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How to pick the right fitness device for runners

How to pick the right fitness device for runners

These days everyone has a fitness gadget. We'll help you select the right one for your workout.

You want to get in better shape, and there are certainly enough electronic gadgets available that aim to help you get the job done. But that's not necessarily a good thing. The dizzying array of options catering to different budgets, objectives, or personal preferences can stop you in the tracks, even when picking out a seemingly simple device.

We're here to help, breaking down the tech tools that work best for your workout, based on your activities, goals, and overall fitness style. In our five-part series, we'll look at devices aimed at gym members, cyclists, swimmers, and outdoor enthusiasts. But we'll start things off, talking about devices aimed at runners.

Running may be the purest of sports, requiring little more than some supportive footwear, but that doesn't mean you can't improve your training or help the miles roll by with a little technological assistance.

The best options

GPS watch:  This type of watch can meet all your training needs in a nice, tidy package--and it's easy to read when running in bright sunlight or at night. Pick one that synchronizes with your computer for workout tracking, and has at least eight hours of battery life; that way, you won't have to charge it every day. Look for one that also supports guided or structured workouts so you can run intervals without a per-measured course. And it's worth getting one that also supports external sensors, in case you opt to include additional fitness gadgets to your workout in the future.

The Garmin Forerunner 610, Suunto Ambit, Timex Ironman Run Trainer 2, and Polar RC3 are all great choices. (Cyclists or triathletes should look at the Garmin Forerunner 910XT or Magellan Switch Up).

Heart rate monitor:  This device can enhance your training and keep you in the right zone. Most heart rate monitors are worn on chest straps that can connect wirelessly to your watch and measure your heart rate with electricity (like an EKG); however, some emerging models use light to sense blood flow changes (similar to a pulse oximeter). Training with a heart rate monitor is a proven method to maximize your workout efficiency. It allows you to precisely measure your work effort, and forces you to work hard when you need to push and slow down when you should recover.

When selecting a heart rate monitor, pick one that matches the wireless technology used by your GPS watch (or phone). Older uncoded straps (which lack a code to pair to your watch) should work with the treadmills in your gym, but they don't have much redeeming value as they won't sync to a watch or phone. ANT+ is the wireless technology supported by Garmin, Timex, Suunto, and many other manufacturers; it's the best choice, unless you are connecting your heart rate monitor to your phone. Bluetooth LE is a newer standard and less likely to be supported by watches, but it's able to connect to the iPhone 4S and 5 and some newer Android phones. Polar monitors will only work with Polar watches.

Do you find chest straps constricting? Not to worry: The Mio Alpha is a promising wrist-based option for athletes.

Foot pod:   This small, lightweight device typically clips onto shoe laces and tracks workouts when you are stuck on a treadmill, or lose your GPS signal when doing fartlek intervals in a canyon. It uses a small accelerometer to precisely measure your stride directly at your foot, producing more accurate measurements than you'd get from a pedometer on your waist. Foot pods wirelessly stream data to your GPS device, which records the activity.

Even if you already have GPS on another device, the foot pod counts cadence and will keep your speed and distance if you lose the GPS signal--often automatically. Once calibrated for your shoe placement and stride, foot pods are impressively accurate. Make sure you calibrate a foot pod on a known distance; newer watches will let you calibrate it off the GPS. Like a heart rate monitor, you'll need to select one compatible with your watch--usually ANT+ or Polar. No Bluetooth versions are available yet, but they should appear soon.

Running websites: Sign up for a running website to track all the data you gather, build workouts, and find new routes. Analyzing your data can really help you improve your training, and many runners find it motivating to review, or even share, workouts and races. Garmin, Suunto, and Polar each offer their own service free with their respective devices. If you don't want to be locked into one device manufacturer, Training Peaks is the site most pros use, but you'll still need your manufacturer's site to import workouts and routes that you've downloaded from Training Peaks.

Good additions

If buying a stand-alone device just isn't in the budget, your smartphone can come handy. It has nearly all the capabilities of a GPS watch--once you load up the right app. What's more your smartphone can double as an MP3 player, providing a soundtrack to your workout, and many phones can automatically upload workouts or allow family members to track your race while sitting at home (as long as you have an Internet connection). That said, a phone is larger and often harder to read during a run than a dedicated workout device, and precision GPS tracking can drain the battery.

Great apps for runners include: Runmeter Pro (iOS) that has almost every feature you can dream of; Wahoo Fitness (iOS); Endomondo (Android); Runtastic and RunKeeper (iOS/Android), which are very popular, but require (free) subscriptions. Runtastic lacks a pedometer feature but is an ideal app for long-distance runners (especially those who already own a pedometer), while RunKeeper can integrate data with over 70 other apps and services. Fun bonus offering: Zombies, Run! (iOS/Android) turns your run into a zombie-filled adventure as it overlays apocalypse survival missions on your workout playlist.

Things to avoid

If you are even a moderately serious runner, avoid any non-GPS or pedometer-based training device. Unless you only work out indoors, they provide less data, and pedometers alone aren't accurate or reliable enough.

Don't try to use a fitness tracker like the FitBit or Jawbone Up to replace a GPS watch. They do track movement, but they don't provide any feedback during your workout.

Also avoid, running watches with an external GPS pod. You'll never remember to keep both of them charged and stored in the same place.

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