Saturday, January 30, 2016

My Garmin wrist-based HR monitor doesn't work - should I return it?

I've now had two Garmin devices with built in optical HR modules -- the Vivosmart HR and the Forerunner 235. It is a huge advantage not to have to wear a chest strap, but the Elevate HR module is not perfect.  For God's sake, it's not a medical grade EEG -- its a device that can aid in pacing and effort. Properly worn, the Elevate HR module in these devices works pretty well. However, I have found both devices can give erroneous HR info under the following circumstances:

1) It's cold out, and the device is worn over your sleeve or exposed to the elements.  In this case, it is likely you will see some high HR readings for the activity -  anywhere from 30-40 beats per minute faster than you might see otherwise.  Fix: give your device a minute or two to "warm up" -- start an activity and wait a short time before you hit "start" and begin timing.  Also - keep your sleeve over the device when you are running, at least until the device (and your skin) warms up a bit.

2) There is too much slack in the tightness of the wristband during activity. The tracker/watch should stay in place on your arm. Not so tight that you are leaving tracks on your wrist from the band, but not so loose that it moves at all when you are running. A loose device can mean spikes at the start of the run - as high as 40 beats per minute faster than where you should be -- and spikes once the run is underway.  

3) Conversely, during resting periods, let it out a notch. I find that if its too tight during resting periods, it might show a higher resting heart rate than what you are experiencing.  

With a little trial and error, you will find what works best, and most accurately, for you. I also hope that Garmin continues to improve devices with Elevate HR modules so the recording of both active and resting HR gets more accurate over time.

Overall, I have pretty good results (as good if not better than a chest strap) during activities when I have the proper tension set on the band, as below:

Upgrade to a Garmin 235 if you already have a 620, or just cheap out on a Vivosmart HR?

This question was posed on the latest version (Episode 32) of The DCR Podcast: is it worth upgrading to a 235 from a 620? Ray Maker thought it made sense to just buy a Vivosmart HR and use that with the 620 instead of upgrading. I usually see eye to eye with Ray, but on this one, unlike Ben Hobbs, I really don't think he's right here.

First off -- cost. 

The Vivosmart HR is $150. So in that sense, it is certainly cheaper than going out and buying a 235 for $329.  Is the 235 worth an extra $180?  

I would have thought a 620 in pretty good shape would have sold for close to $100 on eBay, but the market seems thin - I only saw one used device getting bid on - and it was only up to $30. So it isn't prudent at this point to expect the 620 retains a ton of value.

I think there's real value in the 235 over the 620 + Vivosmart HR. Here's my list:

- A better accelerometer for indoor treadmill running.  I find the 235 to nail it as well as a Garmin footpod (which retails for $70) when I run inside -- more accurate (closer to perceived pace and actual pace on treadmill display) than any other Garmin I've owned. My Vivosmart HR was unusually bad on this count - 20% off the actual count in miles. If you do a lot of treadmilling, this accuracy is a significant feature.  The pace and HR below are from a treadmill 5K.

- It looks more like a watch than a running watch.  The 620 watchface and color scheme weren't business friendly - I like a watch that isn't noticed as a running watch. The 235 is black, sleek, and is not noticeable as a running watch.  

- Garmin Connect IQ watch faces. There are some really functional and even approaching attractive free watch faces on the storefront (and a bunch of other widgets to play with). If you like gadgets and fiddling with this kind of thing, it's a lot of fun.

- One watch to rule them all. It's a lot better to have one device to charge and wear, rather than a band and a running watch - much more convenient.

So there you have it.  I'd say if you are a regular runner, it's a no-brainer - go upgrade. Welcome to 2016.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Strange "spikes" in resting HR on Garmin 235 (Elevate HR module)

I've noticed some crazy spikes in resting heart rate (RHR) on the Garmin 235 even when sitting perfectly still at my desk.  Here's one example:

Sort of looks like an earthquake (to the right and below the second little workout guy).

This never happens during exercise - only at rest.  I filed a formal complaint with Garmin - was asked if I had the latest updates (a 2.5 Elevate module update, and the 3.3 235 firmware - yes and yes). 

Turns out they are on the case - working on addressing this with a new upgrade.  This is what I heard:

I took a look at your account, and I see the spikes you are talking about. Currently we are aware of some issues with the heart rate on the Forerunner 235, and are working on getting these resolved. This issue will be resolved in a future software update. Although there is no specific time when this update will be out, we are working as fast as we can to get it out to resolve these issues. 

