Blog Post

What happens when you marry sports, sensors & social?

New York Road Runners and MapMyRUN will bring an enhanced spectator experience to the 2011 New York Marathon with smarter software and social network integration. Available a week before the Nov. 6 race for both iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) smartphones, new applications will integrate data from RFID and GPS sensors, providing real-time progress of runners throughout the 26.2 mile course. The status of runners will also be available through SMS, email and push notifications in addition to automatic tweets and Facebook status updates as runners pass mile markers.

As an avid, daily runner, I’ve watched the progression of such sports apps when paired with sensors and social media over the past several years. A simple pedometer morphed into a large, clunky GPS watch in 2004 for tracking my training run distances and paces. That has now been replaced by the GPS radio in a smartphone. It was a hassle to get useful data from that old device into a usable application, but not anymore: I can easily beam data after a run into my online running log through the RunKeeper app I’ve been using for the past two years. And sharing the information is simple, as today’s apps support automatic posting of exercise activities directly to Facebook, Twitter or other social networks.

When you put sports, sensors and social together, it can bring vast returns. I run about 20 races a year, but my family often can’t attend them. I enable real-time GPS tracking and broadcasting in my running apps for these situations so the family can follow along on the web or a smartphone. I often receive encouraging messages on Twitter from friends and perfect strangers alike just before these races, which helps more than most people realize.

Transmitting race data in real-time also adds a little positive pressure to perform well. Knowing that folks are paying attention, even virtually, has often kept my body moving when my mind says I should take it easy. And I’ve heard from a number of folks that posting my daily running streak progress (198 days and still going strong) has provided a few of them that little extra boost to get up and exercise. My running goal isn’t to be inspirational by any means, but if sharing my workouts and races helps to engage others in physical fitness, I’d call that a win.

In some sense, the new apps for the upcoming New York Marathon are the next logical progression in the trends I’ve witnessed for exercise data. We’ve gone from individuals tracking their own race times on watches to wearing RFID tags on shoes and race numbers to gain splits at certain points in a race. That’s useful information for the runners, as it helps for performance analysis after the race, and it helps race directors with more detailed race results that can be posted soon after the completion of a race. And now that data is getting transmitted from running apps and sensors on courses to the web for spectators and competitors. That’s different from my race transmission through the RunKeeper app. The direct MapMyRUN collaboration with a sporting event allows for any participant to tracked in real-time.

This combination of social, sensors and sports emphasizes a key point: Competition is a shared experience between athletes and spectators. If it wasn’t, millions around the world wouldn’t have tuned in to the FIFA Women’s World Cup match yesterday, nor would we fill weekends with other sporting events and athletes wouldn’t be tweeting during events. Thanks to small sensors and software to capture data, mobile broadband to send it and social networks to share it, we can all take part in sporting events, even from the comfort of our couches or computers.

3 Responses to “What happens when you marry sports, sensors & social?”

  1. To me this seems like, in some ways, a step backwards not forwards, in both racing and training situations.

    The “older” method of attaching a chip to your shoe during a race works quite well and doesn’t involve the runner having to carry a smartphone around the course. Timing mats are placed at various locations along the course and friends and family are notified, via text message, when their runners cross over each point. Online tracking via the race’s web site is usually available as well for friends who aren’t at the race or don’t wish to be bothered with text messages. I’ve run more than a dozen marathons and my family was always able to stay ahead of me and spot me on the course when they wanted to – even in NYC.

    The larger issue I see here is the often debated topic of using headphones during a race. I fear that if people rely on smartphones to track their race progress they’ll also be using them to listen to music while running as well. In a race such as the NYC marathon this can be a dangerous practice. The first mile, over the Verrazano Narrows bridge is almost a full contact support. When runners are blaring their music and unable to hear their surroundings it makes the potential for catastrophe greater.

    In training, when you’re often running alone, it’s even more paramount to be aware of your surroundings. A GPS watch frees up your ears and makes you alert for cars, people, bikes etc. The newest generation of GPS based watches aren’t any larger than a normal digital watch and transfer stored data wirelessly whenever they get near their host computer. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

    I’m all for technology, even in running. As long as runners leave their GPS based smartphones in their pocket while running I say more power to them. I’m just not sure there are many who will.

    • I totally understand your points, Larry — even though I’m one of those smartphone-totin’ runners. ;) Yup, the RFID mats have been around for a while and spectators can use the data to track a runner at various points in time. Transmitting all of my data from a smartphone isn’t as limited: spectators see where I’m at on a course in real-time throughout the entire event; not just at a few select points. That isn’t changing (from what I can tell) as a result of the NYRR and MapMyRun collaboration.

      But again, I hear you — no pun intended. Although I do run with headphones, I don’t use the in-ear type that block out most outdoor sounds. It’s a compromise I choose to make between safety, race information and the music that helps power me through tough workouts.

      The new GPS watches are indeed much better than they used be: smaller, more accurate and easier to get information from. The flipside: they’re single purpose for the most part, unlike the Swiss Army Knife of software that can turn a smartphone into a race tracker or nearly anything else these days.