Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Suunto T4c Review – A heart rate monitor with a coach inside

April 28, 2009 by · 23 Comments 

t4cI am injured.

I injured myself because I was trying to do too much too fast. Specifically, I have a non-serious, but rather painful overuse knee injury. However, the type of injury I currently have is not important. The point is that I tried to do too much too soon in hopes of ‘speeding up’ my sports performance.

In order to prevent this kind of injury when you are ramping up your training, almost all (I have yet to see a contrarian view on this) coaches and sports medicine professionals recommend some level of recovery post exercise. I did not do that. I wanted fast results and I wanted them now.

Scientific training is about training at a challenging level appropriate to your current state of physical stamina, but then followed by a period of recovery. This period of recovery is important for your body to heal itself before the next bout (see articles at bottom of this post for more info on recovery).

Before I go any further, let me just state that I’m not a medical practitioner of any kind, so consult your physician before starting any new workout.

Building up motivation to go and workout is hard enough. Now add to that the complexity of planning how much to exercise to get results and how much time you need to take off between exercises to prevent injury and you’ve got yourself a full time job. This is why serious athletes have coaches or trainers. They help you increase load whilst decreasing your chance of injury.

So what can avid amateurs like me do to reduce our chance of injury and still progress? Well, the first thing you can do (and which I did) is read a bunch of books and magazines on how to train, and organize a plan around those suggestions. A good rule of thumb many recommend to check to see if you’re overtraining is to check your resting heart rate the day after a workout to see if you’ve recovered (more on this here). If you haven’t, you take a rest day. However, this process is a bit kludgy, as you have to be pretty disciplined about recording your data to get this to work.

Another alternative to the self-planned option is the hiring of a coach or trainer. I looked into that, but with rates of 100GBP a month, in the course of a year, you could buy yourself a cheap used car (or a new bike).

And lastly, you can try and use some of the latest training watches on the market. Polar and Suunto both have some, but in this review we will cover the Suunto T4c, which, through some technology they’ve implemented from Firstbeat Technologies, allows your watch, to effectively become your coach.

Before going into the nitty gritty of whether the watch works or not, let me try and explain what Suunto’s technology tries to do in theory.

Traditional heart rate monitor training involves taking your heart rate up to a certain point where you are ‘doing work’ and then maintaining it there in order to achieve some level of progress. Everyone’s body is different so an easy way of thinking about this is in percentages. Heart rate training usually involves going to a certain percentage range of your maximum heart rate to achieve a certain result. For example, training in the 70-80% zone of your maximum heart rate is usually considered to improve your aerobic fitness.  More on heart rate zones and training here: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/hrm1.htm

However, therein lies the problem. How hard to train when starting and for how long? Then, how long to rest?

The Suunto T4c tries to address this with two technologies they have integrated into their T4c watch from Firstbeat Technologies, a Finnish company. The first called ‘training effect’ and the second called ‘coach’.

Below is Training Effect explained by Suunto’s Manual:

There is a significant difference between heart rate zone (temporary training intensity) and training effect (total load of a workout). In zone training you try and keep your heart rate at a certain level throughout the whole workout. With training effect you just need to reach the desired target once during the workout.

Suunto (Firstbeat Technologies) has given the training effect concept 5 levels. The training effects of the following numbers is listed below:

  • 1-1.9 Minor effect to your condition
  • 2-2.9 Maintaining your condition
  • 3-3.9 Improving your condition
  • 4-4.9 Highly improving your condition
  • 5.0   Over-reaching

More on training effect can be found here

So, in summary, training effect lets you know when to stop and how much harder or slower you need to go during a session so as to reach your goal and avoid under-reaching or over-reaching (and risk injury).

The second part of the Suunto equation within the T4c, is the coach feature. This takes care and simplifies the process of deciding when to exercise next based on how you exercised recently. If I worked out really hard today, for example, at a training effect level 4, how many days do I take off, or do I put in a ‘recovery’ session at a lower intensity? The coach feature simplifies this and in a very simple form tells you what you need to do for the upcoming week, day-by-day to reach your objectives and avoid injury.

