We've always argued that smart running shoes are the missing link for runners, and the shoe is well placed to hoover up the data that a GPS running watch just can't.
Under Armour was first out of the blocks with its SpeedForm Gemini 2 Record running shoes last year and followed up with its latest range that packs smarts to tell if you're in good shape to go out running.
Read this: How to understand your running watch stats
Now American running footwear maker Altra, which has partnered with iFit, wants a piece of the action. It's recently launched its first collection of smart running shoes. The Torin IQ not only tracks your runs, but also delivers real-time coaching to help you fix your form, get faster and hopefully cover more distance without a risk of injury.
The $220 connected road running shoes are now available in men and women's sizes and compatible with Android and iOS smartphones. They're modelled on the company's existing Altra Torin shoe keeping those signature features like the cushioned Zero Drop and FootShape toe box to make sure it provides that familiar fit.
I've been taking the Torin IQ smart shoes out running for a month now, but before I get into how they performed, let's break down exactly how they work their tracking magic.
To go beyond simple run tracking Altra had to embed dual footbed sensors and transmitters into the midsole of each shoe that are then able to deliver live data for each foot individually. That's a very different approach to Under Armour's smart running shoes, which uses a small sensor chip built into the midsole of the right shoe to track speed, pace distance and steps.
The Torin IQ's can record that information as well but can also relay four additional running metrics. The first is landing zone, which relates to the part of the foot you land on as you run. The real-time coaching aims to help you improve posture and cadence to reduce the stress on the body and reduce the chances of injury.
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Next up is impact rate, which relates to how hard each foot hits the ground and to help identify imbalances in your stride. Altra promises to provide guidance on how to land more softly and reduce the likelihood of an injury. This is important particularly for races where you need to keep your pace constant and where a loss in form is more likely to occur.
Contact time is also recorded measuring how much time each foot is in contact with the ground in milliseconds. With scores for each foot, it should help improve the balance between left and right feet to optimise contact time.
Last up is cadence, something we've covered a lot and is a metric staple for most runners. The Altra Torin IQ's records this as a number of total steps per minute. Ultimately, the higher the cadence, the better your running form and efficiency should be.
If you're wondering about what's keeping these sensors powered, the good news is that it's thanks to a standard coin cell battery that you'll find powering a heart rate monitor chest strap. It should be good for around 80-100 hours of tracking and the battery only jumps into action when they are in motion. The batteries can be replaced as well so you don't have to ditch the trainers either.
Before you head out running, you'll need to download Altra IQ app to your phone and pair the shoes via Bluetooth. It's a pretty smooth process and connecting the individual shoes take a minute or so at the most. Then you'll be taken through an explanation of the key metrics that the shoes can monitor. The app is pretty basic, with the focus on run history, tracking new runs and just a handful of settings.
As already mentioned, the IQ's are modelled on a dumb pair of Torin shoes so you can expect a similar amount of cushioning and at just 246g for the men's shoe (209g for women) they're very light to run with as well. There's some nice design touches as well like the circuit board design on the upper fabric and the splash of colour on the laces and the outer sole.
As a minimalist shoe runner, I was concerned about slipping on a pair of normal road running shoes again and these size 8 Torins looked a little too narrow and snug to run with. In fact for the first few runs, I actually had to take off my socks because they felt very tight fitting. That changed thankfully and they actually felt a lot more comfortable to run in comparison to Under Armour's smart running shoes.
On your marks, get set, coach
To get tracking you'll need to connect the right and left shoes, which requires tapping them together or running to create the motion required to get started. Again, that can take a minute or so and can often take a couple of attempts for the shoes to play nice with your phone. Before you hit start, there's a settings menu to have greater control on the kind of coaching you'll receive during a run as well as the frequency of the feedback. So you can choose to focus specifically on keeping your arms compact, work on cadence or work on all forms.
Left to right: Altra IQ (left), Moov Now (centre) and Garmin Connect (right)
In terms of testing out the accuracy of the data, I ran with the Garmin Forerunner 935 on my wrist and the Moov Now around my ankle alongside the Torin IQs. What I found was that cadence recorded was roughly the same as the Forerunner 935 but significantly lower than what the Moov Now recorded. Average pace was more consistent with the two other wearables, as was distance tracking. However, a bug meant that when a session was saved the distance tracking was stored incorrectly.
During treadmill sessions I was able to prop up my phone nearby and easily soak up the data. I could comfortably read my landing zone data, current cadence, as well as contact time and impact rate for each foot. While Altra does a decent job of educating just want these metrics mean, it still does require some basic knowledge of what can be considered good or bad. Away from the treadmill, you're really relying on the audio to keep you in check of your progress and it will give you regular updates.
But what about the coaching? I've spent a good amount of time with the Moov Now and the Lumo Run, two top notch wearables for real-time run coaching so I had high expectations for the Torin IQ shoes. Coaching feedback happens through the app but there's also audio coaching as well, which does mean that it's necessary to have your phone nearby. There's also no GPS tracking packed into the shoe as well so you'll need to piggyback off your phone to track distance.
I've to say that I wasn't blown away with what the Altra Torin IQ had to offer on the coaching front. It would tell me things like not to let my fists cross the middle of my chest or to pump my arms back and to relax but the way that information was delivered felt more like tips than useful coaching. I didn't feel that push to work harder like I did using the Moov Now or the Lumo Run. The frequency of the coaching felt too spaced out as well during a run often leaving you waiting for the next insight. It's a shame really, because with the kind of metrics that these shoes are capable of recording there's all the potential here to offer more useful insights in real-time to make improvements.
Things don't get much better post running session where you'll see a breakdown of the metrics in a series of maps but there's no effort whatsoever to analyse and make any sense of the data. Again, Lumo and Moov do a much better of dealing with your run data.
A runner's dream?
So would I be in a rush to pull on the Altra Torin IQ smart running shoes again now that the testing is over? Right now, I'd say no. While they were surprisingly comfortable to wear and some of the nicest road running shoes I've tried out in some time, it's ultimately the coaching and the additional running metrics you are going to want to buy them for and those elements just didn't cut it.
While it was great to be able to explore other elements of my running form, which the app is very good at presenting, the very relaxed coaching approach simply didn't have the desired effect of pushing me to work harder. I yearned for the more frequent and nagging coaching approach of the Lumo Run and the Moov Now to stop me from me from getting complacent and taking my foot off the pedal, but that's simply not how these smart running shoes operate.
It's hard enough trying to justify paying , and with better real-time running coaches available for less, you'd be better off saving your money even if it does mean grabbing another wearable to strap on.
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