Sports In-Ear Monitors (IEM): Corded or Bluetooth?

Word of caution: Please exercise vigilance when plugging in during an outdoor workout. Be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. The majority of my listening happen in the gym, at the KLCC Park (where there are high human traffic) and 1K loops around my housing area. I don’t recommend running solo with the ears plugged. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume, nor for an extended period of time.

With more than half of my week’s running done in the gym, I’m pretty much plugged into my iPod whenever I’m at it. Stock earphones that come with the media devices and smartphones just won’t do it for me. They’re sonically harsh to the ears and don’t fit well, often dislodging from the ears as you get progressively sweaty.

While you can wear just about anything (including over-the-ear types provided you don’t care about the sniggers you get from others) when working out, it’s always more practical to go with sports models which are weather/sweat/shock/dust-resistant. Consider as well, those that come with multiple sized ear-buds and in-ear hooks (usually made of silicone, example here) for a customized and secure fit, or how some brands are supposed to be worn. Case in point, Shure’s recommended method of fitting (see here).  As you can expect, there are a bewildering variety for which to choose from and much depends on your preferences and budget.

Since I’ve had experiences with IEMs of varying price-point and brands, from Sony, Yurbuds, Ultimate Ears, Shure, JBL, Bose, and Griffin to Jabra, I thought I could point out some obvious and not-so-obvious tidbits for you, what with the holiday shopping season coming up.

First, some pros and cons on each type.

Corded

  • Pros
    • No-brainer connection – Stick the 3.5mm jack into the portable and you’re ready to rock and roll.
    • Cheap to expensive – Prices can start from RM70 to RM450. Non-sports models can even sport a RM1,000 price tag, but you won’t be using those in the gym anytime soon!
      Audio quality – You get what you pay for due to the components (e.g. drivers, cabling) used in the production of the IEMs. Since audio quality should always matter if you love your music, a general rule of thumb is to stay away from those sub-RM100 models.
  • Cons
    • Pesky cords – You’re hard-pressed for time and want to just go but untangling those bits are a pain. These days, many manufacturers tend to put some attention to the design by using braided or flat cords to reduce tangling but it still happens to some degree.
    • Fit – Cheap IEMs may not come with replaceable ear tips and the last thing you’d want is your IEMs getting dislodged due to sweat. Noise-isolating types will improve sound quality as well.
    • Choices – There are a wide variety to choose from. Finding one that fits you well, provides good audio quality and yet doesn’t bust your wallet is often a maddening process of trial and error.

Bluetooth

  • Pros
    • Wireless! ‘Nuff said.
    • One-time setup/pairing – In theory. In the case of Jabra, switching devices will require a reset on the IEM and a fresh pairing on the new device. This is regardless if the 2 had been paired previously, which is annoying. Other makers may have different setup.
    • Audio quality – You get what you pay for, although in a critical listening scenario, a wired headphone will almost always trump a wireless one.
  • Cons
    • Pairing – If you’ve multiple devices in which your media files sit, such as an iPod and an iPhone, you may need to unpair the previously set device. I’ve only ever use Jabra and that’s one of their misgivings.
    • Battery life – Typically maxed out at 5 hours and below. OK for the most part but may be too short if you race an ultra, for example. Additionally a micro-USB cable or a proprietary charging dock (in the case of the Sony Smart B-Trainer) is necessary for recharging purposes.
    • Needs charging – Full charge typically takes 2.5 hours
    • Pairing – May not be a consistent experience, depending on the brand. Refer to the same point under Pros above.
    • Cost – Typically twice (or more) the price of a corded variety.

So here are my preferences:

Devices

IEMs

  • Sony AS800AP
  • Jabra Sport Rox Wireless (reviewed here)
  • Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless (iPhone required since it works best with the app. Reviewed here)

The RM317 (10% rebate if you hold a MySony membership) waterproof  Sony AS800AP has been a real joy to use. It has all the ruggedized features, great fit courtesy of the in-ear hooks and multiple-sized buds, and simply sounds fabulous. Its wide frequency response of 5Hz to 25KHz provides a controlled low-end (necessary in a workout setting) yet has enough of the mids and highs to keep you engaged in the train ride home. The AS800AP would be the one I’d bring along anywhere. There’s a significantly more expensive Bluetooth version as well but that one has a 5-hour battery life and a narrower frequency band.