Image from FirstBeat Technologies

Image from FirstBeat Technologies

So how does this all play out in practice? Well, let me use the T4c for a month or so beyond the test runs that I’ve done to date before I give you my final conclusions,  but so far, it seems to work well.

The T4c is a complex piece of kit. What it sets out to do with the training effect + coach features is not something that has been done before in a wrist watch, and thus learning to navigate and use the watch will be your first task, and a lengthy one at that. I feel that after about 3 days of playing with it, re-reading parts of the manual and doing at least six ‘test’ sessions, I’m getting the hang of how all the features come together. 3 days may seem like a lot to those of you that are very technically adept, but remember, you need to be able to intuitively know which button to press when you are exercising so that whilst in a state of tiredness, you don’t accidentally stop the watch when you just wanted to add a lap or turn on the light. If there is any fault with the watch so far, I would say it is in how Suunto helps the user explore and learn how to use the watch and all its functions. You almost need a video to follow some of the instructions.

Learning curve aside, the T4c is an attractive looking digital watch. It isn’t bulky, so wearing it under a sleeve as a regular watch is fine. Its conservative circular shape doesn’t scream ‘fitness-nut’ like some others do, and the quality of the plastic materials used are solid-feeling and smooth, leading to a comfortable fit. The only physical flaw that is well documented across the web with these watches is how easily you can scratch the display. That is why I bought a screen protector from Zagg (link to review) to prevent this from happening.

The display itself is easy to read, although with the Zagg protector on it, I feel some visibility is compromised at angles. What is absolutely horrible to read, though, are the words that describe the functions of the buttons within the bezel. These words say Start/Stop, Lap +, Mode, Light, and View/Back in clockwise order, but you literally have to hold the watch up within inches of your face to even see them, never-mind read them. Suunto could have used a darker (black) font color to make these stand out better.

The user interface and how the data is displayed on the display is another win for Suunto on this watch. Suunto has used the circular edges of the display to represent, in an analog fashion, where your heart is on a scale. This reminds me of how an RPM gauge works in a car. On the opposite corner of the heart rate ‘RPM’ gauge, is the training effect ‘gauge’ which almost works like a system-heat or ‘inverse’ gas gauge in a car.

Because of the analog representation of these two figures, it is far easier to see  and ‘feel’ where you are in your range vs. just seeing your heart rate as a number (but the display will show you that if you want it to).

Generally speaking, the watch has two modes. Time mode and Training mode. In time mode, you can cycle through not only displaying the time, but also other things like the weekday, date, seconds, and dual time. In training mode, however, you have a far vaster array of display options including, calories, average heart rate, lap time, distance*, average speed*, maximum speed*, and of course, desired training effect and the time left for you to reach it.

*(depending on whether you have a foot or road bike pod to use)

Going back to my point on complexity, how you reach and adjust the menus that drive the training effect and coach functions is not intuitive, but the patience is rewarded with good log info about your sessions after the fact (and even better if you have the PC pod to download the data, stay tuned for the review). An unfortunate downside to the logs, though, is your inability to delete those which were accidentally created if you have it in automatically-save mode; to prevent this, leave the watch in ‘ask’ mode so that it asks you whether you want to save your session after every reset button press.

With my Suunto T1c, I did experience a system ‘crash’ whereby I had to remove the battery to get the watch to restart, but so far I have not had that happen with the T4c. I will keep you posted should it happen in the future, particularly since this could be detrimental to how the coach features has and will adapt your training schedule, for any logs would be wiped.

So how is the T4c during a training session?

Well, part of the reason why I needed to do so many test runs was because I couldn’t help myself during my exercise in wanting to see what all the features did. This inevitably led to me screwing something up and having to restart my session the first few times. However, for the most part the T4c works as advertised. The watch recognized the heart rate belt (which, by the way, is one of the most comfortable I’ve used) and the road bike pod pretty quickly, starting showing the data being recorded quickly, and legibly displayed all the things I needed with its 3 line display; letting you see not only the lap time, but also, other data in addition to the circular displays of your heart rate and training effect. Quite a bit of info!

