Going out for a run "tech-naked" is almost unheard of these days. It's rare that you'll see someone running without a device attached to their wrist, upper arm, or ears—sometimes all three. In fact, wearable technology was the hottest trend in fitness last year.
"Wearable tech has exploded," says Dr. Jason Forsyth, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at York College of Pennsylvania. "The pedometer used to be this thing on your hip, and it wasn't very interesting. Now fitness trackers and watches are sleek, and kind of a status symbol. People want to wear these things."
According to research firm CCS Insight, the wearables industry will grow to around $34 billion by 2020, with an expected 411 million devices sold.
Take a look at what's driving the evolution of wearable tech, especially for the running community, and where it might be headed next.
Accelerating the demand for running insights
"In all areas of our lives, right now everyone is concerned with their ‘quantified self,’" says Forsyth. "We have all these data sources in our lives that can be collected together—our eating, sleeping, fitness—to get a holistic view of ourselves. There are technology advances on the individual devices, but the larger ecosystem of data and a desire for better health and fitness in general are the major drivers."
The ability to self-evaluate and see performance trendscan a fun tool for amateur runners, and a game changer for those in serious training programs. In fact, runners of all levels are getting on board to some degree. In a 2015 survey of U.S. athletes, 91 percent said they wear a smartwatch when running.
"People want to learn more about their habits. How hard are they running? Did they get a good workout? Did they hit that physiological peak they are going for? What was the course like, and how did I do on this particular segment of the run? " says Forsyth. Today's technology is increasingly able to give runners answers, to help them identify weaknesses and improve their training.
Gear that really performs
Early wearables were full of promise, but could be frustrating to use under real conditions. Today’s models are making big leaps in design and functionality.
“People want devices that do not have to be recharged every couple of hours,” says Forsyth. GPS watches, in particular, are notorious for losing juice. Originally developed for the military, today’s consumers have access to a high-grade GPS that gets their location down to meters.
The problem is that GPS is a terrible energy hog, as it continually connects with satellites to update location data. In the last couple of years, however, runners have been relieved to see GPS battery life extend into double-digit hours—enough to power through a marathon.
Wearable comfort is also on the rise, especially for music lovers. If you're used to running with earbuds and holding your phone, you've probably longed for a better way to take your tunes with you. Luckily, says Forsyth, there have been major innovations in the headphone industry, allowing runners to find products that are lightweight, durable, and that will stay put as you run.
What's more, reliable wireless connectivity is finally here. If you want to lose the cables entirely while you’re running, a pair of quality Bluetooth headphones will do the job, says Forsyth. However, battery life can still be an issue for long distances—you'll want to make sure you have a full charge before you hit the trails.
The future of wearables is upon us
So what’s next for wearable tech? Forsyth is betting big on tech that uses artificial intelligence to customize each user’s experience. "There is so much personalized information that gets collected, but right now, the gadgets don't really adapt to you or change throughout the day. I think in the next evolution, systems will change their behaviors and adapt to me and my needs because it knows so much about me," he says. For runners, this might be a device that predicts how you’ll place in a race based on your past performance, and suggests a modified training program to improve your results.
He also expects wearables to move beyond the wrist. "I think we'll start seeing technology integrated into everything we wear. Maybe shoes will automatically count your steps, or you'll wear clothing that recognizes how well you're moving and which muscle groups are activating," he says.
In fact, a recent Sports Illustrated article showcased some promising non-wrist wearables that are just hitting the market, including sunglasses with embedded earphones to get real-time stride length and pace updates, sports bras that calculate anaerobic threshold,and sneakers with built-in sensors.
But don’t expect to see what Forsyth calls "heads up" products on the market anytime soon. "I would be surprised if we all started walking around with displays over our heads," he says. "People are used to wearing certain things, so expect wearable tech going forward to continue to be on our arms, shoes, and body."