Pace-Man and Output Sports give fitness training the personal touch

If your 2019 fitness goal includes successfully running a marathon, keep reading . . .

 

In October Dr Cailbhe Doherty ran his first marathon in 3 hours 34 minutes. He started his training programme 20 weeks out and his secret weapon was Pace-Man, a newly developed app that leverages big data and running analytics to help runners achieve their race goals.

Doherty had a vested interest in using Pace-Man successfully. He is one half of the brains behind it. The other is fellow physiotherapist and fitness enthusiast, Dr Alison Keogh. Doherty has a PhD in sports science while Keogh’s doctorate is in behavioural change. Both work as post-doctoral researchers at the UCD-based Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

“Pace-Man provides runners with real-time coaching. It’s a bit like always having your coach in your ear telling you how to progress and it uses scientific data to underpin this so runners can be confident in the advice they are given,” Keogh says.

“Our aim is to help marathon runners to prepare, predict and pace their race. We do this by offering them individualised and adaptable strategies both in the lead-up to the race and within the race itself. We’ve developed the system using the race results of over eight million marathon runners to identify course-specific strategies. For example, you’re not likely to run a fast course like Berlin the same way as you’d run a slower course like Dublin. If you’re having a good run it will adapt in-race to give you a new strategy and will do the same if you’re not having a great day.”

Pace-Man’s competition is the current slew of running apps. However, Keogh points out that their big drawback is that they’re generic.

Pace-Man works whether you run like greased lightning or prefer to take things at a gentler pace

“They offer runners little more functionality than a notebook,” she says. “Pace-Man is the only app on the market that provides a pacing guide. Existing options simply give runners their pace but don’t provide any advice around what do with it and whether they need to change it. It’s up to users to calculate their own race plan and to remember and stick to it. This may work when everything is going well but if there is a glitch, runners are left to reconfigure their race in their heads as they run.”

Pace-Man works whether you run like greased lightning or prefer to take things at a gentler pace. “It can be very difficult to improve your time by even 10 minutes so having a device that trains and coaches you through a course based on your previous performances and on the actual route you plan to run, is a really valuable tool,” Keogh says.

Pace-Man is a pre-start based at Nova UCD. The founders launched the app at the London marathon last April and, following this pilot, the app was tweaked for the Dublin marathon in October. As of now full marathons are the company’s focus, but the next step is to expand into half marathons, 10kms and the overall running market.

Investment in the project to date has been about €250,000 which has come from an Enterprise Ireland commercialisation fund grant. The founders have also recently raised €650,000 to build out the app and develop a version that works with the Garmin device used by a large number of runners. At the moment the app works only with an Apple smartwatch. It is currently free to download and has more than 700 users. Keogh says the product will have its full commercial launch in 2020 and that the venture is likely to be spun out from UCD later this year.

Also based at Nova UCD is a second fitness-related startup, Output Sports, which has developed a wearable sensor that measures and helps optimise elite athlete performance. Its founders are sports medicine and wearable sensors expert, Dr Darragh Whelan, Dr Martin O’Reilly, whose background is in engineering and sports science, and Julian Eberle, a theoretical physicist and international athlete (he represented Ireland at Olympic handball) who spent three years in data analytics with Citigroup before being enticed to join Output Sports.

Our system brings a whole new level of portability to athlete testing and tracking

Existing systems for testing and tracking athletic performance are expensive, cumbersome, and generally measure only single elements of an athlete’s overall fitness at one time. The Output Sports device is compact, minimally intrusive, can be easily moved around the body and can multi-task, measuring attributes such as strength, balance and flexibility all in one go.

“The idea was developed from the PhD research completed by myself and Martin which investigated how wearable technology could be used to augment strength training and injury risk assessment, and our system brings a whole new level of portability to athlete testing and tracking,” Whelan says.

“At an elite level, the current methods make testing and tracking resource-intensive from a cost and time standpoint. This means strength coaches and medics working in high-performance environments have less time to spend time doing what they love – coaching and rehabilitating athletes.

“At a sub-elite sports level, many of the existing technologies are prohibitively expensive and impractical for coaches. This means they rely on subjective techniques such as visual analysis and self-reporting which are often unreliable and inaccurate.

“Output Sports provides a simple-to-use, end-to-end solution that tests and tracks sporting performance with laboratory grade accuracy and then takes things a step further by integrating this data to allow for improved training programmes, injury risk stratification and talent identification.”

Output Sports is initially being launched as a B2B solution aimed at the elite sports market with the recreational sports sector to follow. For now, however, the focus is on conquering the upper echelons and there are currently 25 elite and top flight teams in Ireland and the UK trialling the product which has been in development for the past 12 months. The development of the Output Sports sensor has been supported by a €320,000 grant from the Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund for third-level researchers and the product will have its official launch in October.

The sensors themselves are a commodity and will be bought off the shelf. What customers will pay for – through a recurring licence fee – will be the data and, more specifically, for having it crunched into actionable insights to improve performance and minimise injury.

“At present, the system is targeted towards the elite level and its big appeal for them is its simplicity and the fact that it provides greater data integration than was previously possible. However, as the system is sports agnostic, anyone interested in tracking the components of fitness is a potential customer. Our long-term aim is to shrink pro sports analytics into a tiny wearable for the recreational market,” Whelan says.

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