Monday, January 20, 2020

North Pole Engineering Runn Review (featuring Zwift): Real-time Speed, Incline and Cadence Treadmill Sensor

By Michael Ellenberger

North Pole Engineering Runn ($99)


The treadmill (or “dreadmill,” if you will) is something I’ve only started integrating into my running over the past few years. Why? I used to be ardently anti-treadmill; a member of the I-don’t-care-what-the-temperature-is-let’s-run-outside club. And you know what? That’s a great club to be in - nothing beats outdoor running, even in the occasional 10 or -10 degree day. But recently, I’ve come to appreciate the safety of a good treadmill - away from icy sidewalks and distracted drivers, especially when it gets dark before 4 PM - and it was one of the first things we purchased for our new condo.



But treadmill runners can recite a common issue. You’re cruising along, watching ESPN, or blasting CITIUS Mag, or whatever, and the treadmill clips past that first mile. But wait, you think, why hasn’t my watch chirped yet? A glance down tells you that your Garmin has recorded .92. Or .82. Or 1.52. Whatever it may be, indoor approximations done by GPS watches are often incorrect - especially during workouts, when you’re running at a different pace than your usual - and can be frustrating when uploaded to Strava, or whatever service you use.


Enter the North Pole Engineering (“NPE”) Runn sensor ($99). It’s a treadmill-anchored (via adhesive tape) smart sensor that tracks real-time speed, incline and cadence for any runner on the treadmill, sending it to your watch as any paired foot pod would. It paired to my Garmin Forerunner 245 with no issue, and pairs simultaneously (and separately) via Zwift to my iPhone or iPad. See current list of compatible watches here, including most Garmin models. We are seeking clarification on newer Coros, Suunto, and Polar which are not listed.

Yes, unlike a RunScribe+ or Stryd system - both of which are terrific in their own right - the Runn sensor stays attached to your treadmill, so no matter how many users are blasting miles, they can all receive output. The Runn also breathes new life into older treadmills - many nowadays can automatically send signals to Bluetooth-connected wearables, but most in use (as ours) are just lucky to be running in 2020. At about a hundred bucks, adding the Runn sensor is several orders of magnitude cheaper than buying an entirely new treadmill!

The Company

North Pole Engineering is based in Minneapolis, so presumably these guys know about treadmill weather (though, as a Minnesotan myself, they also know there's no bad weather - just bad clothing). I reached out to their team regarding what they saw as challenges in designing the Runn, as I had never seen (and I don't think there exists) a product like it on the market. NPE told me they wanted to create a product that was easy to setup and usable from the beginning - this was certainly achieved, as detailed below. Additionally, the variability in treadmill design and in treadmill implementation of cadence and incline means the Runn has to be adaptable - and accurate - in a massive number of different layouts. I only tested it on my at-home treadmill (an older NordicTrack C990), but just looking at the number of treadmill belt and deck designs, you begin to appreciate why the engineering is so complex.

A final challenge that NPE presented was ensuring runners trust the product. They've achieved this by having a detailed website (complete with helpful YouTube videos - these got me up and running!) and a dedicated customer support team. I'll also add here, in my experience, that just setting the pace to your treadmill and immediately seeing that reflected on the output from Runn really does provide a sense that the data is accurate. On my first run, I was frequently checking my watch (relaying the instant pace) to be sure the Runn was still connected and functional but, after that initial test, I knew that the data was solid, and I forgot the sensor was even there. It's just that reliable.

While I wasn't familiar with NPE before this test, they provide a wide array of electronics in the IOT space, and, in the fitness realm, have been making a GEM Bluetooth/ANT+ OEM module that exists inside a treadmill and provides the same data as the Runn. In addition, NPE has a version of the GEM module that supports connectivity to wearables like the Apple Watch through Apple’s GymKit program.

The Setup

Setting up the Runn is extremely easy. The unboxing process was shocking pleasant - from a company called North Pole Engineering, I was naively expecting more “electronic-Frankenstein’s-monster” and less “new iPhone.” Indeed, the packaging is understated but professional. Inside is the Runn unit, a micro-USB charger, three 3M double-sided adhesive pads, the silver stickers (attached to the belt, to reflect the light into the sensor), and some literature. As instructed, I charged the Runn sensor before bringing it downstairs.



Attaching the Runn sensor to the treadmill is also easy - and well detailed in the manual. You need to ensure the sensor sits about a half-inch from the treadmill belt (I attached mine to the raised plastic element towards the back of the treadmill), secure it with the adhesive pad, and attach the stickers to the belt. The sensor is designed to work with as few as one, but I added eight stickers - partially because I wasn’t sure if more would bring more consistency (they say it shouldn’t matter) and partially because I was fearful some would fall off. As noted by Ray from DC Rainmaker, using White-Out (yes, the redaction marker) should also work, and I’m thinking that, or a silver Sharpie, would be be a great permanent option.



