Friday, September 26, 2014

Suunto, Garmin, and Polar, oh my!

Being a bit of a nerd, I'm more data driven when it comes to decisions and time management, and how I sort out my training is no different. Last season I cooked up a spreadsheet that allowed me to 'assign' myself training weeks based on TSS, and track my actual results accordingly. I used the same TSS calculation that Dr. Andrew Coggan uses, as well as my own variant for Run and Swim TSS. The prescribed training load was based on hour segments at 70% of critical power\pace, and I rolled a PMC (Performance Management Chart) that showed actual vs expected. It all worked pretty well, I must say. I used it as I prepared for my first ultra distance (I've lately come to loathe WTC, so I won't use any 'metal' terms for the distance) and found it did an accurate job of representing my fatigue and form, as well as quantifying the gains I made. Sort of a poor man's Training Peaks, really. Well, no, that's exactly what it was. There aren't many features I left out.

I'm preparing for another training season and jumped into the world of data collection devices to see what, if anything, has changed since last year at this time when I last looked. For training, I use a Garmin Forerunner 305, a Swimovate Poolmate, and TrainerRoad. I could also collect data with the Powertap Joule, but it would be redundant to TrainerRoad. My wishlist is simple, really; I want to collect data directly into the spreadsheet automatically. I'm a developer by trade, and have no issues turning the spreadsheet into an application, but the 'collect data directly' bit is something I'm on the hunt for. So what's out there?


Above the 305 I already have, Garmin offer the 310XT and 910XT, as well as the Garmin Swim. The 310XT is effectively the same as the 305 for my purposes - the only thing it offers me I don't already have is the ability to capture power data into Garmin Connect. That isn't worth anything to me - I can import anything I need out of TrainerRoad and into either CycleOps' PowerAgent or Golden Cheetah if I need to get medieval on any data. The 910XT is interesting to me, but really only for two features; one is major, and that's the swim capability. It does everything the Swim does, as well as the second, open water swim tracking. However, if I'm perfectly honest I don't care that much about the open water swim metrics, because I don't\won't wear a watch in the water on race day. Period. I'm not going to look at it while I'm swimming, and my splits are whatever the results say they are. So to that end, I can continue using the 305 for tracking open water swims just fine (Ray at perfectly explains this here, so I won't repeat any of it). Since I'm already being perfectly honest, that means the only thing I'm really looking at the 910XT for is what the Garmin Swim does. Compare the Swim ($149 MSRP) vs the 910XT ($399 MSRP) and it isn't even close.

From a data perspective though, things here are good, but not great. The Garmin Connect site on its own is great, but in order to get my own data off the site, I have to either
1) export it, then import to my spreadsheet\app
2) sync it to Strava, then connect to Strava's api to get it
3) pay $5000 to get an api from Garmin to do it all in one fell swoop.

I've had a poke at Strava, and while it's a stop on the highway that I want to exist between my application and Garmin Connect, it will work. Garmin now offers automatic synchronization with Strava whenever you sync a new activity, or if you create a manual activity (like a swim if I don't have a Garmin Swim, or weights, etc), you can use to sync everything. I consider that a solution. One way or another I'll have to upload my  tcx files to *something*, so if it's Strava or Garmin Connect (or both in this case), it's fine to me.

Suunto's main offerings aimed at me are the Ambit2, 2s, and 3. The 3 is not compatible with Ant+, which is what almost all power meters, heart rate monitors, foot pods, etc communicate on. To me, this was a ludicrous choice, but one they made regardless. At that price, I'm not interested in going Bluetooth, but I would be at a lower price. For now, that leaves the 2 and 2s. The 2s only has one strike against it - battery life of 7 hours on 1 second GPS collection. To me, that's not a dealbreaker. If I ever do an ultra distance, I won't race on the bike with the watch regardless - you simply can't comfortably or safely monitor the watch while riding in aero. So I'll continue to use my Joule, meaning unless I run a 7 hour marathon, I really don't care. The 2s also has a slightly smaller profile, which appeals to me.

Again from a data perspective, we're not great. Actually, we're not even good. After poking around on Movesconnect (Suunto's answer to Garmin Connect):
1) Exporting data doesn't appear to work for manual entries
2) sync to Strava only works for synchronized activities, and even then only for GPS activities *
3) I have had no response on usage of their api.  I was told I can't use the api. Bummer.
4) I discovered the only way to import tcx files that don't come from Garmin (like TrainerRoad!) is to import them to Garmin and then use some flimsy third party tool to import to Movescount.

* This matters to me because I swim in a pool for 7-8 months of the year. If I can't get that data, it's useless.

IF I hear from Suunto that I can use their API, this gets categorized to great, because I won't have to deal with Strava, which would be a pit stop tool.  If I don't hear from them, then this is a deal breaker, because I wouldn't be able to get my data for any of my swims.  The site doesn't export or import reliably, and that's the entire point for me - access to data. For my development purposes, data is the entire point,  and I need to be able to get it out. It's a shame, because I think the Suunto watch looks great, has great reviews for what it does, and could have been a solution. I think the Ambit 2S hangs directly with the 910xt on nearly every count, and trades punches on the things it doesn't.


Oh, how I'd hoped this was something I could love. But between being another BlueTooth only device and having less than Garmin-quality satellite reception (I didn't think you could get worse....) this one is a non starter. Oh, and they haven't even enabled power meters or open water swim data collection yet. Really? Stunning. Also, Polar's web site is an absolute toy.

The 910XT and Swim from Garmin really look like the  best options for me. I don't need either the bike features for the 910XT nor the run stuff, I have better solutions there, and the only thing it offers me is having them all in one place. With a lighter wallet, no less. So it's the Garmin Swim. *Update* Since I first wrote this the 920XT is official, and officially $500. Yikes. There are a lot of things in it, and it has a great slim form factor, but it's wicked expensive to replace what I have. If anything, it validates the Swim purchase. I also think it's interesting that the 920 'introduces' third party apps, although Suunto has had these for years. I still wish I could get at that data!!! The 305 I have is now 3 years old and still works flawlessly, even if it takes a couple minutes to find a satellite. It IS after all, a training tool, though. I can afford to wait. The data from race day is to me, the least important data of all. It's a recital, not an audition. The decisions one makes on race day shouldn't be data driven. The data can't make or break you, it's too late. You know what to do, you do your best, you go home.

It looks like I subsidize my purchase with the sale of the Poolmate on eBay, so I can ultimately get one for around $80 of new cash all said and done. I'd love to see Garmin open their API up to individuals over time, but considering they JUST closed it, I can't see that happening. Maybe they will acquiesce, though, who knows. That they are now open to Strava is a positive, however. ConnectStats was\is an application that was set down this route, but wasn't planning on data warehousing as I was, so they were more reliant on Strava as a store, which I couldn't care about.

I'll continue developing the application as a web app, and if it gets snappy I'll consider publishing it as an iPhone app. The only issue then would be going head to head with TrainingPeaks, but I'm nowhere near that point yet.