Satnav for cars is an established idea – we’ve all heard about the drivers who forgo the printed map and instead decide that their GPS device must be telling the truth, even though it appears to be taking them up a cliff-top bridleway. But some unfortunate episodes aside, the technology is great; although they are still not an inexpensive option, being able to see exactly where you are, in real time, is an extremely clever and useful trick of modern communications.
However, the benefits for tracking exactly where you are in the world don’t have to be limited to the car. If you carry around a smartphone, then you have the potential to turn your own comings and goings into a treasure trove of information about your movements – something that I’ve really incorporated into my passion for cycling. They are particularly useful for mountain bikers like me, who tend to get off the beaten track.
By using GPS fitness apps, you can track exactly where you’ve been. But what they also tell you is detailed information about how far you went, the speed you managed and what kind of vertical distance you travelled. From this, apps can extrapolate information about the amount of energy used and calories burned, giving you a real spur to stay in the saddle. And of course, anything that can be used for cycling can also be used for running or walking – though the numbers are likely to be slightly less exciting.
So what are some of the best available – and what can they really offer you? Here are some I’ve tried…
Cyclemeter – The beauty of Cyclemeter is that it keeps the experience of using a GPS app really simple. While some apps have you exporting files you have recorded on your phone, then uploading them to a website, Cyclemeter exists entirely on your iPhone, without needing to go to your laptop to unlock the full range of features. That said, if you want to share your achievements with your social network, then of course there’s the usual Twitter and Facebook integration.
As with many of these apps, the GPS functionality allows you to record and log your rides. On Cyclemeter, however, these are saved for posterity right on your phone – rather than online – meaning your data is right at your fingertips wherever you are. It features an in-depth calendar function, so you can keep track of your exertions by day, week, month, or year – and I can vouch for the fact that it’s really satisfying to watch those numbers add up to something special.
Runkeeper – Available for both iPhone and Android systems, Runkeeper is one of the most popular GPS apps. Don’t be put off by the name: I know many people who use this for cycling into the back of beyond.
Cyclemeter, though, makes it easier to compare what you’ve done with your friends. By joining a virtual team, you can follow where they are riding and what they are doing; great for keeping tabs on who’s putting the time in, and for motivating yourself to get out.
Strava-ing for the top
Strava takes this more socially-focused component of the app and adds a gamification element. In addition to logging your progress for yourself, or even letting you compare your progress with your circle of friends, Strava uploads your times to a public online leaderboard (if you choose to put yourself in this sometimes very competitive forum). This means that you can see exactly how you match up to sometimes hundreds of other riders.
It does this by tracking your speed over ‘segments’ – sections of on- or off-road tracks which can be just a few metres, or many miles, long. Using an app automatically captures your speed and time when you pass through one of these segments, effectively meaning you run numerous virtual races during a ride.
This has been a revelation for me – I’ve never had a particular desire to race on my bike, but this allows you to get competitive in your own time. Once you get home and look at your data for the ride, you can compare your time to that of others.
You can even create your own if you find somewhere interesting. And if you get to the top of a leaderboard, there’s always someone coming along to try and knock you off your perch – which can be infuriating and exciting in equal measures – so there’s always an incentive to improve.
While the suite of functions you get with these free apps is fairly extensive – often including graphs, split times, voice announcements (a little unnerving the first time you hear this…) – to experience the full potential you need to purchase the paid-for version, or sometimes a monthly or yearly subscription to the service, as with Strava.
And to get the greatest accuracy for your fitness, you might even like to invest in a specific GPS device, such as a Garmin. These triangulate your position from satellites, rather than the telephone communications towers that smartphones use – though buying this hardware is somewhat more expensive than using an app on your phone.
One way to help you spread the initial cost could be by credit card, especially if you’ve got a card that offers a 0% period on purchases. It’s important to bear in mind though that if you don’t clear the balance within the introductory period, you will be charged interest.
This is a sponsored post by Guest Blogger William David on behalf of Sainsbury’s Bank.