Free running is all very well, but we’ve all got different goals and circumstances. Some run to lose weight, others to boost their aerobic fitness, while speed is the top priority of the more experienced.
Either way, there are gadgets that can help you get through the run – from tiny MP3 players, wireless headphones and the latest in running-centric trainers, armbands and backpacks – to those that help you monitor your progress. Think activity trackers, GPS watches and heart rate monitors.
Don’t load yourself necessarily with gadgetry, but instead choose wisely and concentrate on that one product that will motivate you, and keep you on track to achieve your goals. Here are some of the best running gadgets around, that you might like to buy.
1. Griffin Adidas miCoach Armband for iPhone 5 & iPod touch – £20/US$ 30 (around AU$ 33)
Echewing GPS watches and activity tracker armbands for a free app such as RunKeeper, Endomondo Sports Tracker or MapMyRun is fine, but where will you put your phone? A downright awkward gadget to carry while on a trail, Griffin has come up with a simple armband that keeps a smartphone dry and out of the way.
An ultra-lightweight nylon band that easily adjusts in diameter, its moisture wicking claims are less impressive than its ability to stay in place. Some won’t like the restrictive feeling on their upper arm, but there’s no doubting its usefulness. As well as easily trailing headphones through a t-shirt sleeve, there’s a port for connecting the Adidas miCoach Connect heart rate monitor – hence the otherwise irrelevant branding tie-up.
But our favourite feature? A tiny key holder that snaffles away that essential – though irritating – running companion.
2. Sennheiser Adidas PMX 685i Sports – £50/US$ 72/AU$ 100
Though boasting a rather odd design, it’s good to see a running-specific pair of earphones. The totally waterproof – and even washable – Sennheiser Adidas PMX 685i Sports neckband headset is worn across the back of the head, thereby avoiding the back-and-forth of a headband, something that automatically makes then suited only to running.
It’s not just about fit. The actual tips of the earphones take a slight step back to avoid blocking out all noise – crucial if you’re running along roads – though still manage to deliver full, bassy sonics.
Crucially, there’s a cable clip for clothes, and an in-line remote control on the audio cable that operates volume and navigation and enables you to answer phone calls on the move.
3. Berghaus Limpet 10+ backpack – £50 (around US$ 78/AU$ 82)
Probably the most versatile – as well as the tiniest – backpack we’ve ever used, the Berghaus Limpet 10+ is ideal for trail running. It’s made from a reflective waterproof fabric and sits snugly on a back, thanks not only to the shoulder straps, a chest fastener and waist straps (rare at this small size), but also to mottled foam pads that create some airflow in the centre, thereby reducing sweaty back syndrome.
Mesh pockets on the outside are handy for sunglasses and liquids, while inside an elasticated pouch can take a hydration pack. That’s all perfect for trail running, though the Limpet 10+ does a decent all-round job, too. It’s zip-expandable around its hull to increase load to 15 litres, while that elasticated pouch is perfect for a 10-inch netbook or tablet.
4. Sony NWZ-E474 Walkman – £80/US$ 90 (around AU$ 130)
OK, so you’re not going to be watching much video, but this tiny MP3 player weighs just 51g (1.8oz), which is perfect for stowing in a pocket or armband while on the move. With an FM tuner and a generous 8GB of storage – though sadly there’s no microSD card slot for upgrading – this Walkman plays music for a stunning 36 hours and video for over five hours on a single charge. It even has a handy SensMe mode that presumably uses BPM data to play only fast-paced tunes in ‘workout’ mode.
However, for us it’s the expansive sound quality that puts this Walkman in pole position, despite the headphones supplied being less than brilliant. Transferring files is a simple drag ‘n’ drop process, and was painless using a Mac.
A cheaper alternative is something like the Sansa Clip+, but you won’t find many tiny MP3 players that sound as good as this Walkman.
5. Jabra Sport – £90/US$ 100/AU$ 150
They may not have caught on with commuters, but the concept of Bluetooth headphones is arguably at its best as a sports technology.
Don’t fall prey to the ‘cable-free’ argument – the link to a smartphone is replaced by a meaty cable that joins the two earpieces, and there’s a cable for regular recharging, too – but the Jabra Sport manages to be both comfortable and reliable despite the chunky design. It does take a little getting used, but since it’s sweat-proof and instantly links to a phone (once initially paired), it’s well prepared.
Meanwhile, sound quality – not exactly Bluetooth headphones’ best trait – is thoroughly respectable, and certainly good enough for a run.