Once my stickers were stuck, I ran a quick calibration (you set the treadmill to 5 MPH at 1% incline - easy!) and was off and running. Pun intended.

The Technology

By measuring the time it takes for a sticker to move from the first light to the second (both contained under the same hood of the sensor), the Runn is able to calculate your current pace. Using a three-axis accelerometer, the Runn can also pickup the treadmill’s current incline. It can broadcast these metrics to both Bluebooth and ANT+ devices, and simultaneously, meaning I can have my current pace on both my Garmin (I tested with the 245) and on my Bluetooth-connected iPhone or iPad running Zwift (more on that later).



The sensor also picks up your cadence by measuring your footsteps (vibrations) on the treadmill belt using the same accelerometer as previously mentioned. In the case I described above (where you just want more accurate data when using a Garmin), this isn’t so useful, because your watch does a decent job detecting cadence, anyway. However, if you’re running without a watch, and logging your run via Zwift, that data would not natively be detected, so adding the Runn sensor in fact adds meaningful data.

There is a battery in here, of course, and it recharges using micro USB. Because you adhere the mount to the treadmill deck, and not the actual sensor itself, you can pick it up and charge it away from the treadmill as needed. NPE says the battery should last for about 12 hours of running, and I have not yet needed to charge it (though I will, now that I’m writing this review, so that I don’t forget in the near future!).

The Results

How does the NPE Runn function in action? It just works! Seriously, once calibrated, I found the Runn sensor to be extremely accurate. For example, I ran a tempo-esque workout on the treadmill, with the faster sections beginning at 11 MPH (5:27 pace) and increasing by .2 mph at each mile. Checking the output on my watch, the Runn was able to pick up pace changes nearly instantaneously.

There were very few instances in which I temporarily lost signal, and none were long enough that Zwift had my avatar stop running (though on my watch, which I kept a close eye on, I could see it temporarily move the pace to --:--). That said, even when some of my stickers fell off (I was messing with my phone, see below, and kicked off two of them), I did not lose fidelity in the tracking. Moreover, NPE told me they've created a sticker template on our knowledge base for runners to use if they want to create similar sized, permanent markings on their belt (which is what I will be doing once I find the proper marking implement). Those who use more public treadmills may need to rely on the stickers, though the markings are designed to be placed at least 1 foot apart (something I didn't follow at first!), so it's not as though you're messing with your whole treadmill.

The NPE engineers also told me they've tested the Runn at up to 15 MPH, so most of us regular-joe's will not have any issue regarding pace (and good luck finding a treadmill that goes faster, anyway!).

Testing Zwift

If you’ve been on Strava - or you spend enough time around cyclists - you’ve probably heard of Zwift, the program, and Watopia, the luscious environment it has created. Every day, millions of cyclists (and now, runners) can escape their gyms and virtually exercise with other online users in a well-designed and scenic environment. While there is a subscription cost for cyclists, it’s currently free to use for runners. Account creation is immensely easy, and you can literally be running in minutes.


Pairing Zwift with the NPE Runn could not be easier. A single screen prompts you to “tap to pair” and, if your Runn unit is on, it shows up, and boom - you’re running in Watopia. Seriously, the interface is cartoony and a bit loud, but it’s quite idiot-proof.



We’ll call my Zwift testing thus far a beta - I think I need more time, and better electronics - to really see it through, and I hope to update this section (or a future standalone review) with more details. For one thing, I have really bad eyesight and the combination of our treadmill being in a dark basement and me trying Zwift at first on my iPhone meant I couldn’t see … anything. Cyclists were zipping past me, I was unlocking achievements, and I had no idea how or why anything was happening. Apparently you can turn? It took me several miles into the run even to figure that out. My iPad isn’t LTE equipped and I think the gym is beyond the reach of our wifi, but I should be able to tether my iPad to my iPhone and have a little more visibility of Watopia. For now, my review is just that the pairing works, and that Runn provides effortless data input into Zwift, so that your real-life instantaneous pace is fully represented as you navigate the virtual world.

Conclusion

At $99, I think the NPE Runn is a legitimate no-brainer for any runner who uses the treadmill routinely and wants more accurate data, or just wants to try Zwift. Yes, footpods like Stryd ($219) and RunScribe+ ($399) exist, and often provide more detailed metrics. And yes, both of those products are awesome - but if you want that level of data, you probably already own one of those units (and if you don’t, check out my review comparing them, or my updated Stryd review with Apple Watch Series 5, for more). But if you’re itching to spice up the treadmill with the virtual Watopia, want your Strava uploads to more closely match what you actually ran, or just want to breathe life into your old treadmill, I think the North Pole Engineering Runn is truly money well spent, and earns a whole-hearted recommendation from me.

Tester Profile
Michael Ellenberger is in his 20’s and is a 1:07 half marathoner. He runs 50-60 miles per week, generally in lightweight trainers or racing flats at around 6:00-6:30 minutes/mile. 

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