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Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Recording a simple walk: Polar Flow Vs Garmin Connect Vs Runkeeper Vs Strava Vs Training Peaks Vs Map My Fitness

I have been using Runkeeper to record my hikes, runs, walks and bike rides for last 2-3 years. So far I've been quite happy with it. But recently I bought Mio Link, a wrist-worn heart rate monitor to pair along with my phone to get HR information during these activities. So I thought it was time to compare all the widely used fitness apps to see what kind of analysis they perform. This is a very informal comparison based on my personal criteria, but the observations are pretty generic and can be applied to you.

Expectations:
Following are my expectations from an app:
1. Use the phone's GPS to map the activity, as well as the ability to edit that map. For example, once, I forgot to turn off the activity and drove home. Editing the map was quite easy in Runkeeper.
2. Giving out usual information like pace, time, elevation, heart rate, and calories burnt. Preferable: the ability to have these metrics for each lap of customizable distance or time. Personally I don't care about sleep monitoring (yet!).
3. Heart rate, pace and elevation time series all overlapping each other (i.e. same x axis, but 3 different y axis, differentiated by color). This makes it super convenient to compare the three data. Presenting them in three separate plots makes them almost useless for me for a quick review.
4. Time spent in each heart rate zone. This is a super cool feature to have. For example, training at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate is optimal for fat burning, anything more intense will burn body carbs instead. So knowing how much time you spent in that zone gives you a good idea about how useful your workout was for its intended goal (fat-burning or endurance or strength building etc)
5. Ability to have several sports profiles. Well the only sport I'm interested in is Squash/ racquetball.
6. Ability to import/ export maps and data in generic format for importing in other apps.

The Walk:
It was a simple 3.75 mile walk with the heart rate monitor on. As Mio Link can connect with only one app, and as Polar Flow doesn't import maps (will talk on this later), I recorded the activity in Polar Beat, which then synced it with Polar Flow web app. From there I exported the session in .TCX file, and manually imported it into Strava. There is a website tapiriik.com that syncs many of these apps; from there I synced Strava with Garmin Connect, Runkeeper, Training Peaks and Endomondo. I've made the activity public and am sharing the links from each of these apps so that you can see for yourself, the interface and analysis given in each app.

Observations:
As all the apps fulfill majority of the above criteria (thats why they are featured in the comparison in the first place), I'll only highlight what each app seems to be lacking from the expected criteria. Clicking on the app names will take you to their record of the walk.

Runkeeper:  (you need to sign in in order to view this activity)
1. It does give splits, but they are for each mile, and are not customizable as far as I know. Plus while it shows pace and elevation gained/lost for each split, average heart rate for each split is not shown.
2. Pace, elevation and heart rate graphs are separate, and look very tiny during default screen. Zooming in is possible, but only on one graph at a time. This makes comparison very difficult to a point of being useless.
3. Time spent in each heart rate zone is not given in the free version.
4. Has only one activity called 'Sports' which encompasses all sports like volleyball, badminton, squash etc.

Polar Flow:  (no signing in required)
1. Doesn't import maps, and doesn't allow editing recorded activities/ maps.
2. Graphs doesn't show elevation data
3. Need a Bluetooth Smart Heart rate monitor (such as Polar H7, Wahoo Tickr, Mio Link/Fuse/ Alpha 2, Scosche Rhythm) to record heart rate activity (other data can be recorded without any additional device, just through the Polar Beat app, just like Runkeeper). This is not an issue for me as I have Mio Link.

Garmin Connect (no signing in required)
1. Seems to require to connect with a Garmin device to record any activity.
2. Separate graphs for pace, elevation and heart rate information. At least it has a zooming capability where in you zoom in/out of all three graphs at once.
3. Splitting of my walk (an imported activity) was not possible; I believe it wouldn't be an issue for recorded activities with Garmin devices.
4. Time spent in each zone not shown, though avg, min and max HR is shown for each split.

Strava:  (seems signing in is required)
1. While it does show pace, elevation, and heart rate in same graph, the time series are not scaled properly, and only one y axis unit (elevation) is given. So the graph is a bit less helpful than Polar Flow or Endomondo.
2. Time spent in each zone not shown in the free version.

