FINAL VERDICT: SONY’S SMART B-TRAINER™
I’ve had the privilege of using Sony’s Smart B-Trainer™ for about a month now, and I find myself using it for a lot of my outdoor runs. I have used heartrate monitors in the past before, but never very diligently because I tend to find HR straps uncomfortable to wear, especially on longer runs, and it’s just a little too time consuming to wear for my tastes, having to wet the sensor and get the position right before each run. I have also had problems with abrasions from the sensor piece on long runs, though some of my friends have recommended using adhesive tape to protect the skin but that’s just one step too many for me, when my running is already packed with gadgets. With the Smart B-Trainer™, it’s simply a matter of putting it on before the run, switching it on while I wear my shoes and then it takes a few seconds to capture a GPS signal before I’m off. I like to wait and see whether the Garmin captures the signal first or the Smart B-Trainer™, and overall I think it’s pretty much a tie, though the Garmin has to be synced with a laptop every now and then to refresh the cached GPS co-ordinates to catch a signal fast while the Smart B-Trainer™ does not, so score 1 to the Smart B-Trainer™.
IN DEPTH: INTELLIGENT MUSIC PLAYBACK AND VOICE COACHING
I’ve tried a few of the basic training plans and they all seem to work as expected. Below is a run I did with a target pace in mind. It was a run with the pace set to 4:50/km +/-15s. I tend to prefer a wider error bar when running with a target pace, because of fluctuations in terrain as well as inherent GPS imprecision.
As you can see, I ended up running pretty close to target for most of the run despite some big hills along the way. Furthermore, for the most part, HR ended up being relatively stable and low. There was a slight spike in HR towards the end but that was because I decided to pick up the pace a little.
Another option is to set the run to a specific HR zone. I like to do this for easy runs because it forces you to keep to a low perceived effort, regardless of terrain. It is especially important to back off on the uphill segments during an easy run (and you might be surprised how much you have to back off) in order to keep to the right HR zone. There is a lot of criticism of HR-based training stemming from the lag time from physiological changes like lactic build-up to a rise in HR but it is generally sufficiently useful as a gauge of perceived effort. I don’t necessarily like HR as a tool for keeping your effort up, but as a tool for keeping your effort down, it works very well.
Within the “Smart-B Trainer™ for Running” app, the basic training plans limit the target HR zones to “fat burning training”, which corresponds well to easy runs, and “endurance training” which corresponds well to aerobic runs/long runs.
Unfortunately, there is currently no option to customize the target HR zone, or create more complex training plans. In my experience, the current upper limit of HR for the “endurance zone training” is about 10bpm too low to accommodate the right level of exertion for a tempo run. That’s probably the only big shortcoming for this product, as you would not expect to use it for intervals so much, and they’ve already got your easy and long run zones covered.
MY ASICS Training Plans
As a trial, I created a sample training plan for my marathon on 25 Oct 2015 based on my personal best timing and my target timing. I noted that there was no option to run more than 4 times a week, but that the paces for the runs were very, very challenging. The plans for 10k training were more realistic but still very demanding.
My recommendation would be to add more easy runs to make up 6-7 runs a week, and dial back on the target intensity for most of the runs except the easy runs. Having said that, I think the general framework is a good starting point, and provides probably the best bang for buck you could hope to achieve with running 4 times a week, but it is probably easier to achieve a healthy progression of fitness by running at an easier intensity but at a higher frequency and total weekly mileage.
Sony’s Smart B-Trainer™ is very user-friendly and I see myself continuing to use it for easy and long runs. Having an app-based training log is nothing new; Garmin and Training Peaks have been app-based for at least 4 years now. However, the “Smart-B Trainer™ for Running” app wins on 2 counts. Firstly, it syncs fast, noticeably faster than my Garmin watches, although both utilize the same Bluetooth® technology. In a world where most of us find a smartphone virtually indispensable, having your phone tied up in syncing running data is tedious at best. And yes, the syncs always fail if you try to use another app concurrently (for Garmin and Sony). Secondly, the app allows you to upload workouts from your phone. This is a first, as far as I know, for a smartphone app. Garmin Connect (GC) allows you to upload customized workouts from your desktop to your watch but the GC smartphone app itself does not allow you to create and upload workouts. I feel that this is an advantage that Sony should leverage on and expand on the capabilities, as that is what would draw more consumers toward its product. Therefore, I hope to see some updates to the “Smart-B Trainer™ for Running” app, to allow more customization of the HR-based training options, as that would really make it a more complete training tool.
The in-app training analysis capability is also pretty good, allowing you to compare two different workouts using overlapping graphs for different metrics. This is one of the more useful methods by which you can track your progress or make adjustments to your training as you go along.
I would like to see how it performs in a race situation where I set myself a target race pace, but the regulations surrounding the use of audio devices in races is somewhat incongruent. Any form of music is strictly speaking, a pacing tool, as the researchers as Sony have exploited to good measure, and in strictly enforced races like Ironman Triathlons, these devices are strictly prohibited and punishable by DQ.
In summary, I think the Smart B-Trainer™ is a brilliant step forward in HR-based training, which may herald the demise of HR straps in the not too distant future. The next step forward would hopefully be to refine the app capabilities, and increase cross platform compatibility, e.g. compatibility with the major existing online training logs, like MapMyFitness, GarminConnect, TrainingPeaks and Strava. The latter point is important if Sony are serious about luring over fitness enthusiasts, because most of them already have years of training data embedded in these systems and would find it tiresome to switch over to a standalone training log, and indeed this was the major downfall of the Nike+ fitness platform and the big driver behind the lack of success of the Nike GPS watch.
Sony’s Smart B-Trainer™ is currently retailing at S$399, in five colours (yellow, white, blue, pink and black) and is sold at all Sony Store, Sony Centre, specialist dealers or retailers. Head on over to any of these stores to give them a try.