Running may well be a fantastic way to get fit, shape up and de-stress, but it can be intimidating for the novice; those shuffling, sweating hardcore runners you pass on the road in the early morning hours or on a miserable winter night have a level of commitment that's likely to terrify the potential round-the-block jogger.
The good news for the reluctant runner is that we now have non-judgemental support and encouragement in the form of Nike+ for the iPod touch. The system acts as a knowledgeable, always-there trainer, ready to guide you in anything from a shuffle around the local park to the London Marathon, if you're willing to shell out for the Nike+ Sport Kit.
I've tried the Nike+ system before, but now that the new iPod touch has the receiver built in, I thought it was time to take it out for another run.
Would the bulkiness of the iPod touch cancel out the loss of the tiny receiver? Would the innovative Multi-Touch display revolutionise the Nike+ experience? Would my quest for physical perfection ultimately be brought down by Mr Whippy? I decided to spend a month training with Nike+ and my iPod touch to find out.
I'm slightly worried about this running lark, and the track gear I've purchased is triggering flashbacks to high school PE lessons. Thankfully I've acquired a pair of Nike+ running shoes that are far cooler than anything I owned as a teenager. The Air Equalon +3s are a recent addition to the range and boast an array of features I never knew I needed: arch support straps, reflective piping and, interestingly, an outwardangled heel to counteract the wonky, tipping gait of the habitual jogger. I'm not sure if I actually have a tipping gait, but I'm glad Nike has got my podiatric interests at heart. It's surprisingly easy to fit the sensor from the Nike + Sport Kit. Ready to use straight from the box, the sensor slips into a nook under the inner sole and will live there happily for the length of its battery life – a thousand hours of active workout time, according to Nike – and because the new iPod touch has the receiver built in, that's all I have to do. My newly-synced touch is revved up and ready to go, demanding that I 'walk around to activate the sensor' and making me scroll through a depressingly long list of body weights to enter my current heft. I head out for my first lap around the block, which I'll draw a journalistic veil over in order to spare your mind's eye.
My first few runs have been distracted affairs, mainly occupied with exploring the system and despairing at my weak calf muscles. The Nike+ gear is easy to use, which is good news for the techno-tentative. The easiest option for newbies is to select the Basic workout, in which you simply pick a playlist and start running. The female voice I've chosen is certainly friendlier and more encouraging than scary old Mr Marshall, although I find myself carrying the touch in my hand as I run in order to check the screen displaying my time, pace and distance. Today I try a calorie-burning workout, with the touch prompting me to select the calories I'd like to burn during my run. I choose 100, slightly more than a Marks & Spencer Operetta chocolate. The spoken prompts really come into their own in this mode, with the silky voice piping up to inform me when I'm halfway to my target, and again when I'm within ten calories of it. I'm perturbed to find that I have to run over half a kilometre to burn off 100 calories; no more Operettas for me, then.
I sync my first week's runs at http://nikeplus.com and am geekily delighted to see my progress charted in a myriad of stats and graphs. Suddenly the paltry minute I've been shaving off each run looks like proper progress, and I'm able to identify the point in my run at which I slow down and lose pace (actually, I already know this; it's at the entrance to a local construction site, where I tiptoe past quietly to avoid builderly musings on my backside). I use the maps function to identify some new routes, although these can't yet be uploaded to the touch. It would be great to see some information on contours, too, in order to find some level running in hilly Bath.
Two weeks in, and I'm loving the Nike+ experience. Finding the touch a little large to carry on long runs, I've ordered a sports band from Belkin, reassured that I'll still be able to get progress feedback by pressing the home button at any time during my run. The band is soft and slimline – much nicer than some of the plasticky offerings I've seen – but the touch still feels huge on my arm, and I'm very conscious of it as I run. It's certainly not as discreet as the nano, and doesn't fit comfortably under my sleeve. If I wasn't running in a relatively busy and safe area, I'm not sure I'd want to be wearing such a flashy bit of kit so openly. As if to confirm my feeling that the touch is highly conspicuous, kids from the local school comment on it as I pass them on the opposite side of the road. "Sweet, is that an iPhone?" a spotty youth bellows amiably. "Please don't mug me," I think, and run away.
My competitive streak is getting the better of me, and I feel cocky enough to set myself some goals and resolutions online. The Nike+ site is all about the goals; none of your 'it's the taking part that counts' platitudes here. My new-found confidence takes a hit when I find the list of suggested goals include such gems as 'Run five runs under an average pace of 7:35' (the numbers refer to minutes and seconds per mile) while I've been averaging 10:59 and considering myself a veritable Paula Radcliffe. It's easy to alter the goals, of course, and there's something concrete about seeing your target up there in pretty red type, deliberately tricky to reset or edit. There are challenges available too, where you can compete with other Nike+ users to see who has the fastest mile or who can complete the most miles over a set time period, and you can download beta widgets for OS X 10.4 and later to monitor all this on your Dashboard. It all seems a bit hardcore for the novice, though, and I'm too intimidated to look for other runners who might want to join my 'get to the end of the road without hailing a cab' challenge. Besides, I'm running in Bath and like I said, it's hilly!
I'd been wondering about getting new headphones to replace the notoriously rubbish white earbuds that come with all iPods, being particularly concerned that they might fall out during strenuous bouts of running. As it turns out, the earbuds haven't fallen out once and I've found that their failure to block out external noise is actually a useful thing when running along busy roads; it's always best to know when a juggernaut is bearing down on you, reflective piping or no reflective piping.
I've discovered the online coaching and have signed up for the 'Walk to Run' programme. It maps out a diary of timed walking goals several times a week, gradually introducing and increasing short running intervals until, theoretically, I should be able to run for 25 minutes at a time. It looks great, but I'm confused about how to get it to sync with my touch, or if it's even meant to. Most of the Nike+ forum members I talk to are similarly confused and suggest instead that I download one of the running podcasts for free on iTunes. The popular Podrunner: Intervals sounds good, but I find the music too techno-dancey for my liking. Further investigation throws up The JogTunes Indie Podcast, in which the avuncular Dr Bob guides the listener through a workout that matches the beats-per-minute of the indie-pop tunes.
My month is over, and I'm surprised to find that not only have I enjoyed it, but I'm happy to keep running. Other than aching thighs during the first week, I've had no leg or joint pain thanks to my super-ergonomic Equalon +3s. Nike+ is easy to use with the iPod touch, and while the system is aggressively marketed toward the experienced runner, it's a great motivator and incentive for reluctant beginners like me. While the screen on the touch gives fantastic, clear readouts during workouts, I may be tempted to go back to my old nano in future, simply because it's lighter and more discreet to wear. But it's a small gripe for a fantastic device that banishes memories of gym knickers and stopwatches. Just do it!
First published in MacFormat, Issue 203
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