Useful iPhone Apps for the Athlete

Here is a list of iPhone Apps that I feel are useful for Athletes, and the reasons why I use them:

FitBit

What is it?  FitBit is both an app and a device, used to track calorie consumption and calorie burn.  It is like a glorified pedometer that counts your steps and estimates your daily calorie burn.  The app can be accessed on your iPhone or via a computer, to input your food for the day.  It wirelessly communicates with your iPhone 4S or above (using Bluetooth) to upload your data from your device.  You can also wear the devices when you sleep, to track sleep quality.

Why do I use it?  I use it for a daily calorie balance.  I try to keep my calorie intake fairly close to my burn on a daily basis.  On non-exercise days, this means about 1800 to 1900 calories.  For days with large bricks, this can be 5500 calories.  I found that I often underestimated my calorie needs on large days, and sometimes would lose weight during building blocks over a few weeks.  Since I have been tracking my calories in/burn, I’ve maintained my weight at around 166 lbs plus or minus 3, at about 6 to 7% body fat.  I also use it to track my sleep.  I’ve found a statistical correlation between the number of “wakes” or movement in my sleep and my training load.  Large training blocks tend to create higher levels of cortisol in the body, which interrupts sleep.  When I see abnormally high “wakes”, it is an indicator I need to back off a little on my training.  I also track my weight on FitBit.

What are the limitations?  While I think it does a great job of estimating calories for daily or normal activity, it is not as accurate as a heart rate monitor or power meter for calculating activity on harder endurance activities.  I use the data from my Garmin to create defined activities within FitBit to overwrite their standard calorie calculations.  By wearing it on my bike shorts on my leg, it does capture some of the activity, but doesn’t really accurately capture the energy you expend on a bike.   Also, you cannot wear it swimming, so swimming is manually inputted as well.  Creating the activities are fairly easy within the app.

Cost:  You pay for the device, which ranges from $60 to $100, and the App is free.  There are no ongoing costs.

How long have I been using it?  Going on three years in December.

Other:  I have had the original FitBit, the FitBit Ultra, and now the FitBit One.  The original models were built into a clip, which would eventually fail at the U connection.  The new FitBit One is a singular design, and the clip is an external product.  It is much more secure. The only issue I have had is a small piece of plastic will fall off the end of the new clip.  You charge it about once a week.

Views:

View of the FitBit.  It's a small device that I wear in my pocket.

View of the FitBit. It’s a small device that I wear in my pocket.

A view of the App.  It's simple to use, and available on iPhone or Android.

A view of the App. It’s simple to use, and available on iPhone or Android.

 

Sleep Cycle

What is it?  Sleep Cycle is an iPhone app that records your movement in bed, and quantifies your sleep quantity and quality.  It also has a “smart alarm” function, that will set the alarm off early if you are in a light sleep mode (waking from a deep sleep makes you feel more tired).  You start the Sleep Cycle app, plug in your phone, and put it in bed with you under your pillow, and under your bottom sheet.  It then detects your subtle movements in bed to determine your sleep cycles.

Why do I use it?  As mentioned in the FitBit section, I find that sleep is a good indicator of of my stress levels… physical and mental.  I wanted to see how this app correlated to my FitBit sleep data.  Overall, they typically track fairly well, with the sleep quality in Sleep Cycle being a combination of the number of wakes and total duration of sleep.  Rarely do I find good sleep quality in less than 7.5 hours of sleep.  I see this simply as another tool for tracking my sleep quality.

What are the limitations?  This isn’t going to give you the same sleep quality measurement as the Zeo sleep tracker system, which measures your brain waves as you sleep.  That being said, I found the output between this and the Zeo similar, and it is much less obtrusive to have this tucked in the very corner of your bed under a sheet, than wearing a strap around your forehead when you sleep.

Cost:  You pay for the app upfront with no ongoing fees… the price is a bargain at $1.99.

How long have I been using it?  Just over 6 months.

Other:  It has some great graphs and statistics.  You can categorize your sleep with notes, with your own titles such as: alcohol, sick, traveling, etc., and it will correlate your sleep quality with these titles.  This gives you some insight as to what impacts your sleep quality overall.  You can also download your data to a spreadsheet for further analysis.

Views:

Sleep Cycle - Daily sleep analysis showing cycles during the night, overall quality, and time in bed.

Sleep Cycle – Daily sleep analysis showing cycles during the night, overall quality, and time in bed.

Sleep Cycle - Graph of sleep quality over time.

Sleep Cycle – Graph of sleep quality over time.

