The Epson Run Sense SF-810 GPS watch – first impressions

I was recently contacted by the lovely people at the PR company looking after Epson’s range of ‘GSP Sports Monitors’ and asked if I’d like to review the Run Sense SF-810. I haven’t looked at another GPS watch since I bought myself a Suunto Ambit2 a while ago, so I thought ‘why not’… Here’s what I think so far.

Out of the box

IMG_3100
The watch and the cradle. A nice solid package.

The Run Sense SF-810 seems to be a very practical, no nonsense product. None of the crazy colours that some brands are introducing. This is a black and grey number in a solid box, with a clear set of instructions. I was into the packaging and working out how to charge up the watch in seconds.

There is a Quick Start guide which meant that I was able to get up and running really fast (pun intended) and I have to say that at every stage the instructions were really well illustrated and described – a small detail, but I love not having to decipher badly translated instructions or useless IKEA-style illustrations that make no sense at all.

In the hand

I have to say that when I heard that Epson were getting into wearable tech, I thought “why would they do that – they make printers”. But one little bit of info about Epson and it suddenly starts to make sense. Epson is the name that most people call the Epson Seiko Corporation – and of course, Seiko is a watch brand. I remember Seiko watches back in the ’70s and ’80s. James Bond (in his Roger Moore incarnation) wore one in Moonraker (it was a detonator for a little wrist-mounted bomb!) and they have long been at the forefront of digital watch technology.

IMG_3096
On the wrist the watch is not bad looking and weighs next to nothing.

So here we have a GPS unit that is the love-child of an electrical engineering firm and a digital watch maker. No wonder there are some great details.

The watch is pleasingly light. My Suunto is great, but it is a brick. A very advanced brick, but I would never have worn it for a marathon because it is too heavy to not be noticable and I have always wanted to race in kit that is as unobtrusive as possible.

IMG_3098
The spring in the strap holds the Epson SF-810 nice and firmly on the wrist

To add to the lack of weight, Epson have built a little ‘spring’ into the strap, which means that you can fix the buckle and the little bends in the rubber strap lengthen and hold the watch tight. Not too tight – in fact there is just the right amount of tension. I haven’t had a chance to test this theory yet but I imagine that if you were running for a long time and your wrists started to swell in the heat, this strap would simply stretch a little to accommodate it.

The buttons on the watch all have an accurate feel – there is a little click when you push them, which means you know you have engaged the function you want. I think this is particularly helpful with the lap button which is larger than the other three and at the 4 o’clock position, so perfect for the thumb to hit it at the end of a rep. Nice touch that.

The watch also has a vibrate function that I have not fully managed to get my head around, but if there is an option for the watch to vibrate at set times or distances or when you leave a heart rate zone, that will be fantastic. I’ll report back when I have a better idea of what the vibrate thing is all about.

IMG_3101
Clicked into the cradle

The watch is connected to a Mac or PC with a cradle that I initially thought looked a little over-engineered. But because the HR monitor in this watch is in the unit itself, the data and charging points need to be on the side because there is a light on the bottom that reads the heart rate. So the cradle is a great way to charge the watch and download data. There is a very satisfying click when the watch snaps into the cradle and from my initial test the unit seems to charge really quickly.

What else?

IMG_3095
The RunSense 810 in its No NonSense packaging

There are a few things that I have not been able to fully test yet. The heart rate monitor seems to be very accurate but I haven’t done a long run or a hard session with the watch on yet so I’ll have to text that later.

I also haven’t tested the battery life yet so I’ll have to run the watch and see what it does.

The literature also boasts that the watch will measure stride length and cadence. Now I have to say that I have never personally worried about any of that stuff. In fact I have only had a small amount of tweaking to my running style, thanks to Nick from RunningWithUs. I actually think that trainers and coaches who tell people that they need to run at a certain cadence or with a particular foot strike can do more harm than good. But each to their own. I suppose if you do want to bobble along at a certain cadence then having a watch that tells you will save the need to be constantly counting. Again, once I get into this watch and work out what it is all about, I’ll write an update to this initial post.

I also have to say that I have not created an account on Run Connect which is the proprietary platform that Epson uses to extract, store and analyse data. And I don’t know if it is Strava compatible. As soon as I do, I’ll review that too.

Overall, so far, I have to say that I am impressed. This seems like a well built watch with an intuitive set-up and user interface. Maybe on this showing Epson is about to become a big deal in wearable tech. I’ll certainly keep using the unit I have here and give more feedback in due course.

Sound of mind, sound of ears…

I am not a really regular wearer of headphones when I am running. However I do like some music when I am out training on my own from time to time, usually when I am on a recovery run, which to be honest I often find a bit boring. Music can help me relax and enjoy the time that I am out, rather then running fast to get what should be a slow recovery run over and done with. I also discovered the wonder of music on a long run when I borrowed my wife’s iPod a while ago – her jazz mix was like audio-EPO! I was massively pumped up and ended up flying along faster than I know I would have run sans sounds. But I don’t reach for the MP3 player every time I go out. I quite like the sounds of the street and my breathing and listening to the internal dialogue as I plod along.

MHISRTIEBKCAV2_128474_PKG_01When I do run with music, though, as a music fan, I realise that more than ever, digital files and cheap players and headphones mean that audio quality can take a nose-dive. So going for a run with a digital music player can be a pretty low-fi experience. But not so much for me after I was introduced to Monster headphones

Monster is actually a brand that started off making really high quality interconnectors or cables for audio systems. The thinking is that having a great amp and equally fantastic speakers is pretty pointless if you have cables that don’t allow the sound through well enough.

More recently Monster have started making headphones, including the Beats by Dre ones that you see adorning so many heads in London’s cooler neighbourhoods. In their own range, Monster have a huge range of headphones, including a £320 Miles Davis Tribute in-ear headphone. That must be a bloomin’ good set of headphones.

They also now have a range of sports headphones – three in-ear (Strive, Intensity and Victory) and one on-ear headphone, the Freedom which is a wireless bluetooth headphones.

Meeting the Monster

I was invited to meet the Monster team and try out the headphones this week and it was quite an astonishing experience.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 07.32.35
Me and Pete from Fitness Playground not talking to each other!