At no point did I have an issue with losing the heart rate strap’s signal from the watch, but then again, I have only used it on a bike outside and not in a busy gym. However, the signals are uniquely digitally encoded, so in theory, this shouldn’t pose as a problem.

The most important part, the training effect, was an interesting thing to observe during a workout. For example, the coach feature told me that I need to do a training effect level 3, so I went out and did it, and whilst doing it, the time to achieve it varied depending on much effort I was using. When going up a hill, and my heart rate skyrocketed, the time to achieve my training effect went down and when I was in flat areas, it changed again to a larger time to achieve the desired training effect. This is how I conceptualized the watch to work when I read about this feature, so I was pleased to see that it does adapt to how you are working out, since while running or biking in the real world, you inevitably hit hills!

The coach feature also did a curious thing, I tried to trick it by doing a far larger workout my second day than it had recommended. What did it do? Instead of just ‘sticking’ to the week plan it had given me before my workout, it changed the amount of rest days I needed to accommodate the amount of work I did so far. Cool stuff! You needn’t worry too much about selecting the ‘right’ activity level for the Coach feature when you start off as well, for it will adapt itself quickly to your actual training and automatically change the level for you.

So, in conclusion, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Learning curve and scratch-sensitive screen aside, the T4c may actually be that tool many of us need to keep to our new year’s resolutions without getting ourselves into that destructive cycle of overdoing things early on, and then having to take a rest due to injury.

I will update this post in a month’s time or so after I’ve had a chance to see how the coach feature helps me improve, but I may have to take a little bit of a hiatus beforehand to reduce some of the swelling my knees and ego have received from over-training.

Update:

So I’ve slowly started to recover from my overuse injury. Whilst I’m not back in 100% shape, nor can I cycle more than 8Km without getting sore knees, I’ve been running and hiking to get back into shape. I’ve been using the T4c as part of this ‘rehab’ and it’s been pretty useful actually. Firstly, from being in top shape, I’ve seen my Activity Level within the T4c drop as the weeks went by down to 1. Yes, the lowest, but from there I’ve worked my way back up to 3. The T4c does check to see how much you’ve trained (based on the saved logs) and then will increase (or decrease) your activity level depending on how you’re doing. So far so good.

The only minor niggles I’ve had with it so far is that you have to be careful about what buttons your push since I’ve accidentally stopped sessions whilst trying to add a lap. I can see why the Polars uses a front facing button. Also, when running, I find the little display at the bottom of the screen sometimes difficult to read with the jumping up and down motion of running. The font is small and I’ve missed the finishing of my training effect session because I couldn’t hear the beep of when it ends (low sound) nor see it unless I stopped. Which brings me to a question that was asked in the comments about the adjustability of what is displayed. You can cycle through different displays that are dependent on the pods you are using, however you can’t cross customize what is displayed on these that well. In other words, you can’t take the speed display and remove the time and put your heart rate. You have to cycle through the displays in a linear fashion to get back to the heart display, nor can you move the little TE display to the larger middle display.

Aside from the customization and visibility mid-exercise, this is an excellent product that I do recommend. I will continue updating as the life of the device increases, and I also have the PC pod which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Appendix:

Other Related Chromewalker posts –

Suunto Road Bike Pod Review – https://chromewalker.com/?p=1135

Garmin Edge 705 Review – https://chromewalker.com/?p=881

Garmin 50 Review – https://chromewalker.com/?p=996

Suunto Road Bike Pod Review – https://chromewalker.com/?p=1135

Suunto T4C’s product Page –

http://www.suuntocampaigns.com/tseries/

Further Articles on recovery-

http://www.copacabanarunners.net/i-supercompensation.html

http://www.brianmac.co.uk/recovery.htm

http://www.time-to-run.com/training/articles/recovery.htm

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