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Lab Rat – Cruise Control

Looking for a reliable way to stay on pace? Just follow the beeps.

Forget the sports watch. Imagine a scenario where all you need is your favourite playlist and a set of headphones to tell you that you’re running at your targeted pace. Two inventors at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., have developed a computer algorithm that has turned this idea into a reality. Biomedical physiologists Max Donelan and Mark Snaterse have applied for a patent for their invention that works sort of like a metronome, using rhythmic beeps to set the pace.

By matching her steps to the beeping sound coming from the system’s earphones, a runner can accurately maintain her pace, as the unit uses a GPS to track her speed in real time. If the GPS senses she’s slowing down, the beeping speeds up to get her back on track. Conversely, if she goes too fast, the beeping slows down until she matches the right pace again. One beep equals one step, kind of like dancing, without the need to check a watch.
“I run with a GPS watch and I look at it roughly every minute or couple of minutes,” Donelan says. The GPS “feels a little bit like rolling the dice with what the speed is actually going to be because within that minute you could have fluctuated quite a lot. [But] this is controlling your every stride.”

Right now, the system is made up of a backpack that holds the computer, attached by a wire to a GPS that sits on top of the runner’s hat.  “That’s the next thing that we’re working on, is trying to get it working with music,” Snaterse says. Since many runners enjoy running to music already, the algorithm will allow them to adjust the tempo of their tunes on a sliding scale to match their desired pace.
In their research, Snaterse and Donelan found that the vast majority of runners struggle with pacing. Even on flat terrain, according to their data, recreational runners make almost a 10 per cent error in their average speed, which means for a target time of 50 minutes for a 10K run, most runners will only be within five minutes of that goal. But with the metronome method (also known as “cruise control for runners”), the error rate is significantly lower.
“We would get you within 0.5 per cent,” says Snaterse. “So that means within 15 seconds of your 50 minute 10K – as opposed to five minutes – which is pretty good.” While it’s unlikely the GPS used in a Smartphone would be quite this accurate, it would still be able to provide immediate feedback for the system to give a much lower error rate than a standard GPS watch.
Donelan says the system could be set to a constant speed for the whole run, or it could be set to gradually increase over the course of the workout or at varying speeds, as with interval training.

Marelle Reid is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.