When I arrived, I was fitted with a pair of the Victory – an in-ear headphone with a curl of rubber that hooks into the curves of your ear and comes with a clip and a microphone / controller on the cable. The fitting process is actually really simple and very effective – there are literally dozens of ear-buds and hooks in the box and you can even go for different sizes in different ears if you are uneven in the aural department.

The plan for the evening was that we would be going for a run led by the team from Fitness Playground – actually in the end my love of sprinting up and down hills mean that Pete from FP was saddled with me for the run back to the meeting point. I think he got the short straw: sorry Pete!

Out into the fading light of Covent Garden, we all plugged in and set off at an easy pace. We were warned that because it would be busy on the route we were taking to the Mall, we should keep the volume low and one ear-piece out and I must admit that I found trying to stay in touch with a group, keep an eye on the traffic and have music in my ears was challenging. But then I never run with music in company.

Once we passed under Admiralty Arch and on to a relatively traffic- and pedestrian-free Mall, I popped in the second earphone and upped the volume. My word! What a sound.

Big sound

MHISRTIEBKCAV2_128474_GLAM_01Don’t get me wrong – we are still talking about low-grade audio files on a cheap iPod shuffle. But the noise that I heard was like nothing I have experienced from an in-ear set of headphones before. The sound was crystal clear and the bass almost made me jump.

As for comfort, well these bad boys really stay in your ears! I was worried that because the headphones hang on equal length cables at the front rather than asymetric length cables where one loops behind your neck, they might fall out. But despite some mid-run drills and even a series of hill sprints, they stayed put perfectly.

And what about afterwards – well unbelievably the Monster Victory headphones are washable so if you do get a bit sweaty, you can just wash them off under the tap. Nice and fresh!

As I guess you will realise by now, I like these headphones. I will say for now that I have never invested in decent headphones for running before so I don’t have much in the way of comparison. But I love music and I will now be taking much more care about what I download to my iPod shuffle because for the first time I think I’ll probably be able to hear it well. And bass… I must remember lots of bass!

The Berghaus Hyper 37 backpack review

I love running in the mountains and whilst I dream about being able to run in the Alps every day, the reality of living in north London is that I can’t. And the thing I love above all else, is multi-day trips or ‘fast-packing’. My definition of this, is taking as little as possible, going as light as possible and moving fast through the mountains. And I have my wife to thank for introducing me to this idea. Before I met her, my experiences had been limited to a few day-long runs in the hills, a couple of ultras (but in south east England, so not very mountainous) and one weekend spent tackling the ‘three peaks in 24 hours’ challenge with three friends.

What my wife introduced me to was the idea of running for two or three days, from cabin to cabin, through the Alps. In fact that is what we did for our honeymoon.

Philippe and Anna Gatta… and one immense challenge

Philippe and Anna Gatta
Philippe and Anna Gatta

So I think I can empathise, to some degree, with Philippe and Anna Gatta, who with the support of Berghaus are running over 1,000 miles along the length of the Great Himalayan Trail. Actually, Philippe is doing the whole trip while Anna, very sensibly, is running sections with him rather than taking on the whole thing.

I like to imagine that Philippe and Anna will be like Julie and I, floating along the mountain trails, catching sight of the rare mountain fauna, seeing magnificent mountains and sunsets, managing adverse conditions together and generally experiencing something life-changing and life-affirming.

Except there is a very big difference between what the Gattas are doing and what the Freemans do from time to time. The Great Himalayan Trail is NOT the Grand Tour de Mont Blanc. Not by a long stretch.

The difference between the Alps and the Himalayas

For me and Julie, setting off on a three day run around the Mont Blanc is intrepid. It is exciting and challenging and full of wonderful surprises. It is also very, very safe. One has a mobile phone signal almost all the way around Mont Blanc. There is a mountain refuge or cabin at the end of every days hike, so if you are running, you can probably stop at one for lunch and arrive at the next one in time for dinner and a bed for the night. The Grand Tour de Mont Blanc is a busy route and if you sat down for an hour you would almost certainly have a group of people walk past you. In short, you would be hard pressed to get in trouble and not have a fairly easy way out on the routes that Julie and I have run on.

Not so, the Great Himalayan Trail. This is not a tourist destination for well-heel hikers out for a day or two, aiming to walk off their fondue excesses. The GHT is a tough track through very hard mountains in an area where if you get in trouble, you are going to have to sort yourself out. Which is why Philippe Gatta and not Simon Freeman is taking on this challenge.

Philippe’s CV reads like the pages of a hybrid of Sir Ranulph Fiennes autobiography, a Boys Own adventure story and James Cracknell’s new years resolutions list. He has climbed Everest, run multi-day ultras, swum across thundering glacial rivers, wrestled bears and all with wonderful Gallic flair. If anyone is going to have a chance of running, unaided and carrying all his kit requirements for XX days, Philippe has the right credentials. Oh and Mrs. Gatta will be there at times to give him a kick in the backside if he looks like he is flagging.

You can follow the adventure as it unfolds day by day, by visiting the Berghaus Community website and I highly recommend having a read of all the updates so far (Philippe is on Day 20 at the time I am writing this). It is honest, warts-and-all, compelling stuff and really explains the utterly mind-blowing scale of what this modern-day adventurer is taking on. Here is the link.

Got the idea, now what about the gear…?

So if Gatta has the physical and mental tools to take on such an incredible task, what about the kit that he will need.

My experience is that every time I have been in the mountains, I have realized that I can take less and less with me. For the UTMB CCC race this year, I had to take the compulsory kit, but blessed with decent weather I used precisely none of it. Even at 3am, in the pitch dark, climbing a mountain alone, the only upgrade that I needed was to go from a short-sleeved merino top from ashmei to a long-sleeved base layer from The North Face. My waterproof shell, duvet jacket, waterproof trousers and so on all stayed safely packed in my bag.

But Gatta needs to be more careful. If he gets in trouble he will need to have all the kit he needs to get out of trouble or at least stay safe until help arrives and that could be a very long time. He will also be gone for an extended period and will be running at high altitude so the weather conditions will be very changeable and he needs to be able to manage that.

Given all that, Berghaus have gone to work creating a set of kit that will cover all conditions and give Philippe the security he needs. I have not tried any of the apparel or footwear, but I have been given one of the most crucial bits of kit that Bergahus has developed for Gatta – the thing he will carry all the kit in!

