Counting 459 NFL draftees, the World Cup-winning German national football team and 60 London 2012 Olympic medallists among its satisfied customers, it's safe to assume that Exos knows a fair bit about wearable tech. That’s why, when Adidas started creating its miCoach sports platform, it was Exos that got the call from the German apparel giant.
Phoenix-based Exos are the experts behind Adidas’ sports tracking wearables and the brains that turn the data from your training runs from raw numbers into PBs.
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Users take a certain peace of mind from knowing that their data comes from actual science used by actual sportsmen and, like Garmin and its cycling team and Polar and its work with Premier League referees, Exos works hard to get the best quality data.
“We use the miCoach Elite wearable system on a day-to-day basis with the German national soccer team,” explained VP of the Performance Innovation Team at Exos, Craig Friedman. “We used it for the preparation running up to the World Cup and during the tournament itself.”
Like the components of a Formula 1 car that eventually trickle down to your family motor, sportsmen at the highest level are shaping the fitness trackers and running watches of the future – and surprisingly, they don’t look that different.
Do you trust your data?
The Elite Team version of the Adidas sports wearables amount to a fairly similar experience of what’s on offer using the regular miCoach app.
Instead of having your heart rate measured at your wrist, there’s an undershirt that does the job more accurately. Then, between the shoulder blades of this top sits a small pocket into which is inserted the Player Cell.
The Player Cell is a small transmitter packed with gyros, accelerometers and other sensors to feedback information on speed of movement, distance covered, acceleration and power for each team member. All of that is collated on the coach’s tablet where the Exos software interprets and presents the data in a meaningful way, as Friedman explained.
“It’s way out on one extreme of the type of data we get and it tells us all about what's happening in practice sessions with overall loads and intensities. And the expertise that goes into helping Adidas with that product is the same that we take to the consumer, and that you're interacting with in your watch.
“There's a power, I think, in knowing that the prescription you're getting from MiCoach is coming from that space,” he said.
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With years of training data to hone its algorithms, a staff of sports scientists and coaching specialists, and a 31,000-square-ft facility in Phoenix - complete with a 25m pool, baseball pitch, basketball court, 60m running track, a 60-yard American football field and warehouse upon warehouse of custom exercise equipment - Exos can generate sessions and schedules from the training you’ve already done and goals you’ve set.
But when an experienced coach isn’t there to analyse the data, is it any use?
Better than personal trainer?
While Exos has the tracking side nailed, it’s realised that the data is only as good as the recommendations it’s used for.
“The one critical question to ask is - where is the individualisation coming in those programs?” asked Friedman.
He worries that the current crop of wearables aren’t tailoring their insights to the user specifically enough – so when your app’s telling you to work harder, is that good advice.
“There are a dozen programs living up in the cloud with a couple of questions acting as a filter to point me to the right session, but is there true customisation and individualisation? Is the program that you get going to be different to the one I get?”
The extent of the questioning from most current wearables is age and weight. Those with heart rate sensors get feedback on your level of fitness by juggling your pace, speed, pulse, what it takes to push your cardiovascular system to the max and how long you can hold it for.
Friedman believes that the current crop of heart rate sensing wearable tech – such as the Basis Peak, Fitbit Surge, Fitbit Charge HR and Microsoft Band – needs to do more than assess your fitness from your ticker:
“If you think about heart rate, it's typically been the measurement of intensity over the years but it's a lagging indicator. It's your body’s response, so it's not a great way to do it.
“If you do a 30-second sprint, your heart rate isn't going to instantly jump up to be representative of what that intensity is. So, I think that's why a lot of devices focus on running speed – or even power output on a bicycle; that's actually a true measurement of intensity.”
VO2 is currently the best way keep tabs on intensity. It’s a reading of your oxygen consumption and your body’s ability to create muscle energy. If you’ve ever seen anyone running on a treadmill in a lab while breathing into an oxygen mask, that’s what they’re measuring, and it’s the kind of data that Friedman believes is in our wearable near future. Some devices, such as the Garmin Forerunner 620 make estimates of it at the moment, but for the time being, they’re only that - estimates.
Once companies like Exos can marry a more accurate metric of your performance profile with the knowledge of the kind of activity that you’re trying to do, then the resulting training schedules are going to become not only a whole more specific to each user but also more effective at getting you to your goals.
Food: The final frontier?
And it gets better. If we’re interested in how well the body can convert its food stores into muscle energy - which is what VO2 is about - then how about making sure we’re getting the right nutrition in the first place?
While there are services like MyFitnessPal where you can record your dietary intake, nobody’s yet managed to successfully integrate that information into our training plans yet.
“I think that there is a wide open space for that,” stated Friedman.
“We’re going to see this from much more than just a calorie standpoint. If we know that you're a salty sweater, and you're going out doing this activity, at that intensity, for this amount of time; we can drive some really interesting electrolyte prescriptions too. So, it gets beyond just thinking about calories and timing of meals.”
It may sound restrictive but a plan of what to eat is far more effective than one that only suggests how much. We’re not likely to see these kinds of advances for at least two years and a diet-tracking platform that’s not a chore to use is yet to be invented.
Yet as wearables and sensors become more varied and powerful, the mysteries of what’s happening inside our bodies is going to be revealed.
However, while 459 NFL draftees, the World Cup-winning German national football team and 60 London 2012 Olympic medallists might have made the tech possible, it’s going to be average Joes and Joannas like us that fine tune the choices, to make define the future of fitness.