It used to be that running was all about putting one foot in front of the other, just fast.
With the advent of smartwatches and activity bands, the number of steps taken and the number of heartbeats per minute became the defining measures. Now, there is a new metric, if you have the right shoes. And that means the shoes have to collect the data that was previously the job of the wristband.
By placing a sensor in a shoe, the runner can now add average pace, stride length and cadence to the range of metrics. The shoe is linked to a smartphone and an app on the smartphone analyses the incoming data, combines it with GPS mapping, and then offers advice on improving running style.
Nike pioneered the concept with the Nike+ sensor, but the device was sold separately and had to be placed under the insole of a compatible Nike shoe.
It has taken a relative newcomer to the running shoe industry, innovative sportswear company Under Armour, which made its first running shoes 10 years ago, to shake up the segment.
It launched the first connected shoes, the Hovr range, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas two years ago and instantly revitalised its shoe sales.
When Runner’s World magazine put the Hovr Infinite on its front cover earlier this year and recommended it as the best distance training shoe, the brand had finally arrived among runners.
It is not only the connected property that sets the Hovr range apart. The sole is made of a proprietary foam enclosed in a mesh fabric that limits its outward expansion when compressed.
The foam, developed with Dow Chemical, not only provides a soft footfall, but also springs back. This means it has an energy return sole: as you run and put pressure on the foam platform, it displaces and puts pressure on the foot, as the foot is lifted, it returns energy to the sole and puts it back in shape.
This was the first property that leapt out, so to speak, when I tested the Hovr Phantom SE. Due to an ankle collar that provides a snug fit as well as firm support, the shoes are difficult to put on without a shoehorn – but deliver astonishing comfort once they are on the feet.
The running experience has been my most comfortable. Yet. I’ve used it on a treadmill as well as cross-country and have been constantly thankful for the support it’s provided when my legs have threatened to call it a day.
That’s before one gets to the most prominent selling point of the shoes, namely their connection to the world of activity monitoring. The shoes contain a pod that houses a Bluetooth module, accelerometer and gyroscope, which constantly collect data from the feet.
The shoes are synced with the MapMyRun app, part of the Under Armour ecosystem since the company bought MapMyFitness for $150 000 000 (R2.1 billion) in 2015. Under Armour also owns the MyFitnessPal calorie and nutrition counter and the Endomondo fitness app.
MapMyRun is where one discovers the magic of the connected shoe. It helps set goals, tracks and logs workouts, guides the user through routines, poses challenges and connects with the nutrition functionality of MyFitnessPal.
A Route Genius suggests options for nearby runs, depending on the distance specified. It includes a range of community options, such as a kind of Facebook of running comments and shares, and the route maps of others that they have agreed to share.
Finally, it offers advice on improving cadence and pace. The thing is, you don’t have to listen to it. If you know what works for you, take what you need from the data and advice, and just enjoy a run that comes as close to floating as constant footfalls allow.
How Hovr running shoes work
Gareth Heyns, who calls himself brand ninja at Under Armour in South Africa, told Arthur Goldstuck how the Hovr shoes work:
“The two main things the shoes measure are cadence and striding – steps per minute and the length of two consecutive strides. With both, it has a formula that maps out your distance. As soon as the sensor feels vibration, or you reach a certain speed, it will register that you’re doing a workout, and then gives your pace per kilometre, or cadence, as real-time feedback.
“Obviously it won’t give you a heart rate, and the sensor doesn’t have GPS tracking, so it won’t in itself give you the route of where you run. But if you have your smartphone with you, it will pull that in from location settings.
“It can set the pace you need. If you want to run, say, 5.15 minutes per kilometre, it will set your per minute pace. In settings, you can choose a coaching option, so if you’re running with Bluetooth headphones, it updates you and gives you coaching to keep you on track.
“The shoe with the phone tracks at least 13 metrics. Without the phone, the shoe tracks 10 of those – it leaves out GPS, weather and elevation. You can set it differently for the treadmill or outside. You can have a phone-connected and a non-connected run.
“If you run between 3.7 and 8.4 minutes per kilometre, it will track your run as a workout. If you run 120 to 200 steps per minute, or if your stride length is between one and six metres, same. If you run for longer than nine minutes or 1.6km, it will qualify you for a coaching tip, which is geared to get you to run as efficiently as possible and minimise the impact on your body and joints.
”The shoe holds six hours of memory if not connected to the phone during that time. If one keeps the phone connected, the data is constantly synced. The battery in the chip doesn’t have to be charged: Under Armour promises that it will last for the life of the shoes.”
Heyns said that Under Armour has not yet had any returns in South Africa.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @ art2gee