Training Peaks:  (no signing in required)
TP has the most extensive analysis of all the apps, but its only for paid users. My initial trial Premium membership has expired, but somehow TP hasn't updated it on their website, so at this point, I can't really comment on what analysis is available as a free user. I'll update this section later when things become clear. UPDATE: I'm happy to say that Training Peaks' free version also includes HR data, and displays it as well as pace and elevation in one graph. Also, though the initial activity window says displaying time spent in each heart rate zone is reserved for Premium users, the chart is actually available for free users if seen in the 'expanded' view. Few apps compared here show this metric (time spent in each zone) for free- actually, one Polar Flow does.

Endomondo:  (no signing in required).
1. The capability of editing the workout maps seems to be missing
2. Time spent in each zone not shown in the free version.

MapMyFitness:  (no signing in required)
1. Absolutely no heart rate data is available in the free version.
2. Somehow it didn't register the elevation information as well from the .tcx file that I imported.

Some unique features:
1. Endomondo pulls the weather data during the activity. Really cool.
2. Strava seems to use actual Google Maps based elevation data instead of from the phone. This is not apparent in the above walk activity, but if you compare elevations in Runkeeper, and Strava, for the Royal Arch trail that I just hiked, Strava's graph seems identical to the elevation cross-section from this trail guide. May be it just appear that way due to larger elevation graph on Strava compared to other apps.
3. MapMyFitness mobile app is the only app that also shows daily activity data (steps, calories burnt etc).

Conclusion:
All the apps have their own pros and cons, and not a single app fulfills all my needs. But I find Training Peaks to have most features that I desire. It shows all three time series (elevation, pace, heart rate) on a single graph, as well as time spent in each zone. And you don't have to record activity natively in it, it imports activities (automatically if so configured). It doesn't allow editing maps though. Polar Flow comes at #2 on my list. It has all the features of Training Peaks that I mentioned except elevation data, and it also doesn't allow editing, nor importing, maps. The third app I liked is Endomondo, for its ability to show all three time series on one graph, and more importantly, for capturing the weather information for that place at that time. I think it is very useful. I can write notes describing the clothes I wore during each activity, so that I can get a hang of associating clothes with weather while running/ biking.

All other maps, viz Garmin Connect, Runkeeper, Strava, and MapMyFitness, I find to be disappointing for my intended use, in varying degrees. Garmin has been most disappointing. Given their excellent products (I used to use their GPS devices to do hydrogeological fieldwork in remote places in India), their software interface is ridiculously bad. I have some immense grievances regarding connecting my hiking GPS, Garmin Foretrex 401, with computer, but that is for another time.

Finally, I believe, syncing data to all these apps is a good strategy as these apps can get better/ worst in future, and you won't have to pick sides. So https://tapiriik.com/ is a good investment (for $2).

A note about calorie and distance counting:
Calorie calculations from these apps are all over the place. Its startlingly bad. For the 3.75miles walk, the calories range from 630 (Polar Flow) to 305 (Training Peaks) with 411 (Runkeeper, Garmin Connect, Endomondo),  630 (Map My Fitness) and 589 (Strava). As the calorie algorithm is likely a trade secret, either Runkeeper, Garmin, and Endomondo have same algorithm (can be confirmed easily by keeping all three apps active during a workout) or they simply copied the calorie count as a statistic from each other. As the workout was a simple walk, and calorie count from steps should be pretty straightforward, I think its the heart rate data that threw the calorie count all over the place. Each app is likely to have different calorie count algorithm. Anyway, it just shows that calories estimated is just an approximation, a huge one. The spread of 300 calories might be a big deal for someone working on a 1200-1500 calorie diet. One more thing, and this really surprised me, and which might have played a role in the difference in calorie count, is distance calculation! Training Peak, Runkeeper, Garmin Connect, Endomondo clocked the walk at 3.75 miles. Strava was less precise at 3.7 miles, and Polar Flow, which actually recorded the original activity, showed 3.45 miles (despite showing the highest calories burnt!)

UPDATE (12/25/2015):
The latest version of Garmin Connect is pretty capable. It is now possible to see all the time series (elevation, pace, and heart rate) in the same graph. It is also possible to see how much time was spent in which of the five hart rate zones. Plus Garmin Connect now shows the weather, like Endomondo. Thus, I have decided for now to use Garmin Connect exclusively. There are still a couple of things I'd like it to have: 1. Ability to edit map routes. 2. Recalculate calories of imported activities from other devices. But I'm quite content with what the latest Garmin Connect has to offer.
Here's one of my recent hikes as a sample activity (no signing in required)