If you're a runner (like me), I think it's a pretty exciting time for running-focused wearables right now. On the one hand you've got Garmin, Polar and Suunto dishing out some quite brilliant running watches and on the other, we now have devices you can wear that will coach you to be a better runner.
When it comes to what actually works, I'm talking about the wearables that are actually analysing form and dishing out metrics to tell me there and then what I'm getting right and mostly wrong. The whole concept of it still blows my mind, but it's here and I don't think it will be too long before Garmin and co dabble in real-time coaching too if they're not exploring it already.
My first experience jumping onto a treadmill with a Moov Now strapped around my ankle feels like a long time ago now but that experience will always stay with me. I remember what it felt like at that moment when Moov's coach suggested I took the training difficulty down a notch because I was struggling. But I also remember that moment when I was determined to complete that level difficulty and the feeling was great. More importantly, I felt like my running was improving as a result of using the Moov Now and that's really the key. Not to wear you down, but to build you up. That requires a really personal touch and that is the biggest challenge that's faced when trying to replace a real coach with a virtual one.
Since then I've spent a lot of time getting to know the first group of real-time coaching wearables. Like Intel's Oakley Radar Pace hearable, the Lumo Run, which is already a firm fave, and more recently, the LifeBEAM Vi headphones, which I've really been looking forward to try out. So I've been able to get a good feel of what's currently on offer. Some have been more successful than others at delivering on their promise to make improvements, but it's also given me time to offer some advice to any company that's thinking about making a wearable coach. The most useful nugget I can take from my experience with them is that less is definitely more. Also, speaking to wearables is still weird so if you could limit that as well that would be great.
But I wanted to focus on the less is more critique because I think that's really the most important thing here to address. This is largely based around my most recent experience with the LifeBEAM headphones. Unlike the others I've tried out, Vi, the AI-powered coach wants to talk to you. A lot. The frequency of the interactions can be reduced, which is great, but it's a combination of the amount of time Vi wants to have a natter along with the perky, upbeat tone as well. It can quickly grate, something that our US editor Hugh referenced in his review as well. I've got absolutely no problem with a coach that likes to crank up the positivity to the max every now and then, and I should also say that some of the coaching on offer is actually really good. But I responded much better to the Moov and Lumo's more infrequent approach. This can feel quite nagging and demoralising at first, but ultimately had the required effect.
It reminds me of the chat I had with Boltt, an Indian startup who are preparing to launch a suite of connected fitness devices, which does also include an AI-powered coach.
"To create this coach there was a lot of knowledge we had to gain", Boltt CEO Arnav Kishore told us. "We went to coaches, teachers, mentors to gain that knowledge on how to impart that coaching. The problem with AI, is that if you treat it like an AI, it will not work for long. We are trying to give a birth to a personality that doesn't feel like AI."
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Now I totally get the whole personality thing. Who doesn't want an interaction with a coach that creates that sense that it really knows you and your strengths and weaknesses? As much as AI will shape this coaching experience, I feel like there needs to still be a framework, one that is shaped by your data first and foremost but also about what it means to be a coach. In my head a coach is about motivating, but it's also about pushing you out of a comfort zone that's easier to neglect when running on your own. I'm not sure a bubbly, happy virtual coach is going to have that desired impact. That fun, welcome approach might work for some, but for most, these real-time running coaches need to be built to never lose sight of what they are trying to achieve.
I'm not looking for a running buddy, I'm looking for something that come to my next training session or race has really left that coaching fully engrained. That's something I can certainly say about the Lumo Run and the Moov Now and I hope I'll be saying that about more real-time coaching wearables in the future.