When Lauren Van Ham was a little girl, she couldn't have imagined her “chubby ballerina” self transformed into a hard-core road cyclist any more than she could have conceived of the gadgets she used to get there.
For the Berkeley, Calif. interfaith minister, who got into cycling in the mid-2000s, it started with the Polar heart-rate monitor, which tracks miles. That led to a Garmin, which delivers information on cadence, miles per hour, heart rate and more. When she shaved an hour off her time doing the Davis Double Century — a one-day, 200-mile endeavor — she knew that they, combined with spin classes and a data-based training program she received at the Endurance Performance Training Center in Mill Valley, Calif., were working.
Monitoring her heart rates, for instance, helped her realize her potential.
“I began to see that my body, when asked, was not only capable, but actually really wanted to deliver more,” she says. “So even if my head is saying I don't know if I can do it, the numbers say you bloody well can and just pull it out and make it happen.”
Van Ham is hardly alone in embracing gadgets to refine her performance. Just look around the gym. Everyone seems to be plugged in, whether it's listening to music or wearing heart-rate monitors. We're a nation obsessed and hot-wired to our electronics and software. But how well they work is not always a matter of hard science. And whether they change your workout for better or for worse is very much up to each individual and what they aim to get out of the experience.
In that crucial element of getting us motivated, gadgets are a useful tool, says Brett Klika, the 2013 IDEA Health and Fitness Association's personal trainer of the year.
“Our problem is that people are dying lying there on the couch, so if (someone) finds an exercise gimmick that gets them moving, it's hard to say it's bad, as long as it's not injurious,” says Klika, who is the director of athletic performance at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego.
David Epstein, author of the best-selling book, “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” agrees.
“The best result from a gadget is if it motivates someone by keeping track of things so that they get intensity on a more regular basis,” he says. “I used to use a training diary for that, but some of the GPS devices or movement-tracking devices can send similar information right to an e-training diary, making it easier to keep track.”
But don't expect across-the-board accuracy out of all exercise gadgets, Klika says. Consider those popular calorie-counting bracelets, which can provide estimates but not exact numbers.
“If you look at research, the accuracy isn't quite there for most consumer exercise gizmos,” Klika says. “But even if it's not entirely accurate: Whatever it takes. If it gets people moving, it's hard to say it's a bad thing.”
Still, gadgets can only do so much, says Epstein.
“They're quite good at measuring what they are meant to measure — your heart rate, say — but as far as any particular easily available gadget measuring your performance, well, the best gadget to measure how fast you are is a stopwatch, and how high you jump is a ruler.”
Sticking to the basics is an approach that works for Team in Training triathlete Elise Chan. She works out electronics-free and doesn't even own an iPod. She says apart from having a watch, she doesn't need gadgets to tell her how she's doing.“I think I'm just not that high-tech,” the 47-year-old Oakland, Calif. resident says. “I used to run cross country in high school, and I've been doing this all these years. I'd rather focus more on my form or my pace or what have you. I think intuitively I know whether I'm doing well or if I'm doing poorly.”
There's also a potential downside to being plugged in, even if it's just listening to music, while exercising, Klika says.
“Our sympathetic nervous system is always stimulated,” he says. “That constant stimulation can interfere with a lot of physiological processes in line with good health and fitness. Electronic gadgets are a big reason behind this overstimulation. While electronic gadgets and gizmos can do a lot to get people up and moving, it's important to remember that exercise has an important function as a mental release as well. Relying on electronics for exercise sort of misses the big picture.”
Regardless, consumers are hungry for data collecting, and fitness companies eagerly feed into that. In October, Nike unveiled an updated, buzzed-about version of its Nike+ FuelBand SE, which tracks daily movements and fuel expenditures. Naturally, there's an app for it.
While new items thrive and software is just a few clicks away, sales figures for the fitness industry staples are also witnessing an upsurge. Between 2010 to 2012, the purchase of heart rate monitors leapt by 20 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
But it's not just hard-core exercisers who can benefit from tracking devices, says competitive road cyclist, personal trainer and coach Marissa Axell of El Cerrito, Calif.
“Gadgets such as heart rate monitors or bike computers are valuable tools to teach a beginner athlete how to train,” she says. “After initial testing, I set up training zones, and the athlete will then complete a workout paying attention to their prescribed zone, eventually learning to perform at each different intensity.”
Overall, Axell says, training with technology has revolutionized endurance sports.
“It allows the athlete and coach to monitor the athlete's performance on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
Axell rides with a power-based cycling computer when in training; it tracks her work in watts, which indicate her direct energy expenditure. It also charts elevation, speed, rpm. and other data points.
Once the racing season draws to an end, she enjoys ditching the numbers and hopping on the bike for a joy ride. She finds it keeps that mental freshness. “And part of that is to take away the data and have fun.”
Marathoner Pete Gang of Petaluma, Calif. runs now without a heart-rate monitor. He ditched it after it died on him during a marathon and never went back.
The 56-year-old architect shrugs off gadgets for various reasons, including how running takes on a meditative practice of sorts for him. Being unplugged allows him to be fully engaged in the experience.
“I really try to embrace simplicity, try to strip things down to the essentials,” he says, regarding not only his exercise routine but his lifestyle.
Van Ham embraces that philosophy as well, and during big rides, she mostly goes unplugged.
“Checking out the numbers pulls me out of the experience and back into a place of self-critique.”