Since we’re at it, I might as well cover a little on home listening. My favorite unit at home is the Sony MDR-1A (reviewed by What Hi-Fi | Head Fi). While there are esoteric and hi-fi brands out there which cost an arm and a leg, recent models from Sony have been fantastic, providing excellent listening experience each I put them on. While home listening doesn’t require the thumping bass of sports IEMs, the music doesn’t need to come out flat either, and the MDR-1A has an ultra wide frequency response to handle just about the genres I typically listen to. The amount of clarity alone was the best I’ve experienced. It works fantastic with the 64GB Mi Note which has a built-in DAC and amp (that bit of power brings the music to live and able to drive most headphones). Additionally, the Mi Note handles uncompressed and lossless formats like FLAC, APE, and DSD, among others, like a charm out of the box. If there’s one media device you should get as a portable media player, it’s the Mi Note (I’d use it like an iPod Touch). And yes, it’s a fine Android phone to boot. Since relinquishing the Note to my wife, I’ve resorted to pairing the RM250 Fiio headphone amp to the iPhone 6+ to get a bit more punch. The Fiio is very transparent in its duties and add no noticeable coloration to the sonics.

Hopefully there are enough tips in this post to get you started on the path to better audio-on-the-move. Keep in mind that great products need not be super expensive. Happy shopping!

Originally published: Nov 20th, 2015

Packing For Your Overseas Races

Packing for your first overseas race? Here are some tips for you, as the day draws nearer.

1. Stow your race gear in your cabin luggage.
If your checked-in luggage goes missing, at least you’ll still have your race gear that you’ve trained in. The rest can be replaced in the worst case scenario but don’t let months of training go down the drain because of wardrobe issues.

The stuff I’d have in my backpack would be my racing shoes and socks on top of the racing apparels. My travel itinerary and hotel booking receipts would be in a thin clear folder. I’ve always found compression socks to be a big help when flying, so that’s a given. Other mandatory items are my tablet and iPod as with sound-isolating earbuds. My supplements and gels will go into my check-in.

Compression socks are my friend.

2. Stay informed
It’s always wise to check and read up if your destination country has any special restrictions or regulations. Australian regulations are strict. The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service’s (ACBPS) Guide for Travelers can be found here.  The list of prohibited and restricted imports can be found here, while the detailed downloadable copy here.

I pack my sports gels and energy bars in clear ziploc bags and declare them on entry. The custom officers will verify your declaration, of course, and I’ve never had issues.

Apps like Accuweather will help you track changes in weather so that you can evaluate your packing right up to your date of departure.

3. It gets easier
As you get more seasoned, you’ll be able to fine-tune your packing needs without having to load up a container. Since I’m from the tropics, I find packing for a warm climate easier. That said, my race travel budget is nearly always allocated for a cooler/colder destination. Afterall I already get to do plenty of running in this country’s muggy weather 😀 .

4. Transportation to the airport
If a family member is driving you to the airport, make sure you remind him or her right up to the day before your flight. I’m anal (and anxious) about this and won’t be able to relax until I get to the airport. If you need to pre-book a cab, do so a few days prior to your date of departure. If you’re grabbing an Uber, be sure that your area is well-served by drivers. It’s still hard to find drivers in the area where I live.

5. If you forget to pack something…
Don’t panic. Most items can be purchased at the airport or where you’re heading to. The most important thing is to ensure your travel documents, cash and credit cards are with you as are your race confirmation slips and race gear. All these, as mentioned above, should be with you in your backpack or cabin-luggage.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun!

Published: June 15th 2015 but expanded to include points 4 and 5.

Time’s On My Side

Open Road: During a wet training run for the 07 Penang Bridge Marathon with Geraldine. Photo courtesy of Tey Eng Tiong
Open Road: A wet training run for the ’07 Penang Bridge Marathon with Geraldine. The ad succinctly translates to “Tough to resist” or “Hard to let go”. Photo courtesy of Tey Eng Tiong.