So hold on to your hats, the cavalry is coming, eventually.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Altra Instinct 3.5 Review (cover your eyes)

Like for many, the road to finding the perfect shoe is long and endless for me as well.

I have big clown feet - size 13.  Many manufacturers stop making half sizes after 12, so it ends up being hit or miss just in terms of length - usually 13s are too short, 14s too long, in any given model.  I also have large toes - particularly the Captain, and most toe boxes are either too narrow or not high enough.

As a result, I've developed sporadic foot pain that comes from wearing shoes that are too tight.  I've had shoes where I've really loved the ride - a number of Adidas models come to mind -- but they weren't good for me.

The first model of shoe I felt comfortable in was the Sketcher GoRun Ride 3. A major issue: too much room, so much that during a 50K, my foot slid around so much that I got major blistering issue.  But no pain otherwise.  So I accelerated the search, knowing that I needed less structure (not too much less), more room, and some upper support to keep my foot in place.

Discovering Hokas was a revelation.  Shoes like the Clifton and Challenger were massive improvements in comfort and nice upper lock down, but the cushioning just didn't feel right to me.  

Altras seem like they are the best out there for my needs.  My first shoe was the Instinct 3.0.  The Instinct is the men's - the Intuition is the women's.  A cute and stereotypical naming scheme, which as a man with a strong sense of intuition I object to. Be that as it may -- I continue to run in 3s as the 3.5 comes into general release. The Instinct 3.0 toe box is great - never come close to blistering or feeling them rub at a hotspot.  Not too much structure but enough to keep my foot in place. The right amount of midsole cushioning.  No foot pain or discomfort.  And at least for me, durability through the 300 mile mark.  

(I also have the Lone Peak 2.5 which I like - more cushioned than the Instinct 3.0, but close to the general feel.  I tried the Torin 2.0s, but thought there was too much cush and it hurt my foot.  I'd definitely like to try The One 2.5 on of these days.)

Complaints?  A few.  The lacing of the 3.0 wasn't great.  Sometimes you get puckering around the eyes, and once in a while it's not laced perfectly and you can get a little discomfort on a spot on the top of your foot.  I also thought the upper could be beefed up - its a little too light.  I would have liked a little more tread as well - although they aren't slippy in wet weather, they could use some more grip for turning corners with more comfort.  But despite those minor drawbacks, I did run well in everything from a road 5K to a road marathon to a 50K on trails in those shoes with happy results.

I bought a pair of 3.5s, with some trepidation.  I worried that Altra, like most shoe companies, would end up messing up a good thing with the upgrade.  And the photos I saw of the shoe made it more hideous than the 3.0s.  To be fair, the 3.0 was most hideous in its orange or red version, but the blacks were acceptable.

I think Altra, for the most part, did a great job on the 3.5s.  The uppers are slightly beefed up, mostly I think by adding a leather strip that starts behind the heel, winds over the outside eyelets, and crosses over to the inside toe.  A pretty ingenious way of doing so without decreasing the breathability or flexibility of the upper.  They also use two different materials for the inside and outside of the upper - I think the inside might be a little thicker.  This also ads a little more feeling of support to the upper.

The lacing is improved - narrower towards both the toe and the ankle, wider in the middle.  

And the midsole is slightly firmer in a way I like - if the 3.0 was a 5 in terms of softness, this is somewhere in the 4-4.5 range.  The flex seems close to the 3.0 as well.

What could be better?  The looks.   See for yourself, but they look like what would happen if clown shoes had sex with bowling shoes, the bowling shoes got pregnant and took acid during the gestation.  I got the reds - they may actually be a bit less heinous in yellow or black, but blue is out of the question.  You almost think Altra is looking for an excuse to lower sales of the shoe by making them weird looking - just doing the same shoe in solid colors would have been a massive improvement.  The women's Intuition is much the same with some obligatory purple and pinks.

Also - it would have been nice to have had more grip on the outsoles - they seem identical to the 3.0s.

I would highly recommend the shoe for the fashion or vision impaired runner who is in search of pain-free, blister-free feet.

Update (58 miles): Unfortunately, I like these shoes less than after the first run.

- The outsole is just too firm.  I said it was a 4 or 4.5 out of 10 - with 10 the softest, with the 3.0s at a 5.  I would say these are closer to a 3 or 3.5 - significantly firmer, and on longer runs, too firm for comfort.  
- The upper is a little too structured compared to the 3.0s.  It is on the verge of a support shoe whereas the 3.0 was completely neutral.

