Monday, May 1, 2017

My Runtastic Experiment - The Beginning

Why Runtastic?
First off, I need to declare that this experiment is completely of my own volition.  I am not being rewarded financially or in-kind by Runtastic or Adidas.  Apart from receiving the one-year premium subscription for free, the only benefit I will receive from this is from my own sweat equity.

I was musing a few years ago about switching to a new device and was doing a lot of reading about the Adidas mi Coach.  At the time I was doing a bunch of reading and research about run cadence and wanted something with a foot pod.  I had tried the Nike+ system and was reasonably pleased with it.  I had a bunch of Garmin Forerunners - all of which I liked - and thought about picking up one of the Garmin SDMn (n = 1, 2, 3 or 4) models.  All were compatible with the Forerunners I had at the time.

I was surfing Kijiji and found a Garmin SDM4 for sale, as well as a miCoach wrist unit and footpod for nearly the same price.  I created a miCoach account, downloaded the app and poked around the app and website as extensively as I could without having the devices connected, and I was pretty impressed.  What drove me to buy the Garmin footpod was the fact that I didn't want to have to start over with w new system.  I had already done that years ago when I switched from Polar to Garmin, and partially so when I received a TomTom Runner as a gift.  Once I had the new (to me) footpod, I didn't give miCoach a second thought, that is until I received a message from them in February...

In February Adidas replaced its miCoach service with Runtastic - a €220 million acquisition they made in August, 2015.  Apparently, everyone with a miCoach account received a one-year premium subscription to the Runtastic system.  Now I'm a guy who gets a lot out of the free subscriptions to fitness services (Strava, RunKeeper, DailyRunner, etc.), as well as the services offered by the device manufacturers (Garmin Connect and TomTomMySports), and have not really considered signing up for any service as a "Premium Member."  That being said, now that I had this subscription come to me, I didn't want to let it go to waste.

The Experiment
My plan was (and is) to exclusively use as many of the apps/services in the Runtastic system until the subscription runs out.  As I said in a previous post, I am pretty much done with training for running by just running and also want to have better all-around fitness.  This means having a healthy balance of resistance training and cardio.  Since run streak was halted in January due to illness, I had not done any exercise and needed to get busy doing something... anything.  These two realities (premium level fitness offering and complete lack of fitness) were colliding.

The Plan
The first thing I did was download all of the apps and log in with my miCoach credentials (I can't believe that I remembered them.)  I also logged in on the Runtastic web site.  I will admit at this point that I did not have any real method to assess the Runtastic system; my plan was to start with the Runtastic Results app - the one app that seems to be the hub for everything else Runtastic - and then build out from there.  The web site also aggregates all of the data collected through the various apps and presents everything in a common view.  I ran through the premium benefits that are available to me and was presented with an opportunity to build a custom 12-week workout plan, starting with a fitness test. 

As I was completely out of shape, the fitness test was tortuous, but I made it through.  I was put through four exercises and I had the record how many reps I could do.  At the end, I was presented with my plan where I could choose how many days per week I wanted to work out and I could commit to a certain number of minutes of cardio, which is measured through the Runtastic app.  On days when I ride or run, I use the Runstastic PushUps app for a bit of pre- or post-activity strength training.   I plan to install PullUps, SitUps and Squats apps down the road.  In addition, I want to see if I can pair my phone with the Bluetooth heart rate strap that came with the TomTom runner.  If so, I should be able to add heart rate monitoring to all of the Runtastic apps that support it (most likely Runtastic and Runtastic Results).

I just recently noticed that "free" training plans are a premium benefit, something Runtastic has in common with other services.  (They are "free" because you pay for the subscription, hence not really free.)  I just signed up for a half marathon plan that ends on September 17, which happens to be race day for the Army Run.   When I selected the plan, it only presented me with three possible end dates.  I would prefer to select my own race day.  That ought to be fixed.

