Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

On the Run With the iPod/Nike Fitness Device

For many people who exercise, music is an essential part of their workout. It provides a much-needed distraction from what can often be a monotonous routine. And hearing the right song at a crucial moment — like Aretha Franklin belting out “Respect” while you’re running up a hill — might just give you the motivational push that you need to work harder.

It’s no wonder then that portable digital-music players, especially the Apple iPod, have become immensely popular among runners, bicyclists and walkers. These players can hold thousands of songs, and store playlists that you can arrange in strategic order especially for exercising. Various armbands, belts, clips and other accessories make it easy to carry the gadgets with you while working out.

Shoe Photo
The $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit includes a shoe sensor.

Now, your iPod can do more than just play the soundtrack to your run — it can become your virtual running coach. Apple Computer Inc. has teamed up with Nike Inc., the sports-shoe titan, to create a system whereby the iPod can measure your progress as you run or walk, report it to you orally through your earbuds, and post it to a Web site that tracks your workouts over time. The system even allows you to designate a “PowerSong,” an especially motivating tune from your music collection that can be summoned at the touch of a button when you need an extra burst of inspiration.

This new product from the two iconic brands is called the Nike + iPod Sport Kit. While it’s obviously a move to sell more iPods and Nike shoes, we found it worked well and enhanced our exercise experience.

The $29 kit contains two small pieces: a receiver that plugs into the bottom of an iPod Nano and a small sensor that fits into a pocket in the inner sole of specially designed Nike sneakers. While you’re listening to your iPod and running wearing the special sneakers, the shoe sensor calibrates your pace, distance and other data, and sends it wirelessly to your iPod, where it is stored and even announced through your earbuds every so often as you run or walk.

Upon returning from your run or walk, you can plug your iPod into your computer and load its data onto NikePlus.com, where you can view your progress. This site also lets you compare your data with others, set up challenges with friends, or set goals for yourself.

While the kit’s $29 price tag is slight, you also must factor in the price of Apple’s iPod Nano — ranging from $149 to $249 — because the kit’s receiver won’t work with competing brands of players, or with other iPod models. And the special Nike+ shoes, available in several styles, average about a hundred bucks a pair. So the minimum total cost for a Nike + iPod Sport Kit is $278.

If you want to spend less, or just keep using your favorite shoes, you can rig up the sensor to work with other running shoes — either regular Nikes or competing brands — though not without some difficulty.

We tested the Nike + iPod Sport Kit in the middle of a typical Washington, D.C., summer, with the temperatures in the 90s and junglelike humidity. Before hitting the pavement, we walked through the setup process, which includes making sure to have the latest version of iTunes — Apple’s music player software — installed, and downloading the latest software update for the iPod Nano. If you already own a Nano, this free update allows it to work with the Nike system.

Receiver
A receiver also comes with the kit and plugs into the bottom of your iPod.

Finally, we plugged the Nike + iPod Sport Kit’s receiver — which measures about half the size of a matchbox — into the bottom of our iPods, and made sure that the kit’s sensor was snugly secured in the bottom of our left sneaker in a special well underneath the left shoe’s liner. A female voice (male or no voice are also options) sounded through the iPod earbuds, instructing us to move around so that the sensor could be detected, and then telling us to press the center button to start our workout.

By entering our weights on the iPod, we ensured that it would properly calculate our calories burned. Also on the iPod, we selected our PowerSongs.

The shoe’s sensor is designed to measure how long your foot is on the ground, and correlates that with your pace, therefore eliminating the need to manually enter your stride. If you’d like to be as precise as possible, you can go through a quick calibration process, but it isn’t necessary in most cases. In our tests, neither of us could feel the sensor tucked into the bottom of the shoes.

Four types of workouts can be programmed: Basic (an open-ended run or walk) or goal-oriented workouts based on Distance, Calories or Time. Music can be selected at this time, including specific playlists, shuffling through all your songs, or no music at all.

Katie took off jogging in her neighborhood on the first day, trying the Basic workout with shuffled music. After a half mile, the friendly voice — which sounds like a real human, not a robot — announced her distance, pace and her total elapsed time. At any time during your workout, you can press the iPod’s center button once to hear this data, or the Menu button to pause or stop the workout.

Soon, the crushing humidity started exhausting Katie, and she felt compelled to press and hold the iPod’s center button, cueing up her PowerSong, “Escape” by Enrique Iglesias (the fitting chorus repeats, “You can run!”). Enrique’s encouragement boosted Katie home to her front door. At the end of the workout, a summary is read aloud by your new audio coach.

Walt, older and wiser, stayed inside in the air conditioning and worked out on his treadmill, doing his usual cardiovascular routine. He set the time for half an hour, picked his PowerSong (“Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis) and set the iPod to shuffle through all the tunes it held, which had been specially picked for working out. Every five minutes, the iPod reported on his progress. Jerry Lee was summoned when things got boring, and the normal music automatically resumed after the PowerSong ended.

Screen
Run statistics are recorded on the iPod and can be posted on the NikePlus.com Web site.

One weakness of the Nike + iPod system is that it can’t record your heart rate, the key measurement used in cardiovascular workouts. While lots of exercise gear can now record the heart rate from monitors made by companies like Polar, the iPod’s receiver can’t.

After a few runs or walks, instead of feeling like we were chugging along alone, we were suddenly running with a built-in coach who voiced encouragement every so often — or whenever we pressed the center button for an update of our progress. For us, this was a real benefit.

After our workouts, we each plugged our Nanos in and loaded their data onto NikePlus.com. Here, our most recent run or walk was diagrammed in a graph — showing when we sped up or slowed down, when we pressed the center button for statistics about our run and when we listened to our PowerSongs. A leaderboard lists the best times around the country, and this can be narrowed down according to gender, age and geography.

With a few keystrokes, Katie set a goal for herself to run faster than the average pace of her first run five times in a month. All of her runs were checked to see if she beat this pace, and she has since completed that goal three times. Walt set goals based on the frequency and length of his workouts.

You can challenge friends to see who can run the fastest, longest, or the most miles; this challenge is emailed to your friends using NikePlus.com. We challenged one another, following email-embedded links to reach the Web site where new users must register and old users can log in. Once logged in, a screen appears that displays the challenge and offers Accept or Decline options.

The system allows one iPod to be used with multiple Nike + iPod Sport Kits, so a family can share an iPod. The proprietary wireless technology used by the system is designed so that each receiver stays linked to just one sensor at a time. Apple says this pairing scheme can handle up to 256 runners in a 10-meter circle without getting signals crossed.

We tried inserting the sensor into our old running shoes, tucking it under the laces in a secure spot toward the front of the shoe. Both of our sensors fell out after we each ran or walked for a little while, but if we had used Velcro, we assume they would have stayed put. Apple and Nike say that this kit wasn’t designed to work with other shoes, and that it won’t work as well overall, but we didn’t notice any inaccuracy while our sensors were in place on the non-Nike shoes.

We hope this product can improve in the future to do other things like distinguishing walks from runs, automatically triggering your PowerSong when you slow down or incorporating heart-rate monitoring. But the Nike + iPod Sport Kit is a great first effort. It’s easy to understand, and its audible encouragement is helpful.


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