There was a time before smart phones where you had to carry around your address book, your daily planner, and if you needed it, your camera. Now you can have all of that and more in the palm of your hand, thanks to a desire by consumers for converged devices which we rightfully call smart phones.
This same evolution is quickly happening in the health & fitness technology sub-sector. Not only do we expect our existing smart phones to work as health-recording devices, we’re also beginning to expect more from the more basic sensors that have been around for years. But is it possible for something as simple as the good ol’ chest-strap heart rate monitor to accurately record extra data, such as stride and running form? Let’s find out!
On of my favorite blog posts I’ve had the chance to draft was the Making SENSE of my workout sensors article. That article had a fun blend of software and hardware, and was a great chance to explore some of the amazing technology in the Health & Fitness sector. From that article came some great devices, and until now I’ve continued to use my Wahoo Fitness Blue HR chest strap, in conjunction primarily with the Digifit software. Additionally, my wife had been using her Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor and Polar Stride Sensor with the Polar iOS software. But that is about to change.
SIDEBAR: As it stands, Digifit has still yet to release a software update that allows the Polar Stride Sensor to work with their iOS app. Additionally, due to various “data dropouts” from my bike speed & cadence monitor, and other issues I’ve had that they were unable to resolve, I eventually began using the Wahoo Fitness app. I’m still a fan of Digifit for what they claim to offer, but their slow resolution to solve existing issues and their aging iPhone interface have me currently suggesting Wahoo’s software instead. More on that below.
UPDATE 10-June-2014: Digifit has updated their software. Initial indications a few people are having issues with the Polar foot pod. But never the less, just days after publishing this article, Digifit did finally release the software update I had been waiting for… 🙂
NEW HARDWARE VS OLD HARDWARE
Wahoo Fitness recently released a whole new line of heart sensors, dubbed their Wahoo TICKR Heart Rate Monitor series. For full details on the various options they offer please check out their website. They are gorgeous looking, in a glossy white/blue/black scheme.
At the entry level end is the new Wahoo TICKR which offers basic chest-strap-based heart monitoring, and replaces the old Blue HR that I have been using. (While similar to my old unit, this device does add ANT+ which I’ll talk about more in a moment). The next step up is the Wahoo TICKR RUN, which then adds Running Smoothness metrics. And coming soon will be the TICKR X, that will add onboard memory and motion capture ability. Imagine being able to leave your phone at home, or on the side of the ice rink, and then go back after to review the data? Wahoo is really onto something here!
For our testing this time around I’m looking to compare the Wahoo TICKR RUN, and see if that single device can truly replace the Polar H7 HRM and Polar Stride Sensor combination that my wife has been using. If so it would eliminate the need for the second device (foot pod) plus would come at a retail savings to consumers who are new to this segment.
When you compare one chest strap to the next there usually is not much to write home about. This time around however Wahoo has changed the game a little, adding two LEDs to the chest strap. One is blue, which shows confirmation that your Bluetooth or ANT+ connection to your recording device (be it your phone OR your HRM-recording watch) is linked up. The other is red, showing that heart rate data (your pulse) has been found. This is helpful to verify that the device is working, something older devices lacked in providing.
It is worth noting that while the Polar H7 HRM does offer GymLink connectivity, they do not offer ANT+ like the Wahoo TICKR series. That opens up a whole new range of products that you can use the Wahoo HRM with and provides an even broader customer spectrum. It is also nice to have the LED feedback, since I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the occasional sync hiccup, and not known from where the fault stemmed.
As you can see in the photos above, the chest strap devices are all fairly similar. Polar uses snaps on the center of the strap to attach the module after the strap is already on your persons, whereas Wahoo snaps one end of the strap to each end of the module itself, but otherwise the principals remain the same. And if it were not for the “RUN” logo on the face of the Wahoo TICKR RUN, you’d be unable to otherwise tell it apart from the regular unit. What amazed me most when examining the hardware was realizing that the large foot pod “sensors” are all jammed into that tiny chest module, which is all-inclusive. Wow!