The Berghaus Hyper 37

I guess that in reality everything that Gatta carries on his epic challenge will be equally important and I know that he and Berghaus team have worked hard to ensure that he has everything he needs and nothing that he doesn’t. But arguably, without a really good bag, he would be scuppered because he’d just have a big pile of kit on the floor.

And ‘big’ is the word here. The kit list that Gatta has developed must be pretty extensive and that creates a need for a big bag. Certainly this is not a 90 litre monster like the rucksacks that you see unbalancing the kids doing their Duke Of Edinburgh awards events. At thirty seven litres the bag is a very interesting capacity – small enough that you would have to think about everything you take if you are going for a multi-day event – there would probably not be room for anything other than the tinyest sleeping bag for example. But it is also probably too big for a single-day race like the CCC or the Montagn’Hard, both of which I ran this year.

The bag feels just about right if you want to carry enough kit to be comfortable and yet still move light and fast. It is also extremely expandable. The stretch pockets on the front and sides of the pack seem to have no limit and the main pocket could easily accommodate a cycling helmet or crampons (although sharp spikes might be a bad idea for the very thin fabric.

The main section of the bag is a single space with a top opening, closed with a draw-string and a lid with more capacity for things that you need to have to hand.

Inside the bag there is a sleeve for a hydration bladder and a removable pad that doubles as a sleeping mat (though this is most definitely on the minimalist side of things!)

The straps are really comfortable and padded, not digging in at all, even when the bag is fully loaded and waist-strap is marvelous, being elasticated so that it fits like a glove and also with two really good-sided pockets for all the things that you need to have close to hand.

One other things that is worth noting about this pack is the system for synching the pack down if it is not full. There are just a couple of bungee cords that cross the front of the pack, incorporating the clip for the pack lid. One quick tug and everything comes together, pulling the pack tight around whatever you have in it.

And in fact that is part of the wonder of this pack. Everything is so simple. One large section. Three outer pockets with masses of capacity. A simple system for tightening the bag. Comfy shoulder straps and good-sided pockets on the waist strap. That is it. No bells and whistles (well actually there is a whistle on the chest strap, but that is to be expected).

On the other side, the Hyper 37 is a pack designed for a multi-week self-supported expedition in one of the most challenging environments – it is, in fact, big. This is not a back-pack that you would take for a day running on the trails. In fact it would probably be too big for me, for something like the CCC and of all the races in that wonderful Alpine weekend, the only race that would justify this bags load capacity would be the 300km PTL. That is only to be expected – after all the pack was designed with Gatta’s expedition in mind. And I understand that there is a 22 litre version that will be available soon alongside this bigger bag, so you can hopefully find all the benefits of the Hyper 37, just mini-er.

Berghaus have done a great job

All in all, I love this bag. I will readily admit that I am a bag fan of bags and Berghaus: for me there is no such thing as too much luggage and I never seem to have exactly the right sort of bag for everything I want to do. I love bags probably slightly more than I love stationery, and I love stationery a lot. And I love Berghaus.

I don’t buy much stuff in general but I coveted a Berghaus duvet gilet so much that I ended up with it for Christmas last year and I welcome the onset of winter so I have a chance to wear it! And my favourite back-pack is a Berghaus one that I have used for travel and multi-day expeditions without the slightest cause for complaint.

And even through the fog of all that love, I can honestly say that the Hyper 37 is a great pack. If you are looking for the ideal bag for a light and fast expedition, running for several days with the requirement to carry a fair amount of kit , food, etc, then this would be a great choice. I’ll certainly be planning some multi-day runs soon, simply to have a chance to use the bag more… well, any excuse will do really!

The Berghaus 22L Hyper Rucksack will be available March 2014 with a SRP of £70

What I needed for my summer of ultras: kit review and nutrition

One of the things that I love about running is the simplicity of it – if the weather is kind, all you need is a pair of shoes, a t-shirt, shorts and a pair of socks and you are ready to go. If you want to be really comfortable you could add a cap and sunglasses. And you might want a GPS watch. But there are no bats, balls or bikes involved, so really the kit requirements are very low.

However the further you go, the greater the requirement (or the temptation) there is to take stuff with you. And once you start running ultra distance trail races in the mountains, the kit requirements are really extensive. I realised this as I packed for the UTMB CCC the day before the race wondering if I would really need all the kit I was taking. I would find out as I attempted to run Over 100km in the mountains. (Click on the image to the right for a closer look).

What you need to take and why

The first thing that I would like to state for the record is that I am not all that concerned about how much kit I am required to take for a trail ultra. I am not one of those people who is constantly trying to game the system and take less and less and less. To be frank, the few grams I would be saving by spending a fortune on the lightest possible waterproofs or by trying to get away with not carrying everything on the kit list, seems pointless to me when I know that the real problem is that I have probably not trained enough and I am carrying too much bodyfat. So I just take all the kit.

The justification for my attitude to taking more rather than less was brought home to me a week before the CCC when Julie and I were in Chamonix. We decided to run up to Planpraz as a pre-race training run, carrying all our kit to give it our rucksacks good test. It was a beautifully sunny day and we were warm climbing all the way from Chamonix town centre to around 2000m altitude at the top of the Vertical Kilometer course.

As we arrived at the top and decided to stop for lunch, a bank of clouds rolled in and obscured the sun. Suddenly we were freezing – it was not raining and it was lunchtime. But the drop in air temperature was immediate and significant and the moment we stopped moving, we were cold! Suddenly we were hauling jackets and over-trousers out of our backpacks to keep us warm. Point hammered home!

So the UTMB CCC obligatory kit list is relevant and here is what everyone is obliged to carry for the entire race:

  • mobile phone
  • personal cup
  • stock of water
  • two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries,
  • survival blanket
  • whistle
  • adhesive elastic bandage
  • food reserve
  • jacket with hood made with a waterproof breathable membrane which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains
  • long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely
  • additional warm midlayer top
  • cap or bandana
  • warm hat
  • warm and waterproof gloves
  • waterproof over-trousers

My personal kit list

I had all of the above plus a couple of other bits and here, for the record, is a what I wore and carried during the race:

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 09.02.45
ashmei merino carbon running top. Photo © Roy Belchamber

ashmei merino carbon running jersey – this was a simply brilliant bit of kit. It wicked sweat and kept my temperature regulated. The top never rode up and there was no rubbing at all. It just felt like the ideal thing to have next to my skin, it didn’t start to pong after 18 hours running and the zip neck allowed me to cool down more when it warmed up and keep my neck warm when it cooled down.