I still have a pair of 3.0s that I wear, and I think I prefer them for the above reasons.  Your mileage and preferences may vary.

PS: This post would suck without photos.

From the top:

Left foot, outside shot:

Right foot, inside shot:

Also see: My Year in Shoes 2016
Altra Instinct 4.0 review (2017)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Shit that don't fit on your wrist - running gear outside the box.

I've gotten bogged down lately in wrist devices - mostly the Vivosmart HR and the Forerunner 235.  But there's a lot more to running gear than personal tech (shh, don't tell DC Rainmaker). 

One piece of equipment I think of as a piece of running gear is the Cybex Lower Body Arc Trainer.  This is the 750, but the current machine is the 770A.

The Arc trainer is my go-to on cross-training/non-running days where I want to give my feet a break from the pounding impact.  Some research promoted by machine maker Precor seems to bear this out - that elliptical machines lead to significantly less ground impact than running but produce similar HR elevation. 

For me, when using an HR monitor, I can pretty easily get my heart rate into running range by upping the resistance to 25-30 (default is 15) and keeping the cadence to a running-like rate (150+).  And my feet, knees, and hips definitely thank me.

I also love the lower body Cybex because it is more "running-like".  When you support your upper body on polls, you are doing less lower body work.  And that is not helping your running.  (Neither is leaning on the guard rails - you want to be activating your core muscles by supporting your own body, not letting the hand rails do the work of fighting gravity for you).

The Cybex folks seem to have put some thinking into the designs of the machine - they hired a phD to run their "Research Institute" who pondered issues of impact in this blog post.  

I also use the arc as a supplemental workout when I don't feel like "doubling" up my running.  And I particularly like it to do some intervals and to "get my steps in" -- I'm a compulsive step counter even more than I am a mile whore.

Vivosmart HR final wrapup - and some common issues with the Forerunner 235

I've retired my Vivosmart HR (VHR) after several months.  Mostly, its because the Garmin 235 was released, allowing me to measure my resting heart rate (RHR), sleep AND GPS runs on the same device plus having the benefit of Garmin Connect IQ apps.  I would still strongly recommend it as a tracker, with some caveats/misgivings.

  • RHR is a little fiddly.  A lot of times it is up to 5 beats on the high side bc it isn't kicking on at the lowest hr part of the day - the hour before wakeup for me.  I would hope Garmin will be fiddling with the algorithm to fix this. Otherwise, its pretty darn close to what I measure with my finger and a second hand.
  • Sometimes RHR freaks out, looking like a seismograph when I'm sitting at my desk during the day.  This is a temporary issue that doesn't seem to be resolved by restarts, reconnects, etc.  It's happened two or three times over the last several months with both the VHR and 235, so I suspect it is an issue with the Elevate module. (Note: Garmin just updated the firmware for the 235 which "addressed issue which can cause wrist heart rate to remain on a fixed value."  Not sure whether they've done it for the VHR, but they clearly know it exists, and that its a sensor issue.)
  • Intensity Minutes are useless.  A crapshoot as to whether you will be counted or not.  Arm movement seems to help, but doesn't guarantee a brisk walk will be counted.  Bike riding was more missing than hit.
  • Steps are also pretty useless.  A wide variation in what's measured - a staircase "up" can show 2 floors, the same one down shows "3".
  • Often, there will be a spike at the beginning of the workout that resolves on its own, or if you adjust the placement on your wrist.  Tightening one notch past "normal" comfortable tension definitely improves activity HR monitoring during activities.

The HR issues are pretty similar to what I'm seeing with the Garmin 235. Although they can be annoying, it still works more than good enough for me both in terms of RHR and exercise HR.  And I'm convinced Garmin will work out the kinks if you have some patience - its their MO with other firmwares/devices.

Some non-HR issues:

  • I hate the touchscreen.  It activates the backlight at inopportune times.  It messes with HR broadcasting.  There should be a way to by-pass by allowing navigation with the side button.
  • I found the quality of the backlight to be second rate.  The lighting was not uniform - it is a minor criticism, but is exactly the kind of build issue that annoyed me on the Vivosmart original (collected a lot of dirt) and the Vivosmart original (dead LEDs).  I guess Garmin views the sub $200 device line as semi-disposable... I don't think most people think like me -- that a device is only good for one product cycle.  If they want to build this brand to be stronger, they need to address hardware issues on fitness bands in the way they have upped their game on mobile software.

Ray Maker covers some of these issues as well in his in-depth VHR review: