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Sports Tech: Your Outdoor Best Friend or Foe?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it actually make a sound? If we go running without an app, did it actually happen? Ben Lewis discusses whether outdoor tech is making outdoor adventure better or worse.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it actually make a sound? If we go running without an app, did it actually happen? We thrive on likes, feed off kudos. We’re now fitter, stronger and faster, but are we any better off? Are we actually having fun, taking the time to appreciate nature, marvel at breath-taking landscapes, or are we just ploughing forward, head down, driven by data, fixated by heartrate zones, possessed by power meters? 

The strapline for a well-known outdoor tech company is: Beat Yesterday. Why? What did yesterday ever do to us? It was a good day. Can’t we just go outdoors for the sheer enjoyment of being outside, enjoying the fresh air in our lungs rather than turning our lungs inside out in an effort to better our last effort? 

Garmin Beat Yesterday blog

So are we truly slaves to outdoor tech? Obsessed with heart rate, cadence, elevation, rather than great views, hearty cake and fresh air? As a sometime endurance cyclist, I have been more guilty than most of these obsessions. Training rides consisted of head down, arse up, eyes constantly flicking to the little screen attached to my handlebars and willing me to get a shift on. Forget nature, there’s a strip of tarmac to fixate on. 

We’re instinctively a competitive species, we all want to be the alpha, the top dog, the strongest, fastest and fittest we can possibly be. But when we have GPS to guide the way, are we losing the simple joys of getting lost? Of figuring our own way out thanks to a good old OS map? Yes, they’re ludicrously oversized, unruly and impractical in most outdoor situations, and you look like the tourist you inevitably are. But there’s a simple pleasure to be found in planning out new routes, poring over footpaths and bridleways, considering contours, scribbling with highlighters to mark out routes or the location of a particularly good pub or tea shop. 

Land & Wave Director, David Mutton and  Strava user says, “I use Strava for motivation. It’s great to track physical progress from an exercise perspective, especially on repetitive journeys such as my commute to work. Personally, I’m not a fan of using it in a recreation setting; on a country walk or a paddle along the coast. You become too obsessed with stride and pace at the expense of enjoying the moment.”

Screenshot of Strava outdoor bike ride around Poole Harbour

I have a smart running watch, but I can’t help wondering whether it’s actually making me dumb. It has hundreds of options, laps, splits, heart rate, cadence, elevation, altimeter, recovery time. I don’t know what half of them mean or where I should use them. I’ve had it 3 years and never configured the screens properly so as it cycles through 3 difference faces and 9 possible data screen variations they pretty much all show the same thing. All I know is that it beeps at me every time I run a mile. I once had a lovely blue ipod that I only ever used for listening to the radio as I didn’t know how to download a song. So, in my case, it’s probably not the watch that’s to blame. 

For athletes fitness apps and trackers are a godsend for outdoor pursuits. They allow people to run, race or roam further, faster and for longer. We can plan our routes in advance, make sure we never veer off course when confronted with a confusing criss-cross of footpaths or bridleways. But do I really need a watch that tells me to take a rest? Surely that overwhelming urge to lie on the sofa scoffing crisps is already telling me that.  

Lazy hammock blog

In a world of decluttering gurus and sensory overload, being outdoors is a welcome tonic. It’s like a free decluttering app, about as pure and uncluttered as it’s possible to get. One of the simple pleasures of running and hiking comes from being in the moment, of not worrying what else is going on in life at that particular time. All that matters is making your way over that next hill and finding your way home again.

As much as I enjoy a good tune to fire me up, sometimes it’s also nice to run without music, simply listening instead to your breathing and what your body is telling you; push on if you’re feeling good, keep it to a plod if you’re not quite feeling your best.

It’s also great when we take the time to share our love of the outdoors with others. Grab a map and explore before you’re even out of the front door, seek exploration inspiration from books (The Wild Guide series are a good source), speak to friends, share adventure anecdotes and advice on routes. Activities Manager, Paul Taylor, argues that some apps can provide a great teaching resource.

“I’ve recently discovered Relive . It uses data from your sports tracking app (Strava / Garmin / Map My Ride etc) to create an interactive video. This has been a handy tool to share with our trainee instructors while practising for their Lowland Leader Award. I think apps that work silently in the background and don’t interrupt the ‘moment’ are a great addition to modern day outdoor adventure.”

Relive outdoor tech blog

Alfred Wainwright poured his life’s work into creating a series of Lakeland guides, each painstakingly hand written and illustrated. He wasn’t worried about getting likes, or kudos, or beating yesterday. He wasn’t worried about drawing bigger, better hills or writing better, faster prose. He took his time, enjoyed the moment. He knew those hills weren’t going anywhere. In the modern age, I think we could all learn a thing or two from his example. 

Owen Senior, Land & Wave Director and self-confessed ‘purist’, says “There’s now an app for everything. But do they really bolster the outdoor experience with anything other than ego, glory and bragging rights? Anything that takes your attention away from the moment, the landscape or the environment feels inherently wrong.”

Of course, I’m not going to stop using my watch or my apps. I’m addicted to self-improvement, going further, faster for longer, and generally beating the crap out of yesterday. I have a 24 hour trail race to train for, how am I going to do that if I don’t know my average cadence? Plus, I still need to figure out how to configure all these screens and what all this data is trying to tell me.

Seal blog

However, I am going to make more time for the simple uncluttered joys of being outside. Last Sunday I swam with a seal in the Solent. I say swam, I actually spotted his bobbing head looking inquisitively at me from the water as I waded in, I sensed his beady eyes assessing my blubber to bodyweight ratio and wondering what the hell I was thinking. 

It was a thrill share the sea with a large wild animal, rarely seen on this particular stretch of coast. It’s just a shame there was no Solent Seal-Spotting app to record the encounter, and that he preferred to duck beneath the waves, rather than pose for shot I could upload to Instagram. If I was on Instagram. 

Being outdoors is just great. There’s so much to see, so many people to meet and seals to swim with. However you enjoy being outside, keep doing whatever makes you happy. 

Outdoor moody

06 March 2019 by Ben Lewis

One of the simple pleasures of running and hiking comes from being in the moment, of not worrying what else is going on in life at that particular time. All that matters is making your way over that next hill and finding your way home again.

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