My Impressions So Far
The thing that impresses me the most is how well the system is integrated.  The apps call home well and work well with each other.  I don't find that I have to go to one app for a particular piece of information and another app for other information.  Results has everything in one timeline.  That being said, it is a bit of a closed system.  I can connect it with Google Fit and Apple Health, but there are no options for connecting to other activity tracking apps outside the system (e.g. Strava).  I can export activity data in .gpx and import it into Garmin Connect and Strava, but it is a manual process.

Another thing I like is that it works with my Pebble watch.  With the announcement last December that Pebble has been subsumed by Fitbit, I know that the writing is on the wall for Pebble and that support has already started to disappear.  Strava hitched their wagon to the Apple Watch and don't offer Pebble connectivity from iOS.  The Pebble connectivity with Runtastic is flawless.

I need to log in to the Runtastic app every time I open it.  I don't need to do this with Results or PushUps, and I have no idea why things are different with Runtastic.  It's not a defect per se, but it is annoying and I think this also ought to be fixed.

UPDATE (May 24, 2017): This has been fixed.  My first ticket with Runtastic support ended when the support agent wrote that the issue has been escalated to the Product Managers and marked the ticket as 'Solved', which was a bit odd since the issue was not 'Solved.'  After advertising this blog post on Twitter, Runtastic replied, asking me to register another ticket.  I did and the helpful agent informed me that the issue was indeed resolved and that I would need to completely uninstall the app from my phone and re-install.  That worked and I can now stay logged in.  Thanks, Runtastic!

I have found many other systems do not allow for mixing strength training with cardio in one place.  In the past, I would go to one app to do strength training and the results would be stored there, and then use other app (or apps) to ride or run or ski or snowshoe and store the results there.  Perhaps there are apps out there that will aggregate the data, but I haven't found a good one.  The upside of a closed well-integrated system is that this is possible and the data is well aggregated and unified in presentation; the downside is that one is forced to completely buy-in to the closed system or manage fitness data in a collection of disparate  (best-of-breed) systems.

Next Steps
The first step is to complete the 12-week program to see where that takes me.  I have committed to 90 minutes of cardio each week (3x30min sessions).  My hope is that I will be leaner and in decent running shape by the August.  I am also considering doing a half or full marathon in late Autumn, but I am remaining cautious on that.

Once I start seeing measurable results, I will post them.  In the mean time, I recommend giving Runtastic a try.

Friday, September 2, 2016

What I Did Last Summer - Adding Cycling to the Mix

I have not written much about my other passion: cycling.  I have always had a bike and I loved riding it everywhere.  I was not always good at keeping the rubber side down, which is another story entirely.  I started as a runner in middle school and ran competitively until university, but my university did not have a track or cross country team.  I then walked on to a varsity rowing crew and did rather well at that.  All the way along, I kept riding my bike.  After university, I decided to try  my hand at bike racing and kept it up for a few years, but I was never a really good at it and eventually gave it up.  Now I do the odd tour or triathlon/duathlon, but cycling is more for recreation or for cross training.

To be completely open, I was not that fit as Spring passed into Summer.  Running was difficult, especially in the hot weather, but do-able.  Cycling had been starting to look more and more attractive, especially with our proximity to good trails nearby.  My MTBs ended up getting a good workout.

I like to build bikes as much as I like riding them (actually, maybe more) and a few years ago I built two great mountain bikes: one is a 3x9 geared hardtail and the other is a rigid singlespeed.  Both are a blast to ride, but I especially like the single because it run so quietly, and it became my bike of choice these days.  My goal had been to try to get in 45 minute rides three times per week, interspersed with running - again hopefully three times per week.  That worked for quite a few weeks.

Picking up cycling ended up working very well for me because I ended up with a pretty bad left calf strain at the end of July that I could not shake until Autumn.  (Remember how I said that I was finding running difficult.)  The injury didn't affect my cycling, but I couldn't run more than a few hundred metres.  I'm quite sure that it didn't stem from my running experiment (transitioning to minimalist shoes), but from some trauma that I (no pun intended) minimized and neglected to treat.  In any case, cycling was my go-to activity all Summer and fortunately, I didn't have to invest anything - no broken or worn-out parts, no repairs, no new clothing, shoes or accessories.  I just hopped on and rode.

