When it comes to running, real-time coaching wearables are fast replacing the personal trainer. We're not talking GPS running watches here. The number of real-time, virtual run coaches, offering personalised, performance-enhancing insights, is on the rise, and they can be highly effective.
Serious runners will scoff at the idea that face-to-face human coaching could ever be replaced by an algorithm-powered powered persona that 'lives' in their headphones, after all the relationship between coach and runner is complex. But the prospect that we'll be able to train for marathons, chase personal bests, or improve fitness, without the need for human intervention, is becoming increasingly real.
Non runners read this: Best wearables for real time coaching
We've extensively tried out three wearables that aim to provide that virtual coaching for runners right now. Here's what we found out ranking them in order of our favourites.
Bronze: Moov HR Sweat
The brilliantly capable coaching system the Moov Now was winner of Sports Wearable of the Year at the Wareable Tech Awards and now the company is back with the HR Sweat, which claims to offer the world's most accurate heart rate monitor. But this isn't just a BPM tracker, it comes with guided heart-rate training HIIT sessions, including a workouts to improve your running.
The Moov HR Sweat is a sensor that clips into a headband and measures your BPM from the temple. Because the sensor sits closer to your heart (so the argument goes) it's more accurate than devices that track from the wrist.
The focus is all on high intensity interval training (HIIT) with sessions that target fat burn, strength and coordination, aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It won't provide you with race training plans, or offer coaching to help you nail your long marathon training run. Instead, what it will do is get you doing speed and hill sessions that will make you a faster runner.
When it comes to virtual coaching, we love the fact there are extremely detailed but simple descriptions to explain the aims and benefits of each session you're about to undertake. Combined with brilliant videos that walk you through technique, the Moov Sweat HR app alone is a really powerful cross-training tool with non-running workouts that'll help most runners.
During a run, the timing, frequency and content of the voice instructions can be a little odd. For example, during rest periods Moov reads your stats as a percentage of HR Max rather than whether you're in the right recovery zone. During the efforts it does the opposite, with all the updates based on zone. The lack of consistency is confusing.
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On top of that the feedback gets a bit repetitive. There's one coaching remark that explains why the recovery segments of your workout are so important. And you get it every single time you're in a rest period. It's also a huge shame that the Moov Sweat HR doesn't carry any of the running dynamics you find in the Moov Now, but you can pair the two devices to create a more powerful run coach, so that's worth keeping in mind if you don't mind running with two devices.
As a real-time running coach the Moov HR Sweat isn't good for much beyond heart rate-based interval sessions but if you need to work on your core, general strength and drop body fat then this could be the cross-training tool you've been looking for.
Silver: Oakley Radar Pace
Oakley's Radar Pace is a voice-activated coaching system – in the form of a pair of classic Oakley sunglasses with detachable in-ear headphones. They provide real-time feedback on your running and claim to improve technique, endurance and strength.
Read this: Best fitness trackers to buy right now
On its own Radar Pace tracks distance, pace, climb, average pace, calories and stride rate (aka cadence) but if you want to unlock extra metrics such as heart rate, you can pair third party Bluetooth or ANT+ sensors. Given that the ear is a great place to track heart rate, failure to offer it feels like a missed opportunity.
What really wowed us about the Radar Pace though was the responsiveness of the voice recognition. Talking to yourself in public initially feels a bit odd but there's a great sense of freedom knowing you can access your performance metrics on demand without fiddling with buttons, raising your wrist or breaking your form.
From the get-go it picked up commands and we absolutely loved the detail in Radar's replies. You can ask Radar anything including: 'Why are hills important?', 'How do you calculate stride rate?' and 'What's my current pace/stride rate/distance?'. Nine times out of ten it gives a satisfactory response, in a way that doesn't feel too robotic.
So what about the coaching? You do get prompts to improve form: 'Stand upright with your shoulders above your hips'; 'Keep your head upright with your eyes on the horizon'; 'Ensure your foot contact is directly under the body, mid-foot, with toes pointed forward.' But the main focus is on 'personalised dynamic coaching'. To me and you that means fully adaptive race training plans for distances from 5km up to a marathon.
There's something really great about being able to pop your shades on, ask Radar 'What am I running today?' and have it tell you what's in your plan. If you miss a run or choose to ignore your scheduled session and go for a freeform run, no problem. Radar Pace's artificially intelligent coach automatically recalibrates your training schedule to compensate.
On paper a pair of AI earphone-sunglasses sounds like it'd never work and while Radar Pace is by no means the complete running coach yet, what it can do was fantastically eye opening. A very capable piece of kit that has the potential to turn people into better runners.
Wareable verdict: Oakley Radar Pace in-depth review
Gold: Lumo Run
While many running wearables focus on how far and how fast you run, Lumo Run concentrates on technique. A clip-on sensor that sits snugly on the waistband of your shorts or tights, Lumo tracks a huge amount of running form data that we previously had no access to – without you even noticing it's there.
Essential reading: How to use your fitness tracker to actually get fit
What really stands out is Lumo Run reveals about your running. The Lumo sets targets for each of the most important form metrics – cadence, bounce, braking, drop and rotation – and then gives you regular performance updates, via your headphones, as you run.
In the main the advice and updates are well timed. If you drop below a target Lumo lets you know and offers some advice on how to improve things. We love that you can customise the frequency of this feedback by metric but this is one area where the Oakley Radar Pace has the edge with its voice control.
But what Lumo lacks in voice control it more than makes up for with its technique tips. It not only coaches you as you run but it also provides frankly unparalleled advice after each run, not only what you need to work on but how to improve. This includes specific training drills, complete with quick videos that demonstrate how they're done.
Each time you fire up Lumo it also recommends the type of run that would benefit you, based on your recent runs, for example, a cadence run where the aim is to hit 180spm or higher. It also gives you a pre-run tip in video form to help you hit the specified target, before going on to coach you in real time as you attempt to do so.
Wareable verdict: Lumo Run in-depth review
If there's a better virtual coach for improving running form we're yet to see one that outperforms the Lumo Run. Be warned though, this Lumo is not your quick fix for a 12-week marathon training plan. If you're looking for a session-by-session schedule to get you across that 26.2 finish line, then you're better off with the Oakley Radar Pace.
But if you want a real-time coach that will make you a more efficient runner come race day, the Lumo makes a brilliant partner to use in tandem with a training plan. We're still fans of the Moov HR Sweat as well and if you're willing to combine with the excellent Now as well, it makes for a more affordable alternative to the Radar Pace. Plus, you get the heart rate tracking that's lacking from Oakley's specs and the Lumo Run.
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