Athletes get edge with GPS devices

April 27, 2006|By JANET CROMLEY | JANET CROMLEY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Cyclists, runners, walkers, even swimmers and windsurfers have now gone global.

Using small, global-positioning devices, outdoor athletes are mapping their routes, tracking their distance, speed and elevation -- even creating their own virtual training partners, ones that beep instead of speaking when athletes are ahead of, or behind, their target goals.

"If you're a gadget person," says Bruce Mosier, an avid runner and hiker from Santa Monica, Calif., "GPS is one of those things you absolutely need."

Many of Mosier's fellow runners treat their workouts like carefully controlled science projects, comparing progress and sharing maps.

"My joke is people who own a Garmin [one popular GPS maker] are people who say, `I ran 6.7 miles today,'" he says. Since 2002, when Timex, in partnership with Garmin, introduced a wristwatch with GPS, sales of portable sport units have soared, industry watchers say. Though few have firm numbers, the growth comes amid an exploding demand for GPS systems in cars and boats, and Garmin expects sales of fitness-related units to increase 15 percent next year.

The newest generation of high-end fitness units -- usually worn on the wrist, tossed into a backpack or set on bicycle handlebars -- not only maps routes and tracks distance, speed, elevation and calories burned, but also provides accessories important to the purist, such as heart-rate monitors and barometric altimeters. (For the uninitiated, that last handy feature enables users to track changes in ambient air pressure.)

Athletes who must know where they've been, how far they've gone -- and their performance getting there -- now have about a dozen models from which to choose.

Such technology is heady stuff for die-hard running and cycling enthusiasts, many of whom appreciate a good gadget, particularly one that adds a measure of control to a workout. And now all this alluring technology is available on something just about everyone has: a cell phone.

Last month, Sprint Nextel introduced BiM Active, a subscription feature for $9.99 a month that turns the phone into a GPS unit for cyclists, runners and walkers. A user can flip open a phone and toggle to BiM Active, input what type of exercise he or she plans to do, and with the press of a button, the phone will map the route while continuously calculating and charting elevation, distance traveled and miles per hour.

The phone beeps at predetermined intervals and provides other information such as weather conditions for the area mapped. Unlike most recreational GPS units, the phone will provide a choice of street, topography or satellite maps for charting the route.

Then, this data -- maps, charts and all -- can be transferred to a Web site that serves as a virtual training club. From their home computers, users can log on to view and add data to their workouts, get additional information about their route and share routes at no charge.

Kim Kruse, a triathlete and personal trainer in Arlington, Va., has been using the phone for several weeks.

"To have everything in one device is perfect," she says. "If I walk or run with my clients, we can record the pace splits -- with elevation."

BiM Active developer Jon Werner believes that the phone's fitness feature, which is available on two Sanyo and three Motorola cell phones, is a logical extension of growing consumer demand for multimedia cell phones that can deliver photos, streaming video, music and information.

Athletes appear to be a ready market for high-tech bells and whistles. As Mosier says: "For some reason I can't explain, I just like to know exactly how far I've gone." Tracy Beckman-Ramos of the Los Angeles Running Club says that in the past two years, about 60 percent of the club's members, many of them marathoners, have purchased GPS units.

Higher-end models range from $250 to $400. Bare-bones versions, available for less than $100, have simple operating systems offering basic maps, as well as speed, distance and elevation data.

Like BiM, Garmin offers a Web training partner. It recently purchased MotionBased, a Web site designed for Garmin users that analyzes and charts uploaded GPS maps and data. Access to motionbased.com and bimactive.com are free, although motionbased.com requires subscription upgrades ($11.95 and $7.95) for full service. Bimactive.com can be accessed by any GPS user.

Janet Cromley writes for the Los Angeles Times

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