Project Description

Running Goes High-Tech with Nike+
Sure, technology can be frustrating. Remotes have too many buttons, cellphones drop your calls, and GPS units promise there really is an IKEA at the end of this abandoned lot. But isn’t it refreshing when technology is as simple as it’s supposed to be? When a device comes along that makes life a little easier, or just plain more fun, it’s hard to imagine going back to life without it.

This has been my experience with the Nike+ running system. Traditionally, there is nothing high-tech about running. Humans have been running around and chasing down food since our hunting-and-gathering days, right? Even I, a runner and editor at a technology magazine, saw this sport as rather rudimentary—requiring only two (shoed) feet, some coordination, and an open road.

But I was wrong. Six months—and more than 200 miles—after Nike sent me its system to test, it’s safe to say the technology has transformed the way I participate in this sport. I’ll never go back to “low-tech” running, and here’s why.

From Box to Beaten Path
For this test I was set up with the Nike+ SportBand kit, which consists of a shoe sensor and an adjustable wristband. The sensor, which tucks neatly under your left insole when wearing a pair of compatible kicks, is basically an accelerometer capable of tracking your steps and strides. The SportBand has a display piece (called the Link) that can be disconnected and plugged directly into your computer’s USB port when you’re ready to upload run data.

With a whopping two buttons, the SportBand is simple to use. The round button on the front of the Link is the start/stop button. Hold it down for three seconds to establish a connection (Nike suggests you walk while doing this), then press the same button once to start the session. Next, run. Pressing the start/stop button once more will pause the session; holding it for three seconds will end the session. The second button can be found on the side of the Link. This toggle button will cycle through the feedback Nike+ is able to capture from your workout, including time, distance, speed, and calories burned.

As soon as you begin running or walking more than 2.5 mph, the shoe sensor will turn on automatically. It’s then ready to begin communicating with the SportBand around your wrist. At this point you can set it, forget it, and analyze later online, or you can monitor your stats in realtime. Each sensor has a unique ID, so you don’t have to worry about picking up other Nike+ runners’ info.

If you’re concerned about the initial setup, don’t be. A handy booklet uses pictures to walk you through the process. The booklet first prompts you to visit to install the Nike+ Connect Installer. From there, each time you plug the Link into your computer the program will automatically open, upload new data, and launch the Nike+ Web portal for further run analysis.

After your Link is plugged in for an initial charge, you’ll be taken through the system logistics: how to set up a profile, how to personalize the settings on your Link, etc. Nike also suggests you calibrate the sensor to your particular stride to achieve the best results.

Perks and Peeves
The system’s biggest perk is its ability to track distance in realtime. Now I can change up my outdoor route on the fly, instead of “three times around this loop” just because it’s a known distance.

The Link knows how fast you’re going by communicating directly with the sensor in your shoe. For runners training for speed, this means no more guesstimating after the fact. If you’re in the business of counting calories, the Link can display just how many Jujubes you’ve burned off. The less math in my life, the better.

I’ve found the Nike+ system to be pretty accurate. After double-checking the distance my shoe sensor captured against various ‘map my run’-type applications, the difference is negligible. Interestingly, though, in the 5k and 15k races I ran during the six-month test period, the device captured 6.5 km and 17.8 km, respectively. Either my calibration isn’t quite accurate for my race pace, or the crowded courses required a lot of weaving in and out of other runners.

Battery life and durability are both perks in my book. I run three to five times a week, and tend to lose charge on my iPod well before my SportBand’s battery runs low. Since the Link charges each time it’s plugged into a computer to upload data, it’s not a hassle. And while I haven’t quite put the device “through the ringer,” it has performed well through rain, sleet, and snow.

The device’s low pricepoint is a bonus too, but the compatible-shoe requirement may be a ‘peeve’ for some. The Nike+ SportBand kit costs $59, and when it comes time to replace the shoe sensor it’ll only set you back $19. Nike says the sensor should last through 1,000 hours of operation. Nike+-compatible shoes are recommended, but there are ways to get around it. Another potential ‘peeve’ is that sensors cannot accurately track both outdoor runs on pavement and indoor runs on a treadmill. If you’re like me and you run both, you’ll need two sensors—one calibrated for each.

If you’d like to be able to track exactly where you run, not just how fast or how far, this is not the system for you. For this extra functionality, Nike offers a Nike+ SportWatch GPS, powered by TomTom, as well as a Nike+ GPS app ($1.99 for iPhone users). Other accessories include the Polar Wearlink+ Transmitter, a heartrate-monitoring strap that can track your beats per minute during a run. A similar Nike+ iPod Sport kit sells for $29 and uses a compatible iPod or iPhone as an output device in place of the SportBand.

Stats and Motivation
The Nike+ online community lets you create a profile, add friends, compete in challenges, find new routes, and of course, analyze your workouts. This is great for tracking your stats over time, including total accumulated distance, furthest treks, and fastest splits.

Uploaded run data is plotted on a main graph that displays workouts by week, month, or year. To break down a particular run, just click on it. When I select one of my recent outdoor runs, I can see the point at which I was going the fastest, when I slowed down to maneuver around a giant puddle, and when I stopped to take a swig of water. You’ll also like the positive reinforcement videos. When I ran my fastest kilometer, for instance, Sanya Richards popped up to congratulate me. I tried not to let this go to my head … even if she is the fastest woman in the world.

With a little motivation from Sanya and Nike+, I have run farther and faster than I ever had before. As far as connected-fitness devices go, this is a relatively simple one. But if you’re looking for results without tons of bells and whistles, Nike+ is the way to go.