SIDEBAR: Running sucks! You’ll find me happily on my stationary bike, taking a long walk outdoors, or lifting on my home gym. But one thing I despise is running. Luckily my wife uses the treadmill (and running) as her primary workout routine. Unluckily for her was that this meant my volunteering her for the testing below. Data was collected using the Polar devices and their iOS software, in comparison to the new Wahoo TICKR RUN and their iOS software. We ran a few small trials, but what you see here is the final 1-mile run results. Enjoy!
(Please click screen shots throughout this article to see larger versions of images)
PRE-WORKOUT – POLAR SCREEN SHOTS
Above is a smattering of random screen shots from the Polar iOS application. This is mostly to show you some of the visibility the app gives you. It is worth noting that there is a cloud feature here– so you can view all of your past workout data in depth on the Polar web site. That is one advantage Polar does have over the Wahoo, though given that Wahoo allows you to export to a multitude of 3rd parties that issue quickly becomes moot.
Beyond that the settings are more or less the same. Both apps offer features that help you set your resting heart rate, your zones, and other data. Please note that these pre-workout screen shots are from MY phone not my wife’s, because she’d have killed me to show her age and weight to the general public, haha!
One thing that I do like about Polar, beyond their cloud features, is the training benefit. I’ll spoil the balance of this article just a bit to say that if you’re a true athlete, training for a marathon or similar, then Polar is still a great option and perhaps the best too for that purpose. They have more scalability (when you’re ready to move up the hardware line they offer more options for the hard-core fitness buff like their training watches, etc). But their lack of integration with 3rd party software and the limited feature set of the iOS app compared to the screens you’ll see in the Wahoo one are why I’ve been swayed to Wahoo.
SIDEBAR: If you use a non-Polar sensor in the Polar app, certain features will not work such as resting heart rate analysis and other upgrade benefits. They really do want you to stay in their wheel-house because, like most competitors, the app is free, the hardware is not.
PRE-WORKOUT – WAHOO FITNESS SCREEN SHOTS
Same as just shown for the Polar app, above is what the Wahoo iOS app has to offer pre-workout. Again the same basic settings for your personal profile, but with a bit of a twist. Beyond your standard heart rate zones, the folks at Wahoo Fitness have simplified your workout into Burn & Burst zones. You can read more about their science RIGHT HERE.
You still get the basic HEART RATE ZONES breakdown, which you can use to EXERCISE SMARTER. And obviously if you have a heart rate monitor then you should read these links to better understand why it matters and how to best make use of those zones. For me I found that the Burn zone was very easy to stay in, and was a nice way to know you were in that prime fat burning section. On occasion I do like to do HIIT training and the Burst zone was also great to monitor. But overall, I personally tend to use the Wahoo app and leave my iPhone showing the page that displays ALL the zones at once. For me I try to stay in the TARGET HEART RATE ZONE when doing my cardio exercise, and would recommend the same for MOST individuals. That “small” burst zone is a neat feature but a bit too finite.
Poalr’s iOS app limits your sensor capabilities to an HRM and stride sensor. But with Wahoo you can add on a Wahoo Blue SC for speed/cadence, their KICKR device for bike power reading, and much more. And you can use different sensors for different activities. Even better, Wahoo’s app works with just about any Bluetooth or ANT+ device, it doesn’t have to be Wahoo brand. This open architecture is yet another reason why I suggest people download the free Wahoo apps today, and check it out!
Above are 9 screen shots, which are shown the first time you add a Wahoo TICKR RUN device to the Wahoo app. This tutorial can be brought up again at a later time. They also suggest you run a quick calibration, offering two methods. One is a 2 minute stead pace, the other a 6 minute stepped pace process. The goal here is to measure your inputs and calibrate the motion sensors in the chest strap to your actual speeds (so you’ll need to do this on a treadmill or track). They also suggest that over time as your running form changes you should recalibrate the device.
My wife performed the 6 minute 3-step process and we were ready to go. After a few short runs we found that there was some variation between the treadmill, the Wahoo data, and the Polar data. We’ve always seen slight differences prior with just the Polar app versus the treadmill, so it was no surprise that the recorded data from her Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor and Polar Stride Sensor would vary slightly as well to the Wahoo TICKR RUN. It was hard to say how much it would be as in real time the pace on both devices fluctuated and was hard to determine accuracy. We had calibrated the Polar stride unit a few months ago, so it was all set to go and it was time to start out final 1.0 mile test run.