Nike shorts – an old favourite pair that I have run in at least 100 times and I thought would be great. Ended up causing the worst chafing I have ever had and ended up in the bin in a public toilets in Champex Lac. Will only wear tight cycling-style shorts for this sort of thing in the future.

ashmei merino trail socks – one pair, 24 hours and not a blister or even a hot-spot in sight. Brilliant!

Headsweats visor (won in a competition earlier this year) – super-comfortable, kept the sun and the sweat out of my eyes. And visors make you look like a trail runner… which is important

 

Me in my Naked Runner glasses at the 2013 VLM
Me in my Naked Runner glasses at the 2013 VLM

Naked Runner sunglasses – really light weight, the right level of darkness to the lenses and the most comfortable glasses I have ever owned – they never bounce on my nose! Basically brilliant for the price.

Scott T2 Kinabalu trail shoes – I had to choose between these and the inov-8 RocLite 315 which I really love running in. But in the end I wanted as much cushioning for the 20+ hours we would be on our feet and the Scott’s offered more than the inov-8s. In the race the Scotts were truly amazing: light, cushioned, grippy and just about roomy enough. A perfect choice for a race this long.

North Face Base Layer Light (long sleeve) – this top was recommended to me by none other than Jez Bragg when I met up with him at the North Face shop in Chamonix. It came out when the temperature dropped in the early hours and it was really super-comfortable giving me just enough warmth for the early hours.

Adidas Supernova tights – I pulled these on earlier than I thought I would because I had to take my shorts off, due to the searing pain of chaffing from the short’s liner. They were great, but I probably wouldn’t have worn them if I had made a better shorts choice.

Compressports calf guards and thigh guards – the calf guards remained around my ankles until about 50km when my calves started aching. Once I pulled them up, they made my lower legs feel great. Essential kit as far as I am concerned. The quad guards went on at the start of the day and I kept them on all the way round. They seem to support my quads on the downhills, my hamstrings on the uphills and stop any rubbing between my thighs. Another essential bit of kit as far as I am concerned.

Montane gilet – this is a minimalist masterpiece. It is made from pertex, so it crunches up super small (the size of a tangerine) and keeps the wind completely at bay. I wore this for the start of the race when it was a bit chilly and then later, once the sun went down and I was feeling cold again. One of my favourite bits of kit.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest – this was a present from Julie and in general I love this bag. It is really well thought out, with some great features. I especially like the fact that it will carry masses of kit without swinging around. In fact whether it is full or empty, it fits like a glove. I do have an issue though which is that the finishing is poor – zip pulls have popped off and can’t be replaced. The bungee holding the water bottle on one side snapped and Julie had to unpick the edge of the pocket to try to reattach it. So generally great, but frustratingly badly finished.

Black Diamond Carbon Z-Poles – OK, not something I wore, but these were not in my pack very much. They are brilliant. Light, sturdy and easy to stow away thanks to the folding mechanism. I think that poles are essential in the mountains and this model ticks every box for me. The use of poles helps take the pressure off your legs and back, making very long races feel much more manageable. And the winner of the UTMB used poles, so they must be right!

Suunto Ambit – this is a new bit of kit for me and I absolutely love it. The level of accuracy and detail is like nothing I have ever had on my wrist before and I especially love the accuracy of the altimeter. The watch is really, really easy to read and the backlight is superb, so it is great for running in the night. Best of all, is the battery life. I had this running for almost the entirely of the 24 hours and 20 minutes that I was running the CCC, with a little break in the middle because I was worried that I’d run the battery flat. Oh and as I like a chunky watch anyway, the size of the Ambit does not put me off in any way. All in all a superb bit of kit!

Here is the kit I carried:

IMG_1363
Forget Anton and Julie… focus on the inov-8 Thermoshell!

Inov-8 Race Elite 260 Thermoshell – this is a great bit of kit, that I took to the CCC as my mid-layer. It is really light and compact, but when you take it out and pull it on, there is instant warmth and protection. I would never venture out into the mountains without this again. During the race, I didn’t need to use it, but I have on other occasions and I knowing it was in my pack, was extremely reassuring.

Mountain Warehouse waterproof trousers – really compact and lightweight and with taped seams, these trousers fitted the bill as far as the obligatory kit was concerned. But they are not breathable, so I’d never consider running in them. They were for emergency use only and thankfully we didn’t have reason to pull them out.

Norrøna jacket – I bought this for trail running from one of the outdoors shops in Covent Garden – it was the last one on the sale rail and reduced by 75%. It fits me perfectly, is really comfortable, has useful pockets and pit-vents and is extremely waterproof. Whilst it is not the lightest jacket available, from a cost vs. functionality point of view, it was the best I could get and is definitely small enough and light enough for me.

LED Lenser headtorch – this is the business. It is really bright and whilst it can feel as though there is a bit of a lump on the front of your head, that is easily off-set by the huge pool of light that it provides. In the pitch dark it was perfect. I’m not sure about battery life and mine seemed to be on some sort of setting that meant that it would not stay on the dimmest setting, which would have been more than enough. But that is probably user failure, rather than a problem with the torch.

Nutrition

TORQ Bars - the business!
TORQ Bars – the business!

I carried quite a lot of nutrition products with me and I was rather glad I did. My main sources of fuel were TORQ bars and gels. I had 12 gels and 8 bars (I was basing that on one TORQ unit an hour for 20 hours which is only a third of what they recommend you take, but I couldn’t carry 60 bars/gels and thought that as I would be operating at such a low intensity level, that I would be OK just topping up glycogen levels with what I had). I also took some fruit blocks that are sold to kids in French supermarkets– they are essentially fruit juice and sugar in a jelly-like block.

