Can Fitness Apps Do What They Claim? Part 1

A meditation on the wired mortal

Runner on mountain trail looking at smartwatch or sport watch, checking gps navigation position map or heart rate pulse trace, using heart monitor equipment. Sport and fitness outdoors in nature.

I’ve been working on a thesis about how athletes are using performance apps like Strava, Training Peaks, and the hundreds of others out there and recently I’ve been trying to nail down a good research question or two. So, I put together a list of over 30 questions that I have about their sudden ubiquity. In this series of posts I am answering some of the questions I have about what the marketers claim about their products.  (I use Training Peaks exclusively).

A lot of these new apps have been billing themselves as “social fitness”. Consider Strava where other cyclists who follow you can give you “kudos” when they want to congratulate or encourage you. I am more interested in following my own personal achievement than I am in using an app that allows me to “place myself in a larger network of sports partners that challenge and support one another’s efforts”. In short, I don’t get much out of the kudos function on Strava. I don’t even find it as uplifting as a “like” on Facebook. In fact, I don’t post any of my workouts on a social network and prefer to keep that information private. I see it as similar to posting that I had a shower and feel better now. Who cares? I need a shower everyday. I need a workout everyday. But I don’t think that everyone of my friends needs to know about it. I find the social part of it to be a waste of time. That’s not to say that millennials (18-34) won’t be into it.

“Do these apps make fitness social, simple and rewarding?” Again I don’t really seek out online relationships through fitness apps. I can see how using these apps to organize group rides or runs or hikes or whatever could definitely be useful. I read books and blog posts from other professionals with more experience than me.  I might get training tips, diet and exercise prescriptions and stuff like that. If I really like what the author is saying I might follow them on Twitter or search their blog for something specific and relevant to me but it remains a very one-way and asynchronous relationship.

As for simple, fitness has always been (in my mind) a matter of calories burned versus calories consumed. But, I’m not a world class athlete competing in sports where seconds or fraction of a second count. I’m a dad trying to lead my kids. Yes, the apps are simple to use but it’s also very easy to get caught up in the data. Another point against simplicity is that most of the devices used to capture the data are very expensive, sometimes prohibitively so.  My guess is, however, and I need to interview more coaches but I think these apps can simplify and streamline the coach/athlete relationship.

Finally, the marketers of these apps ask if using their product is rewarding. Again, I only use one training app. It’s a no nonsense powerful training tool in the hands of any athlete if and this is a big if, you consistently use it. Training Peaks allows me to quantify what I already feel with metrics such as Chronic and Acute Training loads and the Training Stress Score (TSS), based on my heart rate measurements for a given workout. It sounds difficult but it’s not. For example, I can push it really hard one week and feel exhausted afterward. I open up Training Peaks and look at my TSS and think “Wow!” That was big!” Then in a few weeks I do a week that equals the previous week in TSS points but I feel great. I’ve gotten stronger. It’s rewarding to me to be able to put a number to it and see my fitness graph move up the y-axis.


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