SOFTWARE NOTE: At the time of posting this blog the Wahoo TICKR RUN only works to offer smoothness data on iOS — but an Android version is coming, so sit tight!
Here are screen shots DURING the workout:
MONITORING THE WORKOUT
Above are firstly 6 screen shots from Wahoo, and then a singular view from Polar. Frankly, you just don’t get a lot of data from the Polar app. You can tap on the distance, pace and heart rate views to see things like miles per hour vs minutes per mile, or your max heart rate. And while we personally loved the little bars that grow based on time spent in each zone plus the cool sliding heart rate pointer, there is no arguing that Wahoo provides more information and more sensing if that is what you want.
Pace on the Wahoo is displayed only as your minutes per mile, with no MPH option. But beyond that missing datum point, there is still plenty to chew on here. You get some really nice drill downs into the smoothness of your run, with some neat bar graphs of shock recording. You’ll see above a snap-shot of a situation where the Smoothness page is 3 red bars and NO data. There had been a few (not many, but a few) occasions during the run testing where it seemed to drop out, recording no smoothness data. During those moments the smoothness page displayed nothing at all. I’ve not yet reached out to Wahoo about this matter, but do note that even when the smoothness data was gone, the pace data seemed to continue properly indicating this may be a small software glitch only.
Without a doubt GPS is a great way to collect outdoor distances and such. But for indoor workouts stride sensors work better. And while you can surely use your Fitbit Flex or similar, having this built right into the heart rate monitor makes it a no brainer and a huge cost benefit. Variations in real time between the Polar Stride Sensor data and the Wahoo TICKR RUN were VERY minimal, but what was amazing is how the end results for distance traveled turned out to be nearly identical After a mile run the final results looked like this…
POLAR – FINAL DATA:
WAHOO FITNESS – FINAL DATA:
POST WORKOUT & CONCLUSION
After cresting the 1-mile point we stopped each piece of software from recording within 11-seconds of each other. And the data is amazingly close, with 126 vs 133 calories burned, average heart rate within 1 BPM, distance within 0.01 miles. Really then you must assume these two devices are both accurate enough, at least when compared to each other. So is there a clear winner here? That may depend on your goal, your needs, and whose ecosystem you want to live within.
Polar uses their RUNNING INDEX to provide feedback to your run, but it gives you no data about your form and shock. You could be doing great things for your time/speed and muscles, while at the same time having horrible form and destroying your joints. That is not to say that I trust the Wahoo TICKR RUN implicitly, but I do have some level of faith that their analysis is good. And if anything, over time, you should hopefully be able to see improvements using their analytics provided with less shock to the sensors.
Wahoo also has a HUGE PARTNER LIST which means that unlike Polar, you can expand out to other apps and ecosystems. For me and my wife this is crucial, as MyFitnessPal has become the central hub for both of us. Diet and nutrition are important parts of your health (LINK) and there are literally hundreds of articles that explain why the key to a healthy you starts first with the food you eat. Exercise is important too, but is always second string to the fuel you power your body with and for me that means using apps like MyFitnessPal to help make sure I’m ingesting the right foods each and every day.
For us the Wahoo TICKR RUN (and in general the Wahoo Fitness devices and app) provides the winning level of information for our exercise needs. This new ability to see running smoothness should provide an interesting variable for my wife to monitor and improve. Given the quick and easy way to export the workouts direct to MFP, which also syncs with our Fitbit Flex devices, we have a fully integrated experience across all platforms, accounting for every step we take, every workout, and every calorie we eat.
In the end the Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor and Polar Stride Sensor are great devices and their software is definitely adequate. If you already live within the Polar eco system or know that you’ll want to scale up to their higher level watches some day then by all means, go for it. But my top pick for the best chest-strap-based heart rate monitor on the market today is the Wahoo TICKR RUN, or for non-runners the basic Wahoo TICKR, and their stellar software to go with it. Stay fit, everyone!