I also intended to eat at the aid stations but tried to limit myself to as little fat as possible (that worked for most of the race!) so I was eating white bread, a clear broth with pasta that we found at some aid stations, ham and occasionally salami. I did eat the odd piece of cheese, but I was getting hungry after 8 hours of running.

We also had a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce at Champex Lac about half way round.

Towards the end of the race, I had used all my TORQ gels and only had one bar left, so feeling a bit worse for wear I sat in the aid station and had three cups of black tea with sugar and three chocolate chip cookies.  I felt fantastic after that and whilst I know that was not ideal nutritionally, the psychological boost and the sugar really got me going again.

Overall thoughts about the kit

So from a kit and nutrition point of view, that was my race. I think I had just about the right stuff. The shorts were a disaster, but then I know that I still need to learn and improve, so there was bound to be one thing I wouldn’t get right. And everything else was really perfect. I will certainly not be making many kit changes for next year…

Running to the beat of a TomTom – review of the TomTom Runner GPS watch

Mention TomTom to most people and they will know this as the brand behind the in-car satnav, beloved of drivers from the easily bewildered to taxi drivers who know longer have the knowledge that they used to. In fact so synonymous is TomTom with that market, that this brand has almost assumed the status that Hoover has in the vacuum cleaner market – it is a byword for the product rather than a brand name.

IMG_1288But TomTom is much more diverse than just the in-car products that grace a billion windscreens.  TomTom has products for road users as diverse as campers, caravaners, truck drivers and motorcyclists. And for some time now, TomTom has been the driving force (pun intended) behind Nike’s Sportwatch – a great example of two brands collaborating in areas that they specilaise in, to bring a great product to market.

In a rather unexpected twist, however, TomTom has decided to go it alone and launch its own range of watches… the aptly named TomTom Runner and it’s sister watch, the TomTom Multi-Sport.

Taking on a busy market

TomTom have decided to launch a product into a busy market – GPS devices are really ubiquitous now and I really only know a couple of runners who don’t own at least a basic one.

I suppose that TomTom thinks that they already have the technology and through their association with Nike, have already established that there is a market ready and willing to spend money. But it still makes me wonder why any company would launch into such a competitive environment.

The challenge for TomTom will be to see if these two new products can create a space in the running and multi-sport sector for their products. There are already quite a few brands trying to own the budget end of things including Soleus, who have a watch that has overcome many of the criticisms that were leveled at it initially. There are budget offerings from Garmin and Polar, who are both working hard to assert their “we were here first” dominance on the market. And at the cheaper end of things, you also have to take into account the Nike SportWatch GPS which at £129 for the basic version, is a great bit of kit for the money (and a little confusingly still says that it features TomTom technology interestingly and is still for sale on the TomTom website).

At the more premium end of the market Suunto will relieve you of a little over £400 for a watch that will record everything you can possibly imagine in a unit with a 50 hour battery life. And with the Garmin Forerunner 910XT, you have a £360 watch which they claim “is the only all-in-one, GPS-enabled device that provides detailed swim metrics and tracks distance, pace, elevation and heart rate for running and cycling”

So where will the TomTom Runner or MultiSport fit in?

The differences and benefits

Having tried the watch, I think this is firmly aimed at the mainstream runner and triathlete: someone looking to understand their training, but perhaps not obsessing about every tiny detail. TomTom tell me that they are looking to an audience of ‘challenger athletes’ to buy this watch. So what is a ‘challenger athlete’? Well TomTom think they are the type of runner or multi-sport participant who:

  • Wants more than the absolute basics in terms of statistics from their workouts
  • Runs and/or swims and bikes three to five times a week at least
  • Has clear goals that they are looking to achieve

Sprinting with Robbie Britton

IMG_1290
Please note that the screen is blank because I ended up running the battery down to see how long it lasts!

When it came to trying out the unit, I had the opportunity to use the watch at an event in Battersea Park, running with none other than GB Ultra Runner Robbie Britton, who despite his predilection for long races (he won the North Downs Way 100 and the South Downs Way 100 this year) has a wicked turn of speed when it comes to a 200m sprint!

We were issued with a watch and set off for a run. The first thing that I noticed, was how light and thin the watch is, compared to my Suunto Ambit. The unit is kept super-thin, by moving all the controls onto the wrist, making for a longer, thinner unit than many other watches manage.

The team at the event had set the watch with a sample ‘workout’ – in our case a 2km run. This allowed us to try out one of the features that the TomTom team really seem to think will be popular – the ‘Goal’ feature, where you have a visual and physical (more on that in a minute) prompt every so often, telling you how far you are through the workout.

Actually I am not sure I like this function all that much: I love running and having something tell me that I am 25% or 50% of the way through my run, feels a bit too restrictive – what if I feel great and just want to run a bit further? But I guess if you are the type of runner who just wants to get the session done, it could be motivating to know that you have a good proportion behind you. And of course, if like me you don’t care how much of your pre-planned run has been done, you simply don’t use this function.

IMG_1292What I did like, that I discovered when using the Goal feature on the watch, is the vibrate mode. So at 1km into our 2km run, the whole unit vibrated, just like a mobile phone on silent, to let you know that you have reached a certain point. In situations where you want to know that you have passed a mile or something like that, the vibration function is, in my opinion, brilliant.

The other thing that I really like about the TomTom Runner, is that the watch unit comes out of the strap. This has a few benefits in my opinion:

  • You can change straps either because you want a longer/shorter/wider/thinner one or bcause you need to replace a damaged one
  • You can remove the unit and pop it in a pocket or bag if you want to record your run or workout, but not be distracted by glancing at your watch the whole time
  • You can take the unit out of the wrist-strap and put it into a handle-bar mounted strap if you want to use the TomTom MultiSport for cycling as well as running

Longer-term testing

Since the event at Battersea Park I have played with the watch quite a bit and I have to say that it has continued to impress me. The display is really easy to read, with a white-on-black read-out that seems to cope with most light conditions. The four-way toggle controller that sits on the wrist is easy to use and the GPS fix is as fast as anything I have used before.

The 10 hour battery life that TomTom claims, seems to be a bit pessimistic after I left the unit running in its box overnight and I suspect that, initially at least, you can get more out of it than 10 hours. The charging cradle is really easy to use, although you do have to remove the unit from the strap to connect it (a minor inconvenience) and I have been told – though I have not been able to verify this myself yet – that the data can easily be extracted to most of the online platforms that you are likely to want to share your stats with.