Sleep Cycle - Graph correlating your notes to sleep quality.  I sleep good on vacation :)

Sleep Cycle – Graph correlating your notes to sleep quality. I sleep well on vacation 🙂

 

Ithlete

What is it?  Ithlete is an app that measures your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).  HRV is an indicator of your ability to absorb stress.  If your body is already under high stress (physical or mental) your HRV tends to drop.  Having a low HRV can be an indicator that you are overtraining and over-stressing your body.  Here is a site that provides an overview of HRV and why it is important.  Overall, it is a more reliable indicator of stress than resting heart rate, which is used by many athletes.  I take my measurement each morning after I get up, in a standing position.  You simply put on you HR strap, and it takes the app less than a minute to measure and record you HRV.

Why do I use it?  Primarily it is just something I use to see how my body is reacting to my training.  As I’ve watched my HRV, I’ve found that my sleep quality tends to impact my HRV… not enough sleep and not a good quality tends to show up as lower HRV levels.  I am really looking for the overall trends over time, rather than just normal fluctuations day to day, to ensure I am not overtraining.

What are the limitations?  It is looking at your nervous system as a whole, so it is not simply an indicator of your training load.  For example, my HRV dropped significantly when I went to Boulder, CO for my half IM.  With the high altitude, it created stress for my body which showed up right away with a depressed HRV.  On my third day at altitude, my body had adapted to a degree and my HRV returned closer to normal.

Cost:  The app itself is $9.99.  Note that to use it with your iPhone, you either need to get a bluetooth HR strap, or buy an Ant dongle for your existing Ant HR straps.  I purchased a Viiiiva HR strap, which does both Bluetooth and Ant.

How long have I been using it?  About 3 months.

Other:  This software also has nice graphs to show you trends over time.  It can be exported to dropbox or emailed, so you can analyze it in Excel for additional details.  If you enter your daily TSS value, it will graph both over time.

Views:

Ithlete - Daily HRV summary.  Green is good, white is okay, orange is a warning, and red is a recommended day off.

Ithlete – Daily HRV summary. Green is good, white is okay, orange is a warning, and red is a recommended day off.

Ithlete - HRV data over time, with TSS data shown in purple.

Ithlete – HRV data over time, with TSS data shown in purple.  Note the general waxing and waning of HRV over time, as a function of training loads.

Ithlete vs SweetBeat HRV Apps:

Note that I also tried the iPhone App called SweetBeat to measure HRV.  I actually ran them concurrently to see which I liked better.   SweetBeat is only $4.99 and provides more data besides HRV, including low and high frequency power readings.  The downside of SweetBeat versus Ithlete is twofold:

  • SweetBeat takes three minutes to perform.  It also has to stabilize first, so it actually takes longer.
  • I didn’t feel the data was as consistent.  One day I had a number around 74 on Ithlete and SweetBeat showed 68 (they never matched exactly, nor did I expect them to match).  I re-ran SweetBeat right afterwards, and it came up to 72 on the second try.  I also tried to create correlations in the SweetBeat and Ithlete apps, and could find very little correlation.  I also tried to correlate each to my chronic training load.  While Ithlete showed a very slight negative correlation (should be negatively correlated), Sweetbeat showed a weak correlation to the data… opposite of what HRV should do.
Here's a chart of my training load versus SB HRV and Ithlete HRV over time.  The training load and HRV data should move in opposite directions as a whole.

Here’s a chart of my training load versus SB HRV and Ithlete HRV over time. The training load and HRV data should move in opposite directions as a whole.

 

Additional Notes / Charts:

A graph showing the correlation between FitBit "wakes" and my TSS loads.  A reasonably identifiable trend.  I watch for wakes in excess of 10 per night, over a few days as a warning flag.  As a reference, after my accident I was seeing 30+ wakes per night as my body was frantically trying to repair itself.

A graph showing the correlation between FitBit “wakes” and my TSS loads. A reasonably identifiable trend. I watch for wakes in excess of 10 per night, over a few days as a warning flag. As a reference, after my accident I was seeing 30+ wakes per night as my body was frantically trying to repair itself.

Graph showing sleep quality, from Sleep Cycle app, plotted against TSS.  Here I'm watching the overall moving average to see the trend.  Near the end of the graph you can see my average moving down after several building weeks.  Early on the low average was mental stress (negotiating on my accident settlement) rather than training load.

Graph showing sleep quality, from Sleep Cycle app, plotted against TSS. Here I’m watching the overall moving average to see the trend. Near the end of the graph you can see my average moving down after several building weeks. Early on the low average was mental stress (negotiating on my accident settlement) rather than training load.

 

 

 

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