6. Adidas Energy Boost Shoes – £110/US$ 150/AU$ 180
They might look worryingly similar to polystyrene, but the soles of these new Adidas Energy Boost trainers are said to revolutionise the way you run. The new Boost foam – which is actually thermoplastic polyurethane – is used for its ability to bounce back into shape after every step, thereby reducing the strain on joints and muscles.
An ‘energy returning boost’ is the key concept here, though just as important is comfort, with a snug ‘techfit’ and a super-lightweight construction.
If you want to stay on-brand, you might consider pairing the shoes with the Adidas miCoach Speed Cell and app.
7. Nike+ FuelBand – £130/US$ 150 (around AU$ 213)
An accelerometer worn on a wrist that tracks how active you are throughout the day, Nike’s FuelBand differs from the Fitbit One and other rivals with its sheer style and system of monitoring achievements on your iPhone (or at nikeplus.nike.com). Some doubt these gadget’s usefulness, but just having something telling you how active you are each day is an astonishingly powerful motivator – the truth obviously does hurt.
What doesn’t hurt is that the Nike+ FuelBand just looks gorgeous, with its simple black rubbery exterior and single band of silver at the clasp. Press the single button on the FuelBand and a system of LEDs light up on the face. And unlike pretty much every other gadget we’ve seen, these lights really do look as if they’re embedded into the band, and the effect is mightily pleasing.
Key metrics – number of steps taken, calories burned, and the time – are displayed for around a week on a full charge. There’s no GPS to track runs, but it could be paired with the free Nike+ Running app on an iPhone.
Read our full Nike+ FuelBand review
8. Polar RC3 GPS with Heart Rate Monitor – £200/US$ 260/AU$ 300
Anyone with running experience will tell you that understanding your own heart-rate is the best way to understand running, and Polar’s latest sports watch takes full advantage of that by adding GPS, too.
An all-in-one GPS training computer in eye-catching red and orange colour, the super-light 58g (2oz) Polar RC3 is aimed at runners and cyclists. Speed, distance, altitude and route are calculated using GPS satellites (there’s even a ‘back to start’ feature, though that’s only of use if you weren’t lost en route), but it’s the Smart Coaching features that are most impressive. Zone Optimizer mode adjusts your heart rate zones for every training session, based on your current physiological condition, while Fitness Test puts you through five minutes of pain to track your progress.
A Running Index feature compares running efficiency based on your heart rate and speed, giving you an estimated finish time, while all data can be uploaded to polarpersonaltrainer.com for analysis. And, yes, you can share all of this on Facebook, you big show-off.
9. Garmin Forerunner 610 – £280/US$ 400/AU$ 500
GPS-capable watches are myriad, but this one from Garmin does more than just talk to satellites. Its key features for runners include Virtual Racer and Virtual Partner, which enables you to race your previous bests, another user’s pace, or a static, pre-determined pace.
Once it’s collected the data from your run, it can upload straight to a computer to use Garmin Connect, a social media-cum-analytical platform that puts you on a map and presents lap splits. It also measures the impact of a run on your aerobic fitness.
Completely waterproof, the Garmin Forerunner 610 uses a one-inch touchscreen, and pairs with a Mac or PC using the fitness gadget-centric ANT+ wireless tech.
Read our full Garmin Forerunner 610 review
10. Tom Tom Runner GPS Watch – price TBC
TomTom’s mapping system makes its first GPS watch a no-brainer. This running-centric version (there’s a separate multi-sport model that’s better for cyclists and swimmers) is aimed at causal joggers, and has a huge, clean display that uses just one central control below.
The watch asks you to fill out a personal profile, including your age, weight, height and gender. All these factors then get taken into account when it comes to mapping your performance stats and targets. At its core are three different modes. Zone mode enables you to set a particular pace or heart rate, and measure your performance against it, so that if you go too fast the bars on the screen chart will increase and the watch will vibrate to let you know. Go too slow and you’ll also be given a gentle buzz to tell you that it’s time to pick up the pace.
Race mode compares your runs with previous efforts, but cleverly keeps a close eye on every step of your run in real time, rather than using averages, so that finding the exact points where you slowed down or sped up are easy to identify. Finally, Goal mode is all about you setting your distance and calorie targets. TomTom will be launching its own backend platform called MySports, but the watch will also be compatible with other popular services such as RunKeeper. The interface is simple, with everything the fitness aficionado needs.
Read our full Tom Tom Multi-Sport GPS review