So all in all I have to say that I quite like the TomTom Runner. I think that it is a very neat and lightweight watch, with really simple and intuitive navigation and some clever design ideas built in. Whether the world needs another GPS device is questionable, but I think that if you are after a watch that will give you all the stats and functionality that you need if you fit into the Challenger category that TomTom have identified, then this watch is well worth looking at.

You can find more details on www.tomtom.com and pre-order one of these watches for £150.

If you do buy one, please let me know what you think.

The hills are alive, with the sound of running: a trail running weekend in Chamonix

I think that one of the amazing things about running is the variety of ways that an athlete can out one foot in front of another and attempt to cover an given distance as fast as possible. Whether you are a 100m sprinter or an ultra-ultra distance runner, you are a runner. And that means that everyone can find the type of running that suits them.

The reasons that a person finds themselves drawn to one type of running over any other are many, varied and complex. To some extent the choice will be dictated by the proportion of fast vs. slow twitch muscle fibers one has. Opportunity, motivation and peer pressure also play important parts.

For me a range of factors have led me to become fascinated by the marathon and especially road marathons. I have had an inglorious and short (one race) attempt at track racing (3000m in my case). But time and time again, I come back to 26.2 miles of tarmac. But that is slowly changing…

Trying on the trails

ROY_0009
Running in the Alps with the Trail Running Team ©Roy Belchamber

Increasingly, thanks to the influence of my wife, I am finding myself drawn to running on long-distance trails. Over the last few years, my summers have been spent in the Alps taking on long races, multi-day running trips and even longer ‘fast-packing’ trips.

And last weekend that culminated in a weekend of running with six other trail runners who make up the Trail Running Team in the Alps around Chamonix.

Getting to know you!

ROY_0157
© Roy Belchamber

The Trail Running Team are a disparate bunch, who came together as the result of a social media campaign. Their ‘prize’ for being picked from the hundreds of applicants was the publicity of being on the team and in Trail Running Magazine, a weekend away in the Alps on a trail running weekend run by Julia Tregaskis-Allen  from Tracks & Trails and some pretty lovely kit from the team sponsors.

The runners all arrived on Thursday and whilst some knew each other from having been to the same assessment day in London or Church Stretton, really they were strangers. So we had a meal, cooked by yours truly, at the Gite Michel Fagot, where the team stayed, and got to know one another with the help of some lovely French wine!

The team was made up of the following six (click on their name to find out more about them)

Within that group there is an amazing range of experience and lifestyles, but three days in the mountains, with 60 miles of running, 5500m of altitude gain and 3800m of ascent, as well as an overnight stay in a mountain refuge, meant that the team really bonded. It was great to see people who share a love of trail running bring such passion and positivity together and that is what I have enjoyed about the weekend: getting to know other runners. Most of the group said at some point that they are used to running alone and in fact most of them enjoyed that aspect of trail running: the opportunity to be with your thoughts and enjoy some solitude. But at the same time, the experience of learning and sharing experiences together seemed to be a really positive.

ROY_0283
Night running with the Trail Running Team. Photo © Roy Belchamber

A quick mention should go to the sponsors who supplied the team with some great kit. Apparel, backpack and footwear came from Mammut and their new trail running range. Nutrition was all from TORQ Fitness, including gels, bars and recovery shakes. The team also had headtorches from LED Lenser, sun-glasses from Tifosi and calf-guards from Compressport. There will be a kit review on here in the next few days, but for now it is safe to say that all the kit performed really well, all the more impressive given the tough test that it all got from the amount and type of running we did.

Trail Running Team rules

All in all, the weekend was a really wonderful experience. We laughed, struggled, learned and experienced together. I have been really inspired by the six runners that I joined for the weekend and I can’t wait to see what they all achieve in the future. And I think that my focus on road marathons has definitely taken another step backwards while I have been taking forward steps along the trail.

 

What can be measured can be managed… probably

I just watched a report on the BBC website about how technology is being used to help people measure every aspect of their fitness and well-being. You can see the report, from the technology show in Las Vegas here.

This programme got me thinking. I am not a huge user of fitness technology. I have a really knackered old Polar, that is now held together with super-glue and an elastic band, and apart from that, I don’t use any technology. Nike were kind enough to give me a FuelBand, but it doesn’t work now and even when it did, I didn’t think it was that much use for running.

But the technology industry is awash with gadgets that people can use to track their exploits – the ubiquitous GPS watches and heart rate monitors. There is the aforementioned Nike FuelBand and the competitor products that are coming out. There are dozens, if not hundreds of smart-phone apps that use the in-built GPS to measure speed, distance, altitude and so on.

The value of technology

But I wonder what the point of all this is? I understand that people training for a marathon want to know how far they have gone and how long it has taken them (and therefore what speed they were running at). But that can be done with an analogue clock and a map. Just ask Bill Adcocks, who I interviewed for Running Fitness magazine a while ago – in the 1960s he was running a marathon in 2’10” and there were NO GPS devices back then.

What about heart rate monitors? Well, again they are useful if you are training in heart-rate zones, but the best runners in the world rarely have access to them and there is the tale of Brother Colm O’Connell, the iconic coach in Iten, Kenya, who has trained innumerable world class runners, including the current global superstar David Rudisha. He was given a gift of a heart rate monitor by Swedish scientists hoping to discover the secret of the Kenyan runners. Many, many years later, Brother Colm admitted that heart rate monitor strap was never taken out of the box!

Shortly before his death, I met Caballo Blanco, one of the runners who shot to fame thanks to his prominence in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run. Micah True as he was also known, and I talked about technology. He was working for Saucony at the time promoting their super-minimalist shoe, the Hattori. I mentioned that the shoe was unusual in the lack of technology that the manufacturer was claiming went in to its development. Micah fixed me with a steely gaze and told me that all the technology we needed had been developed straight into our bodies over millions of years. There wasn’t much to argue with there!

Should you run free?

The reality is that if you are due to run hard, it doesn’t really matter much what your heart rate monitor is telling you – as an athlete, you should be developing a sense of what it feels to run easy, steady, at threshold, hard and all-out. If you need a mini-computer to tell you what effort you are putting in, I think you might want to go back to basics and just run a bit more.