Going forward, I believe that I am done with just running.  At my age, I need a mix of activities to get (and hopefully stay) fit: resistance training and cardio activities (i.e. more than one).  I am going to look for a resistance training program and enjoy a mix of running and cycling.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Vibram FiveFingers SeeYa: First (and second) Impressions

Since I know that I can run comfortably with the Spyridons (see the note below), I thought I would introduce the FiveFingers SeeYa's into the rotation. 

VFF SeeYa's ready for take off
Initial (Pre-Run) Observations:The fit is roughly the same as the Spyridons.  They slipped on just as easily and hugged my foot with exactly the same feel.  I am a bigger fan of laces than hook and loop straps.  That being said, the strap on the Spyridons is pretty comfortable and provides a good fit.  Even with laces, the SeeYa's are noticeably less shoe than the Spyridons, however.  The outsole is much thinner and the tread is less chunky.  The upper material is also thinner, i.e. nearly transparent.  In the hot weather we have been experiencing, this is definitely a good thing.  They may even ride a little lower on the ankle.  With these shoes on, I can forget that I'm wearing shoes.

Observations On The Run
I headed out to run on the packed gravel paths near my house.  They are softer than asphalt or concrete, yet firm enough for a good push off.  They are also not perfectly smooth.  I wanted to see how much ground I felt through the shoe.  I found my answer very quickly: much more than the Spyridons. 

Hot sun and not much shade
The shoes are definitely comfortable, but the thinner outsole let me feel everything that I was running over.  With the paths I was running on, this was not a problem.  I even ran over clumps of weeds that grow on the edges of the paths and over larger stones.  Apart from bits of weeds getting stuck between my toes, there were no problems I felt really well protected.   The thinner upper material was ideal on a day like today because the shoe was cooler temperature-wise.  I did just over 30 minutes and the shoes performed marvellously. 
Post-Run Observations
When I took the shoes off at home, I noticed a couple of abrasions on the top of my left big toe and on the main part of my foot close to the big toe.  Had I run any longer, they would have evolved into full-blown blisters.  I will need to keep an eye on this.  My calves, soleus, Achilles tendons and shins felt fine -no complaints there.  All in all, the SeeYa's felt great and I'm looking forward to running in them again.

Run #2 - the Next Day
Since I did fine in the SeeYa's yesterday, I thought I would give them a tray today.  The weather conditions were almost the same: hot, humid, bright sunshine.  Because I didn't want the abraded spots to blister, I applied Body Glide to the top of my right foot and toes.  I hear that this works, and I hoped that the experiment would succeed today.

Merely a flesh wound
The run felt great.  I stuck to the shady side of the path because the sun was punishing.  As they have been for the past couple of weeks, the deer flies were horrendous.  I was constantly harassed by them today.  I even managed to swallow one and I gagged so hard that I saw my breakfast again.  Not fun.  On the upside, I was detecting no pain from the hot spots on my feet that developed yesterday.  As it turns out, pain is not always an indicator.
Yesterday's hot spots became today's blisters, which opened up and I bled through the shoes.  I will treat the blisters and give the SeeYa's another shot.  Until then, I will switch back to the Spyridons until the blisters heal.

This is how the blister issue with the Spyridons ended up being resolved:
  1. I cinched in the strap tighter on the left shoe so that the spot where the d-ring is sewed to the upper does not move around as much.  Blisters are caused by friction (from rubbing) and the best way to eliminate friction is to stop things from moving around. 
  2. The blistered area on my left instep has morphed into a small callous a little bigger than a thumb tack head.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Not-a-Minimal Collection of Minimalist Shoes

I received a few questions about the shoes that I mentioned (and had a photo of) in the previous post, specifically about how I didn't break the bank as I accumulated them.  Here are the details:

Shoes (enough to last a long, long time)
I have been stockpiling (nice word for hoarding) for a few years and this is what the stable looks like (clockwise from top left):
  1. Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon's and SeeYa LS's (all size 41): - found all on a clearance rack at Sport Chek and marked down to $49.99CDN AND I managed to hit a BOGO sale = 4 new pairs for around $100CDN
  2. Vibram FiveFingers Bikila (size 40) - bought barely used through Kijiji for $30CDN
  3. Saucony Hattori's bought barely used (perhaps twice) through Kijiji for around $20CDN or $25CD.
  4. Merrell Bare Access's which coincidentally have outsoles made by Vibram, bought cheap (around $40CDN, I think) on clearance at Sports Experts.

