If there’s one thing Laura Coaty dislikes, it’s missing a treadmill class led by her favorite instructor, Jay Blahnik. Although Coaty, 45, prefers to run outdoors most days, she takes Blahnik’s class at Sports Club/LA in Irvine, Calif., once a week or so to help boost her running speed and distance.
So before Coaty went to Boston for a business trip over the summer, she found a solution. “I ‘took’ Jay with me,” she said.
First, she downloaded his new treadmill training workout from Apple’s iTunes Web site onto her iPod Nano. Then, on the day that she’d usually take a class, Coaty ran several miles on a hotel gym treadmill as Blahnik’s recorded voice coached her through a 30-minute routine of imaginary flats and hills.
Portable music players such as iPods are the latest tools to stave off workout boredom. Instead of serving merely as a personalized jukebox, the latest generation of sweat-oriented podcasts includes entire coached workout routines or instructions, real-time feedback on exercise performance, progress tracking and even virtual fitness “communities.” The podcasts don’t replace personal training or coaching, but they come close.
Nowhere is the relationship between portable players and fitness more clearly played out than in the collaboration between Nike and Apple.
This summer, the two companies released the initial results of their partnership, the new Nike + iPod Sport Kit, a transmitter and receiver set. It works with Nike shoes and the skinny iPod Nano to deliver real-time audio feedback on calories burned, distance traveled and speed.
A CONVERGENCE OF FACTORS
Audio workouts are at least as old as cassette tapes. But in the past year, there’s been an explosion of downloadable digital workouts. More Web companies and exercise instructors see the Internet as the next frontier in reaching a broader audience of fitness enthusiasts, according to Alan Winters, executive vice president of Podfitness. com, which officially launched its site Aug. 31. “Downloadable workouts are the natural intersection of iPod/MP3 mania and the nationwide interest in exercise and weight loss,” Winters said.
There’s another driving force: cost.
“It’s not cheap to work with a personal fitness trainer,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise scientist at the University of California at San Diego and a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. “Rather than pay from $60 per session, people may subscribe to a $20 monthly Web-based program that lets them download as many workouts as they want.”
Technology is shaping the trend. As portable players are built with ever-increasing storage capacity in ever-slimmer boxes, they’re easier to carry or wear while working out.
The kit takes guesswork out of the running regimen, said Denyse Lloyd, 34, of Irvine, who was training for her first mini-triathlon. “The first time I took it on a run, I didn’t know what to expect. I run a certain loop, and I’ve always wondered how far it was. It gave me my distance and my speed.”
The feedback kept Lloyd motivated, she said. “I was thrilled I was able to keep going … even though I was getting tired.”
As for the downloadable workouts, Comana raised several concerns. First, it’s not for those who are new to exercise, he said. “They’re for someone who has been an exercise enthusiast for a while and has kind of a basic understanding of exercise-program design — someone who doesn’t need a personal fitness trainer.”
There’s a significant limit to the customization: Fitness experts may choose individual exercises that form a routine and a program, but it’s still software that calculates what kind of workout you get — not a living, breathing person who regularly evaluates your performance.
Artificial intelligence does not trump face-to-face interaction, Comana said. “A live trainer understands that the exercise experience goes beyond physiology. There is the psychological and emotional side.”
Another limitation is the authenticity of the recorded coaching. Coaty said that in one podcast she tried, the cues were ill-placed or wrong.
And when you get coaching that doesn’t jibe with what you’re feeling or experiencing, the instructions are less believable.
Nike’s Blahnik, who teaches group exercise classes all over the world, cautioned that what may work in a classroom setting may sound wrong in a recorded workout. During the two years of designing the Nike + downloadable workouts, Blahnik found that he had to adjust the verbal coaching to make it more general.
“You can’t say ‘increase your speed by .5 (mph)’ because you don’t know whether .5 (mph) might be too much or too little for that person,” Blahnik said. Instead, Blahnik might ask you in the beginning of a workout to track your intensity on a scale of 1 to 4 and use that rate of perceived exertion to back off or boost intensity.
Finally, it’s not always easy to get enough information about the trainers who design the workouts and their credentials beyond the flattering biographies they post on the sites. Although there are highly qualified trainers who have celebrity clients, having Hollywood names on a résumé isn’t a stamp of quality, Comana said.
Consumers should look for trainers with a lot of practical experience, education and certification by organizations such as ACE, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.