Please don’t get me wrong – I love a bit of data as much as the next person. I come back from every run and have a look at my old Polar and see how far I went and what the average pace was. If I have been doing intervals I check to see what the intervals were run at. But that is a mixture of curiosity and the desire to make sure that I am progressing. I don’t check pace or heart rate during a run – if it is supposed to be an easy run and it doesn’t feel easy, then I slow down, irrespective of the pace or my heart rate. Invariably, the end result is right.

So how about you? Do you love a bit of tech? Do you measure and analyse? Or are you a bit more freestyle? If you are into checking the parameters of everything you do, why is that and how does it help you become the best runner you can be? And if you don’t care for all the technology available, how do you measure progress and performance? Please tell me what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Music maestro

Do you run with music? I think that this is something of a Marmite issue in the running world – some love it and some hate it. Typically, I love it sometimes and hate it other times!

I usually find that I want to run with music when the conditions are not optimal: a gloomy day or a gloomy mood will mean that I don’t want to go out running and the iPod can be just the thing I need to get me out the door. Or if I am contemplating running a route that I have run too many times before (currently that this along the canal near to work – there doesn’t seem to be any viable alternative and it is getting very, VERY boring!) I find that music helps.

As with so many things in running now, there are a plethora music devices that can be used. People who take their iPhone for the GPS capabilities that has will often use the inbuilt MP3 player. There are also dozens of stand-alone MP3 players (my choice is the simplest possible iPod nano). And I have even seen people running with personal CD players, although that is exceedingly rare nowadays.

But whatever you choose, probably the thing that is hardest to get right is the headphones. Again there are choices to be made – in-ear or over-ear? Great-big DJ style headphones or the little ones that hook over your ear? Microphone built into the cable for answering calls to the iPhone you’re carrying or not? Sports specific headphones or just normal ones? £3 or £300?

My choice has always been a simple pair of Senheiser in-ear headphones – no microphone or anything like that. A wire that goes round the back of the neck. Good sound quality. And the ability to clean them easily enough. I have always been pretty happy with that.

So when I was asked by the marketing company for 3 Mobile if I would like to try a different set of headphones, I was curious. Would there be something better?

The headphones I was being invited to try out are from Jabra and are called the ‘Rhythm’. They are described as being premium sound and I will admit that when I opened them and gave them a listen, the sound quality was great. But this is a running blog and I am a runner, so I had to take them running. And here is where I found they are not as good as the Senheisers I use. There is a clip on the wire that I hoped would eliminate the problem I have of the wire in my headphones snaking along my sleeve or under my armpit, but it didn’t because the only place I could clip it was at the neck of my t-shirt and then it just kept rubbing my chin! I tried without the clip, but the weight of the in-built microphone means that the earbuds, which were a tad too small, kept pulling out of my ears, especially if I got a bit sweaty.

And here is the thing. I do like to run to music from time to time. But if I do, it is to compensate for a gloomy day or a crappy mood or a boring route. Running with headphones that just don’t quite work for me actually adds to the frustration of the weather and deepen the grumpiness. So I’m afraid I won’t be running with the Jabra’s. I’ll stick to what works, on the few occasions I do want Julio Eglasias to accompany me along the canal.

Nike: Back to the Future?

In the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to meet a few of the Nike contingency in London, who seem to be here to coincide with the Olympics. Understandable given the number of Nike sponsored athletes competing in the Games.

But Nike are also here to showcase some new products and this morning, at a breakfast hosted by Martin Lotti, Nike Olympic Design Director, I was able to get up-close to three new products and learn about one aspect of Nike’s business that I think many people do not know about and which I think is worth shouting about.

Skin in the game

The first new developement that was showcased by Martin Lotti and his colleague, Scott Williams, Creative Director Olympics and Innovation at Nike, was the new Nike Pro TurboSpeed suits which sprinters such as Alyson Felix will be wearing in London.

Cathy Freeman, Sydney 2000

Scott started off by explaining that the suit’s technology has been in the process of development since Cathy Freeman wore her amazing outfit in Sydney in 2000.

The idea behind the suits is that, compared to skin, the suits surface is ‘faster’ because it reduces drag and improves efficiency. There is clearly masses of technology that has gone into the suit (and if you want to learn more and satisfy your inner-geek, you can read more about the suit here) but as with Formula1 cars, the real interest for the majority of us, is finding out what all this technology will mean for us. After all, I can’t see too many people turning up to the local ParkRun in a suit that is designed to improve speed over 100m by 0.023 seconds and really leaves nothing to the imagination!

Alyson Felix, London 2012

The drip-down from the TurboSpeed suit, is more of a concept than a particular piece of technology: it is the idea of simplicity and ‘zero distraction’. One of the things that is very noticeable about the skin suit is that there is nothing fiddly to annoy the wearer. Indeed there aren’t any zips throughout the whole range of items. The sleeves are finished in a way that leaves a seamless end. The are no tags or buckles or clips.

And this is what every-day runners can expect from the range that is available to mere mortals in the future – fewer seams (and where there are, they will be flat-locked), neater finishing, less bells-and-whistles.

Super-fly

The next product we were told about was the FlyKnit shoe.

This is a product that I am really interested in trying (big hint there, Nike!) and so I hope that I will be able to post a review of the shoe from the point of view of having worn it soon. But in the mean time, having had a chance to talk to Martin Lotti about the shoe one-on-one and having seen a presentation of the shoe from Ben Shaffer, studio director for Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, I thought I’d let you have a look and describe why I’m excited about it.

Following the simplicity theme, the idea behind the Fly Knit is so simple that I can’t believe that it wasn’t thought up before – but then isn’t that true for all the greatest inventions in the world?

Put simply, the upper of the Fly Knit is knitted from fairly thick course yarn in one piece, which incorporates the super-strong, flexible Fly Wire strands that give the upper the strength it needs. That’s it! No waste, one piece construction and an upper that wraps the foot completely.

We were shown a few of the prototypes of the shoe, which I took some snaps of, and it seems like such an obvious development, especially when you see it in this context.

