Smart wearables: Athletes′ not-so-secret helpers | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 02.01.2020
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Smart wearables: Athletes' not-so-secret helpers

Wearable smart technology was a big Christmas seller: swimming goggles that measure strokes, sensor-equipped jerseys, and the latest sports watches. But how useful are such gadgets to amateur and professional athletes?

My first impression of the smart swimming goggles I’m trying out is spectacular. I glide through the pool feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, like a robot from the future. A display that’s barely visible from outside of the goggles projects my training data onto the lenses, showing my swimming time, the duration of my breaks, the number of strokes and heart rate.

These goggles are a prime example of smart technology, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated. There's even a product designed for yoga: the vibrating tights are designed to suggest which moves to make and even correct mistakes. My smartwatch provides me with data that just a few years ago could only be measured in the laboratory — ground contact time measured in milliseconds or the algorithmically-determined value of maximum oxygen intake. But what is an amateur triathlete like me meant to do with this data? 

The sober view of a champion

"There are a lot of frills available, especially in the triathlon scene," Jan Frodeno, three-time Ironman world champion, told DW with a smile. But in his next sentence he played down the importance of wearable technology.

"We very much stick with the basics," he said. "We look at pulse, running speed and the wattage values on the bike. All of the other values are fine, but not terribly important. We work on the basis of this data, which allows us to assess things quite well."

The "we" refers to Frodeno and his coach, Dan Lorang. He also trains women's Ironman world champion Anne Haug and professional cyclist Emmanuel Buchmann, and is regarded as one of Germany's top endurance sports coaches.

"Without wearables, my job, the way I do it, wouldn't be possible at all," Lorang said, before explaining that because he sees Frodeno only a few days a year, he provides most of his coaching support based on the data provided by the smart technology the triathlete wears.

Does smart technology actually improve training?

"Across the board, the quality of the measurements is good," confirmed Dr. Christoph Zinner of the German Sport University Cologne. The coach and sports scientist has been working extensively with the training computers for some time now.

USA Ironman 2019 | Jan Frodeno (Getty Images/M. Wolfson)

In October, 2019 Jan Frodeno won the Ironman World Championship for a third time

The better the quality of the data, the better the quality of the training," he noted.

Even more important, though, is how athletes and their coaches interpret the data. Like Lorang and Frodeno, Zinner confirmed that despite the access to all this data, little has actually changed in terms of the training itself.

This begs the question as to whether a human coach is even needed to monitor one's training. Still, these days, there are plenty of coaching companies on the market that claim to offer amateur athletes targeted individual support through artificial intelligence.

Zinner, though, advises against using such services: "Simply because no one parameter exists that can show whether a training session was effective or not so effective, or whether the athlete has been overdoing it in training, or has just picked up an infection."

Not surprisingly, though, smart technology is developing rapidly in this particular field. Zinner believes that improvements in blood-pressure measurement and in measuring the level of oxygen saturation in an athlete's body to could lead to a breakthrough.

"This could narrow the gap that still exists in the field of strength training," the scientist explained. In contrast to the endurance side of things, hardly any serious data is currently being collected regarding strength training.

Short-term motivation

One thing I have noticed while testing these wearable devices is how fascinating it is to receive the data on my performance instantly. Dr. Zinner, the sports scientist, confirmed that this is a positive effect of the wearables.

"They increase the motivation to get active, to start training in a serious way. But our studies also show that this effect does not last long," he said.

So for me and every other amateur athlete, the following still applies: There's no escaping the fact that in the long run it's still down to us motivate ourselves to get off the couch. But how does a world champion like Frodeno go about motivating himself?

"After 20 years in competitive sport, I simply know that it all comes down to day-to-day performance," he said.

Towards the end of my swim, I also learned that smart technology can lead to new, mundane problems. Absorbed by the display in my googles, I swam head-on into an elderly lady in the pool. Certainly not very smart! 

For this article, the reporter tested a pair of swimming goggles from FORM, as well as the latest training computers from Suunto, Garmin, Polar and other manufacturers.

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