All in, I'm looking at an investment of something in the neighbourhood of $190CDN for 7 pairs of shoes, an average of just over $27CDN/pair.  Not too shabby.

I wanted a mix of VFF and shoes with a conventional tow box, as well as a mix of lace-ups and shoes with Velcro straps.  I may reserve the Merrell's and The Saucony's for cold weather running because they will accommodate sock better than the VFF's.

Toe socks (for running in the Winter or if the VFFs don't fit quite right)
  • Injini rainbow socks were $5CDN at Platos Closet and still in the original packaging.  They are the best toe socks I own, but would run $15CDN or more if I bought them at full retail.

  • The others were bought from the far east through Amazon and eBay for $2-$3CDN each.  they are not super high end socks, but they are comfy and will do the trick.
  • I can use regular and toe socks in the Merrell's and the Saucony's.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon: First Impressions

After a couple of runs over the weekend in my Merrell Bare Access's with no negative side effects, I though I would break out a pair of my Vibram FiveFingers to see how they feel.  Of the four pairs I own, I very scientifically selected the only pair that didn't still have the tags attached and ended up with the Spyridons (the version released in June, 2012).  This would be my first run in VFF's that was longer than 200m or so.  This would also be the first run that I have ever done (to the best of my recollection) with no socks.

I will start with the shoes, which were terrific.  I am guessing that my slow transition to 0mm permitted me to change my running style so incrementally that they didn't feel very different.  The shoes are light and I can feel the ground, but the Spyridons have this great waffle-style tread on the outsole that protected me from anything pointy on the trail.  I even ran over a few rocks deliberately.  I felt the them as I ran over them, but it wasn't like they were jabbing into my foot.  This inspired a lot of confidence in the shoe. 

Second, I was expecting them to be really warm on my feet, and I was blissfully wrong.   While the Spyridons don't look like they are as breathable as other models, they performed very well in the heat, which was really intense (next paragraph).  They mostly black with green trim, and use this shiny fabric that looks plastic-y over a stretchy Lycra-like material.   The only negative I took away from the run shoe-wise was that I developed a small, yet painful blister on the inside of my left foot where the loop for the strap is sewn to the shoe.  For my next run in them, I will put a Band Aid on the spot or try a pair of Injini socks.

As for the run, the weather was stinkin' hot again (north of 30C), intense sun and a strong wind blowing from the southwest just ahead of a severe thunderstorm that was forecasted for the evening.  The plan was to go for 30 minutes out-and-back on a nearby recreational path and I decided to knock off another Zombies, Run! mission on my phone to help pass the time.  The wind didn't affect me at all - it was actually rather nice - but the heat did.  The path has very little shade.  I just kept it steady and enjoyed my playlist and the mission.  I ended up finishing the 'back' within a few seconds of the 'out', which actually felt pretty good.  I will definitely be back in the VFF's again soon.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Inaugural Barefoot Shoe Run

I wanted to get a run in over the weekend to break out of the running funk I have been in and managed to do it.  Victory!  I also wanted to see if I could manage a run in barefoot shoes.  (Oxymoron?)  I picked my never-been-worn Merrell Bare Access's (0mm drop) and took them for their maiden voyage.  They were a treat to wear.  I have an upcoming blog post where I describe my minimalist plans.

