While other big brands like Nike and Adidas have dabbled but ultimately decided to step away from connected footwear, Under Armour continues to bet big on the future of running shoes being smart.
Its new Hovr smart running shoes still tracks your runs and sends the stats to your smartphone. Under Armour now boasts a bigger line-up with styles to suit a much wider range of runners. They’re smarter too, offering new running form metrics and helpful post-run coaching advice.
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These next generation Hovr smart running shoes go on sale from 1 February 2019 priced at $120. So there’s a few months to wait before you can slip your feet into them.
But do we really want chips in our shoes? I was fortunate enough to be invited to Under Armour’s design labs in Portland to put the HOVR Infinite shoes to the test.
Under Armour Hovr Infinite: Design
The connected range features five shoes the Infinite, Guardian, Velociti 2, Phantom SE and Sonic 2. These are all designed primarily for road or track and cater for a full range of running needs. The Infinite looks after your everyday regular runs, the lighter and faster Velociti are designed for tempo runs and speed, the Guardian are the stability shoe in the line-up.
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There are gendered versions with design tweaks that address the differences between men’s and women’s feet. Women’s feet, so I’m told, are more sensitive and so there are different softer sock liners and cushioned tongues on some models.
Tech-loving trail runners can also look forward to off-road shoes that’ll boast the connected sensors too. That’s in the pipeline.
I only got to run in the Under Armour Hovr Infinite and while I’m not going to do a full running shoe review here, the important thing to point out is that all of the shoes in the range look, wear and work just like normal running shoes. Aside from a little Bluetooth logo on the insole, you’d never know there was a chip inside. And that’s a good thing.
These are probably Under Armour’s best running shoes to date and can certainly hold their own against similar competitor models. The tech doesn’t come at the expense of comfort or quality and importantly it doesn’t interfere with the way they run at all.
That’s largely because the brains of the shoe is a 6mm thick proprietary sensor about the size of a US quarter, weighing less than 30g. It’s embedded into the middle of the right foot midsole and boasts an accelerometer to track your movement and Bluetooth to fire the data to the MapMyRun app on your smartphone. It’s fully weatherproof and though we didn’t get to run through any puddles or streams, Under Armour says the sensor can withstand that.
The men’s shoes weigh 305 grams while the women’s come in at 248g
Interestingly there’s only one sensor, so we’re talking one-foot tracking much like Stryd. This was done to keep the costs down and because Under Armour don’t currently feel adding a second sensor brings much more to the party. It’s also more complicated to crunch effective data.
The sensor’s battery life has been designed to outlast the life of the shoe so you never need to charge them. It’s all part of a Under Armour’s desire to make the experience as seamless as possible and that is a big win here.
The other half of the design equation is the MapMyRun app integration. MapMyRun is a highly capable GPS tracking with all the bells and whistles you’d expect and Under Armour has done a good job of making it stupidly simple to connect your shoes and see your data.
The app automatically recognises that there are connected shoes nearby, shows you a photo of the model of shoes and with three taps you’re set up and ready to run. The whole process took less than 3 minutes and once you’re synced, MapMyRun will automatically reconnect with the shoes when you open the app. So there’s no pre-run faff, you just lace up, hit start on the app and go.
There is a problem here, however. The HOVR shoes currently only work with MapMyRun, there’s no way to connect the shoes direct to Strava or third party apps and frustratingly MapMyRun data can’t be fired into Strava either. The shoes don’t even work with Under Armour’s other run tracking GPS app, Endomondo. So if you’re not one of the 45 million MapMyRun users then this might instantly lose appeal.
There’s also currently no way to get your data to appear on any of the major running watches, though we’re told that Garmin, Suunto and Apple Watch connectivity is on the roadmap.
The shoes can also be upgraded with over the air updates so we expect regular new features to be unlocked. It’s a nice touch that your shoes can keep getting smarter after you’ve bought them.
Under Armour Hovr Infinite: What does it track?
While earlier generations of the connected shoes only covered the basics of distance, pace and duration, this fourth generation provide cadence and stride length too.
Cadence is an obvious metric to add and stride length is there because Under Armour claims over striding is one of the biggest causes of injury and inefficiency in runners. The pod is tracking much more than that so we’d expect other running gait metrics to be added but the developers told us this would only happen when they felt the data could be reliable and accurate.
There’s definitely a sense here that Under Armour is taking small steps with the stats the shoes reveal so they don’t cater for new metrics such as power or offer foot strike like you get with other run trackers like Arion.
If you want to run phone-free, the pod does all the tracking and your data can be synced later. Though in order to get real time readouts of your stats you’ll need to run with your phone. There’s no option to connect the shoes direct to a set of Bluetooth headphones.
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When you run with your phone distance is tracked using a combination of GPS and data captured by the pod’s accelerometer. The latter helpfully fills in any gaps in GPS tracking for improved accuracy.
With MapMyRun it’s also possible to pair third party sensors so you can combine data captured by the shoes with heart rate, for example. In fact, you can think of the shoes as an accessory that brings more data to MapMyRun.
One thing we really liked was the ability to connect multiple shoes to the app and have it automatically recognise which ones you’re wearing. Most runners will use different shoes for different runs and this allows you to seamlessly swap shoes.
Each shoe gets its own data screen too where you can see stats specific to how you’ve run in that shoe. This includes the cumulative distance, total steps, when you last synced that shoe and your latest runs.
Under Armour Hovr Infinite: Post run coaching and stats
Post-run, your data is synced automatically with the the MapMyRun app and you can access all the run stats you’d usually get, plus your average stride length and average cadence displayed on the usual post-run screen.
What’s different for connected shoe owners is a little red shoe icon that shows you’ve tracked your run with the footwear and a bar that appears over the route map that you can tap for so-called personalised coaching tips based on your performance for the run you’ve just done.
On this tips screen you get to see your average stride length versus a target range, a chart that plots your stride length against the target minute-by-minute and a graphic that shows your average stride length over time. You can also calculate your target stride length according to your pace. For example, it recommends 155 – 177 cm range for us running at 7:15 min/mile and 184 – 206 cm at 6:00 minute miles.
There are also three text-based tips that form the coaching element. We’ve only run a couple of times with the shoes but we compared our tips to those a number of other runners received and they were largely all the same. So it’s not 100 per cent clear just how personalised these will be. Certainly from what we’ve seen they’re not that tailored.
On the whole, the coaching element feels a little rudimentary at the moment. While being able to look at your post-run data is useful, the lack of real-time coaching feels like a gap Under Armour will need to plug to make these more useful.
Ideally we’d want to know our cadence or stride length is flagging during our run and having some advice on how to correct it. This kind of real-time coaching is offered by products like the LifeBeam Vi headphones, Sensoria and Lumo Run. Again, the Under Armour developers told us this is in the pipeline.
Under Armour Hovr Infinite: Early verdict
Connected shoes have come and gone. Up until now they haven’t really managed to make the big breakthrough to the mainstream. All too often they’ve been a bit of a gimmick where too much attention is paid to the tech over the run experience.
With the HOVR Infinite, it feels like Under Armour has moved this on. They’ve made competitive running shoes that happen to be smart. And they’ve done it without making the shoes more expensive. The running experience is also about as seamless as I’ve experienced. That’s a pretty powerful combination.
Is the tracking and coaching perfect? Not yet. The lack of real time coaching is a big omission and we’d like to see more metrics tracked. There’s also a big question mark over whether non-MapMyRun users will want to switch apps just to use the shoes. That’ll largely be solved once Under Armour lets you sync your shoe data to your running watch. The new shoes make a good first impression and I’m looking forward to spending more time getting to know what they’re capable of.