Fly Knit prototype one

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fly Knit prototype two

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the meeting this morning the question of whether the shoe can be work without socks and i must say that the answer from the Nike team was a little less than convincing, but without trying the shoe, I can’t comment. But I will definitely be trying a barefoot run because this shoe literally is seamless!

You can’t improve what you can’t measure

Having looked at some of the simplest bits of kit I have seen for a while, we then moved on to Nike’s fascination with gamifying activity and measuring every aspect of sport.

From what I can see Nike is building a spider’s web of technology.

There is the Nike+ tab for their shoes where data can be uploaded to an iPod or iPhone and on the Nike+ website.

The Nike SportBand and SportWatch GPS track runs.

The FuelBand tracks everyday activity.

And now the Nike+ Training range of shoes, with sensors built into the sole, track “every rep, step and drill”

I don’t necessarily feel a great affinity for all this technology yet – I think that the Nike+ interface is not quite right and the data available is not what I want for my training. But Nike are innovating fast and I think that what we are seeing in the market now is just the start as far as what Nike+ will be able to tell athletes of all levels in the future.

The big story

So there are the three developments that Nike showed me this morning. All good stuff. But the overarching message that was delivered this morning was not what I was really expecting and certainly something I am excited about – sustainability.

The arsenal of Pro TurboSpeed items that are available to elite athletes at the 2012 Games are all made from recycled plastic drinks bottles, with 82% recycled polyester fabric.

The Fly Knit – aside from the benefits that Nike suggests comes from a knitted upper – produces no waste. Unlike a traditional shoe where the panels are cut from a piece of material where all the excess is thrown away, the Fly Knit is knitted into a single ‘butterfly shape’ and glued onto the sole. No waste. And talking about glue…

Nike told me today that they are so committed to the environment that when they designed the Fly Knit, they wanted a glue that didn’t contain the toxins that are usually present in shoe glue. So they developed a non-toxic glue and then offered the secret recipe to all their competitors.

Of course, Martin was a pains to point out that Nike are a performance-first company, but it seems that they really are finding ways to produce products that will help runners – from the most elite individuals on the planet (most of whom are in east London right now) to the slowest jogger out there – whilst also trying to reduce their impact on the planet. If they can do that, then I really think they’ll deserve a gold medal!

 

Sleeping beauty

There are three elements that make up the triangle that is essential for ensuring success in running – training, nutrition and rest. When I was first shown this short list I was more than a little surprised by the fact that rest is considered as important as training and nutrition, but it is considered by almost every coach to be absolutely crucial. Like many runners I know, when I started out I probably used to think that rest was merely ‘not training’, but I now know that in the same way that darkness is not simply an absence of light, rest is not merely an absence of training – it is something that must be thought about and factored in to a training programme.

In our daily lives, it is pretty obvious that we do most of our resting during sleep. However with busy work and social lives it sometimes feels as though we are on the go all the time and therefore it is a good idea to make sure that rest days are just that – a day where there is as little physical activity as possible.

But when it comes to really giving our bodies an opportunity to recover from the stresses of training, nothing beats sleep. So it is essential that we get the most benefit from the precious hours that we spend in bed.

There is plenty of literature about the mechanics of sleep. The website Running Research News has a very interesting article about sleep which is worth reading. You can read the full article here.

The section of the article that I was most interested in is this:

“We sleep in stages that last about 90 minutes. Stages one and two are light sleep stages and last around 3 hours. Then we move into stages 3 & 4   (Slow-wave, delta sleep)  Deep sleep with depressed vital signs and slow, low frequency, high amplitude brain activity (delta waves), leading to Rapid Eye Movement (REM).  During REM our eyes dart about rapidly and we have vivid dreams.  General protein synthesis, cell growth and division, and tissue repair and growth take place during all four stages of sleep, but mainly during slow-wave delta sleep.  The release of growth hormone for cell growth is at its circadian peak during delta sleep, and most scientists agree that delta sleep activity reflects the metabolic activity and energy expended by the athlete during the previous day (Shapiro et al. 1984).”

So given that we have established that sleep is crucial to improved performance, what steps should we take to ensure we get adequate sleep? Well one of the recommendations in the article is to buy a good quality mattress… which is exactly what I didn’t do. When I went to buy a new bed a few years ago on moving into a flat on my own, I went to a well-known Swedish flat-pack furniture retailer where I bought a very fine wooden base and a very cheap mattress which initially was fine. However after a couple of years the mattress resembled a squidgy saucer and my wife and I would struggle to get a good night’s sleep, often managing only a couple of hours before we were woken by having rolled to the middle.

After a trip to the Andes trekking, we returned to stay at a friend’s house who has a memory foam mattress and the incredible sleep we had there whilst house-sitting for her convinced us that something had to be done.

The answer was found in an advert in Athletics Weekly – the Mammoth Sport mattress as endorsed by Liz Yelling. At the same time it turned out that a good friend of mine, and one of the people who has inspired me to train and race hard when I first joined the Mornington Chasers, had also recently bought one of the mattresses and he highly recommended it. So I ordered one hpoing that it would make a difference to my training by improving my rest.

When the mattress arrived it was vacuum packed in a roll – increadibly dense and heavy, I was amazed that it could fit into such a small box. However on opening the plastic packaging the mattress expanded and unraveled to its full size and within a few minutes it was lifted into place on the bed and we were ready to go (ahem, in a manner of speaking!)

At this point I am going to mention the only downside of the Mammoth Sport mattress – the smell that comes off initially. On opening the plastic covering the smell of foam and plastic was very, very strong and as we live in a small flat where we had to get rid of the old mattress before opening the new one, we had no choice but to air the mattress on the bed frame for as long as possible but then sleep on it that night. For a couple of nights I must say that the smell was pretty strong, although within a week there was no smell at all.

However as far as negatives go, that is it! The mattress is wonderful to sleep on; supportive, firm and perfect for someone like me who sleeps on their side. The temperature is great and I even like the look of it (although that really is a very minor consideration). I sleep much, much more consistently and many of the aches and pains that I used to suffer from with the old bed have gone now.

All in all I would say that this mattress has been one of the best investments I have ever made. I am definitely sleeping better than ever and I am absolutely sure that my wife and I will never go back to a ‘normal’ mattress. So if you can, try one out and see if a new mattress could be the very thing to help you rest more effectively and balance that all important training triangle.