All of the conventional wisdom I have read suggests that I shouldn't run very far when transitioning to 0mm drop shoes (like starting at a few hundred metres) and that I should gradually increase the distance/duration, but I didn't heed that wisdom.  I have been moving to progressively flatter shoes for the past couple of years and decided to take the final 4mm plunge. (Note: My last few pairs of shoes were 4mm.)  To be honest, they felt great during the run and even 9 hours later as I write this, I feel no lasting effects. 

The run itself felt great.  My goal duration for the run was 30 minutes and because of the heat I planned in keeping the peace slow.  It was definitely slow and hot, but I managed.  I did an out and back on Hilldale Road and I dawned on me how it got its name.  The road was up or down the whole way: hill, dale, hill, dale, hill, dale.  I wore my TomTom Runner, but didn't wear the HRM.  Even without it, I knew that my HR was up there, partly because of the heat and the hills, but mostly due to lost fitness. It took a while for it to come down afterward, but otherwise I recovered rather quickly.  

Saturday, June 11, 2016

My Next Experiment: Aiming for 0 (mm, that is)

Since a picture says a thousand words, this will give you an idea of my next running project:

A Bit of Backstory
I wore orthotics for years.  I have been transitioning to less and less shoe.  Despite having perfectly flat feet and pronating significantly, I never, ever felt goon in motion control shoes.  I normally opted for neutral cushioned shoes and blew them to pieces after about 500-600km.  (The outside edge of my outsoles would wear through and I would occasionally blow through the side of the upper.)  As a result, I became a clearance rack/bin shopper because I needed 2-4 pairs of shoes per year at the mileage I was doing. 

I then read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  The whole less shoe, cheap shoe approach that is described in the book made a pile of sense to me.  Through experimentation I had already stumbled into it myself, but I never had any particular scientific reasoning behind what I was doing.  I was just listening to my body and finding a way to buy 2-4 pairs of shoes per year without blowing a bunch of money.  I wondered if I would ever get to the "shod barefoot" stage.  To me, it didn't really matter if I did.  (Given the surfaces where I run and the fact that Canadian Winters are really cold, "bare barefoot" isn't a viable option.)    Less and less shoe was working fine for me.

My transition has been slower than others.  The reason is more financial than physiological.  I could have transitioned to 0mm drop shoes over a few months, but to ease my conscience, I felt that that I needed to use up the stockpile of shoes that had been accumulating.  I arranged my pile in order by heel drop and used up the highest ones first.  I always rotate among 2-3 pairs at a given time so I just inserted a lower shoe into the rotation when a pair I was using wore out.  A couple of years ago I switched to training in lower racing flats and started buying 0mm heel drop shoes (see photo above).  I have a post in the oven that describes how I came to own such a collection, and not break the bank.

Where I am right now, shoe-wise
I just retired my Adidas AdiZero Mana's, which I was using for my streak and a couple of spring races, and I am currently running in a pair of Newton Distances that someone gifted me.  He tried them a few times and decided that they weren't for him.  I gladly accepted them and found that they are pushing my Achilles tendons and calves in exactly the same way that other shoes did whenever I dropped in heel height, i.e. from 12mm to 8-9mm and then from 8-9mm to 4mm.  In my estimation, the Newtons will help me close the gap.  I will keep these around, as well as a pair of K-Swiss Blade-LightRun's, for days when my feet need a break and I need to work some different muscles.  I also have two pairs of New Balance shoes from the Minimus line that I will use for trail running.  I completed a few runs in the Merrell Bare Access's and haven't felt any of the effects that people report when they have transitioned to quickly, which I take a sign that I'm ready for 0mm.

What is going to happen over the next few months...
My plan for the next month or so is to rotate among the Newtons, the Merrell's and an old pair of Loco Banditos (I bet you've never heard of them), and perhaps a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, probably the Spyridons.  Keeping the Merrell's for the Winter may be a good idea because I will need socks for insulation against frozen toes.  There are two trail races in the Summer (early-July and mid-August) and a road 15km (mid-July) that I am targeting.  I will use the Banditos for the 15km and one of the New Balances on the rails.  The plan is to be in a barefoot shoe pretty much full time by Autumn.