How Data Became the Essential Tool for Modern Adventure Athletes
Now more than ever, real-time data allows professional endurance athletes and everyday adventure enthusiasts to push harder while staying safer.
Hauling over 200 pounds of gear on a pedal-to-peaks trip through Pacific Northwest wilderness is no time to get lost, yet that’s how ski mountaineer Brody Leven found himself in June of 2014 in the Gifford Pinochet National Forest. Leaving his bike, camping gear, and glacier equipment at the end of an access road, Leven had hiked up the 12,280-foot volcano for an end-of-the-season run through the Washington backcountry. “But I didn’t plan that I would ski out a different place than I hiked up,” Leven says, “and suddenly there wasn’t a trail, because it was still covered in snow. I realized I had no idea where I was.”
Though he’d used a Garmin fēnix GPS smartwatch for years, it was the first time Leven thought to employ its TracBack feature, allowing a user to find a starting point either by retracing the path they traveled or by drawing a simple straight line from their current location to a previous one. A quick mile hike and Leven was reunited with his gear, closing out his 500-mile trek through the Cascades.
For Leven, who defines ski mountaineering as “climbing and skiing that which no one else wants to ski,” a 55,000 vertical-foot tour through the PNW is a relative walk in the park. It’s the gnarly stuff – say, a solo trip through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru in 2009 – that requires the life-or-death precision provided by the Garmin fēnix Series, combined with a whole lot of amount of pre-trip prep.
On such expeditions, Leven has made frequent use of the Garmin fēnix 6’s geocaching and waypoint capabilities, digging through the snow to burrow away food supplies or an extra tent on the mountain for when it’s needed. “Everything I do is self-supported, so it's not like I'm carrying a big flag I can put in the ground,” Leven says. “I’ll stand right on top of whatever I bury, mark that, and know that will be the only option to bail me out a couple days or weeks later.” In Peru, battling white-out conditions in an unfamiliar mountain range, the altimeter (gauging elevation based on changes in air pressure) helped track the way when Leven, then 20, was fighting blind. “The only beta I had for some of these mountains was ‘make the camp at 12,000 feet,’” he says. “If you hit 13,000 feet, there are crevasses on that ledge and you can’t set up there. These safety features really help me to achieve my goal of pushing it as far as I’m comfortable with while staying alive. It’s enhancing my safety, and my overall enjoyment of being out there and not falling into a crevasse.”
Rebecca Rusch, ultra-endurance pro, author, and general outdoor polymath, echoed that idea of wearable tech as enhancement – perhaps, though, as the second line of defense. “My early relationship was skeptical because I love a compass and paper map, spreading it over a giant table and planning where you’re going,” says Rusch, who used the bike mountable Garmin Edge during the trek that became her Emmy-winning documentary Blood Road. “But having this data – like a barometer to know when a storm is coming in – is amazing for navigation on the fly. Also, it’s helped me to respect environmental aspects like heat, cold, and altitude. If your heart rate isn’t high because your heart isn’t adapting to the low oxygen on a high-altitude race, it’s better to just go for exertion. If you try to hit the numbers you’re doing at sea level, you can hit a hole you’re not going to come out of.”
Being able to read and respond to the natural world without fumbling with a wet map or the on-and-off hassle of gloves is a major appeal of the fēnix 6 series, whether it’s worn in the Peruvian backcountry or at one of 2,000 ski resorts for which Garmin has preloaded trail and difficulty maps; whether a climber is using the altimeter to find the proper ledge for belay on a big wall multi-pitch, or using its GPS function to find the beginners rock wall in a single shot.
But reading the world is just half of the puzzle: The new generation of multisport GPS watches also read the body, allowing the user to sync their needs with the demand of the terrain. In addition to performance features like heart rate monitor, v02 Max, and performance condition, as of this year all Garmin fēnix models include a pulse oximeter, allowing users to monitor the level of oxygen saturation in their bloodstream to gauge how they’re responding to altitude – and, crucially, when they need to rest. “My watch can tell me whether or not I'm realistically going to climb a certain feature, and can tell me how long I need to take to rest based on today's exertion,” says Leven.
Rusch, too, finds that digital call to rest important. “The tech doesn’t lie,” she says. “If my power output isn’t where it should be, I’ll think ‘I’m sucking today, why is that?’ It makes you sit and think about balance in your life, to see what the patterns are and how that’s reflected.” Even the most actively ambitious of us are pulled in a million directions–work, kids, car repairs–that distract us from tuning in to our body signals, so seeing the link between stress and performance objectively in the form of a readout is vital. “Smart users are going to treat the data as a wake-up call to be more human, to sleep, or meditate, or take a day off based on what it’s telling you,” Rusch says.
As academic research incorporates the data provided by durable, wearable tech, studies increasingly show that the feedback such gear is providing is crucial to keeping athletes healthy. At the academic level, researchers have used advanced motion-capture devices to determine how to limit the risk of ligament injury in short ski turns. Sensors inside helmet linings and mouth guards have helped researchers to better understand the impacts that lead to concussions in the NFL. Even for the average mountain biker or skier, investing in helmet sensors, smartwatches and other wearable tech lets an athlete respond in real-time to avoid injury and shoot for peak performance. Garmin’s assistance and incident detection features are a prime example—if a user feels unsafe or their watch senses an incident has occurred, an automated message is sent to their emergency contacts with their name, LiveTrack link, and GPS location.
“In the past seven years or so, advances in consumer tech have allowed for athletes to measure their output as unobtrusively and continuously as possible,” says Dhruv Seshadri, a PhD candidate in wearable sensors and predictive analytics at Case Western Reserve University. “The numbers that are coming out can mean something to an athlete in real-time, to figure out their load management in a way that reduces chances of soft tissue injury.” In runners, for example, having access to immediate data from an accelerometer, like the one on-board the Garmin fēnix 6, may inform their training regimens depending on their load, helping them to know when to push harder and when to rest more—and how to do so more efficiently.
Rapid-response feedback is proving crucial for amateurs pushing themselves without the aid of a pacesetting team or any additional aid. Martin Criminale, a 55-year-old blogger and endurance athlete, has found the power meter capability of a Garmin system to help keep pace and avoid “the most common mistake all competitive runners on 10k plus or super-long trail races make: going out too fast.” For Criminale – for whom a good day is a “100-mile plus ride in the mountains or road riding” – having the data at-hand has been essential to pursuing 50ks in his fifth decade. “As you get fitter, your effort increases and you want to push harder, but it’s difficult to go easy when you need to go easy,” he says. “If you don’t have a coach and you’re doing it solo, it really helps.”
There’s a major appeal in the solitude of going alone or in small groups, whether that’s a coachless weekend trek or a years-in-the-making expedition above the treeline, away from it all, with no room for error. In both settings, the modern athlete’s ability to rely on cutting edge, wearable technology and data-driven decision-making is key to staying safe and keeping on course.