using my right glutes and hamstrings enough to balance my stride. I felt this while running, but the data proved it.
I had tried out both products a few times to get a feel for each device. Then, armed with the gear as well as my typical running app and a GoPro (because why not?), I sought to make the Army Ten-Miler in October my smartest race ever. I didn’t have a time goal, but I wanted to see if I could make adjustments during the race, checking the apps every two miles.
I aim to use my glutes as the main muscle group and not be so quad-dominant. Athos reaffirmed my muscle work in the race. My heart rate maxed at 170 beats per minute, a little faster than I wanted, so I made myself slow down a step to get the rate down.
But it wasn’t all wonderful pearls of data goodness. I found my stride favored my right leg, in part because the Sensoria anklet was on the right foot.
And thick socks and compression shorts aren’t the best combination for a competitive race. Add in a little humidity, and let’s say my feet and legs weren’t too pleased with my wardrobe choice. These products are probably best suited to shorter training workouts.
My final numbers: Sensoria measured my cadence at 170 steps per minute, with a total of 15,434 steps. I was on the balls of my feet 95 percent of the time (a good thing). During the hour Athos was powered (I forgot to charge it fully — my bad), my glutes were the primary muscle, with my quads only about 34 percent of my total muscle usage.
Altogether, I had good form and felt fine throughout the race, finishing in about 90 minutes, averaging a nine-minute mile. Aside from knowing my heart rate, I wouldn’t say the products made my race any better while I was running. But, it was good data to know while I continue to adjust my gait to, well, run smarter.
All philosophical debates about “big data” aside, I saw the practical uses of these products firsthand. You can adjust how you land on your feet while running or change how you lift — possibly preventing injury and getting a better range of motion— because the data is pointing out an imbalance. Along those lines, Athos and Sensoria are successful.
However, having a good consumer experience with smart apparel requires two big assumptions: first, that the data is accurate (it better be, because these products don’t come cheap) and the clothing is well-fitting and comfortable, and second, that you, the user, will have the capacity and understanding to interpret the information correctly and use it.
And that’s where the quantified self still needs qualification.
Both Athos and Sensoria operate as awareness devices, wherein they provide the information but don’t give the user guidance on how to turn the data into a better workout. Vigano and Waxenberg both said each company is hoping to change that by adding training plans and more virtual coaching features. Both companies admit that getting to complete integration is going to take time.
Do I feel smarter about my running because of these products? I do. But will it help me do better? That will take something no product can give: wisdom. Athos Men’s/women’s starter package (one pair of shorts, one Athos core): $348 Athos men’s shirt: $199 Athos core: $199 Sensoria Fitness bundle (one pair of smart socks, anklet/charger, mobile app): $199 T-shirt and heart rate monitor: $149 Sports bra and heart rate monitor: $139
Men’s/women’s starter package (one pair of shorts, one Athos core): $348
Athos men’s shirt: $199
Athos core: $199
Fitness bundle (one pair of smart socks, anklet/charger, mobile app): $199
T-shirt and heart rate monitor: $149
Sports bra and heart rate monitor: $139