There are clubs you can’t belong to, neighborhoods you can’t live in, schools you can’t get into, but the roads are always open. Just do it.
An ’80s Nike ad.

The quote encapsulates the sport of running very well. It pares down all the complications required for an activity down to just the bare necessities that I feel running should be about. Getting out there alone or with just a small group of friends. Distance and speed at which the run happens are immaterial. What’s important goes on inside your mind. It can be of thoughts of someone, something, a conversation that happened sometime ago or some place. Or it can be totally blank, spaced out if you will. It just doesn’t matter.

Chasing something can be very tiring. An all-consuming raison d’État that can possibly end in exhaustion and self doubt. Haza wrote eloquently in her post about elevating your reason for running to something other than losing yourself in PRs and proving oneself. Don’t get me wrong; pursuing PRs and personal goals are great ways of keeping the motivation up. They’re also license for us to expound the “truths” about running and keep the evangelism going and to keep spreading the word. The last thing we need is a hypocrite who is not walking the talk.

My running life has been littered with time offs. When entering the rat race, changing jobs, getting married, welcoming 2 boys into the family and the ultimate 4-letter word W.O.R.K. In between those realities of Life I’ve always rebounded and had unforgettable years of running and racing.

True, hardcore runners have never let those “events” disrupt their running. Streakers don’t even let injuries and natural disasters get in their way of running. But I’m not a hardcore nor a streaker. However I’ve been lucky about keeping injury-free (and hopefully remain that way as I age). While I lose months and years of running to the other aspects of life, I do hope to gain longevity in the sport whatever distance I run.

I’ve running plans for 2010 right up to early 2011. The goals are not easy and achieving them is no longer so much due to a need to prove that I can do it. At least for me, it’s now about the experience. If experiencing something brings about a PR, so be it and I’ll gladly take it and be ecstatic for it. Could the key to running happiness be down to experience? I’ll be finding that out.

I’ll readily admit that it’s the motivation part that I need to rekindle. Motivation is the one singular challenge that accompanies a long layoff. I need to rediscover the words, writings and wisdom of Dr George Sheehan. I need to reread Jim Denison’s excellent The Greatest: The Haile Gebrselassie Story. I need to absorb Neal Jamison and Don Allison’s Running Through The Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon that’s been gathering dust in my cabinet. I’ve sought inspiration through books, DVDs and music and they’re what I’ll return to as I embark on my umpteeth renaissance.

For once, I’ve time.

Published March 7, 2010.

The (Real) Reality Show

iesA well-planned training program + well-executed race strategy will increase the likelihood of a great race.

Unlike the hoopla and hype surrounding the reality shows – I personally don’t watch them by the way – training and completing a marathon (and you can insert any endurance event here) is the real deal. By now trainees for their maiden race would’ve been acquainted with stories and quotes about how monumental completing the marathon is. Life-changing it may well be but in reality preparing and running one is really no joke. In the words of Michael Biehn who played a SEAL Team Commander in the hugely entertaining actioner The Rock, “I shit you not”. If it was an easy thing to accomplish, your colleague sitting next to you would already be a marathoner or if he’d run one before, is still training for one!

This post will hopefully temper any excess excitement, over-confidence and over-optimism the newbie marathoner-to-be may be harbouring approaching an undertaking that has the potential to change their lives.

So relax and let me tell you about my maiden marathon experience back in 2003. Mind you, I’ve not led a sedentary lifestyle prior to my debut. I’ve internalized much of the running lore having built my passion since the late ’80s and ’90s. I worship heroes of yore like Douglas Wakiihuri, Juma Ikangaa, Ibrahim Hussein, Steve Spence, Bob Kempainen, Bill Reifsnyder (sporting cool Oakleys!), Joan Samuelson, et al. I’d already harboured dreams of running New York (yay, done it!), London (one day!) and Boston (this one is tricky but if there’s a will…). For my first, I selected the friendliest race for debutants and one that’s not in this country to add on a little bit more incentive and excitement. I needn’t look far – just across our southern border. Back then New Balance was a sponsor Singapore Marathon and the race wasn’t that big a monster it is today. That was decided and I was to travel with the Pacesetters contingent.

Being a rookie, I settled for a 4-month program (after running my 10th (as at Apr 2010), I know now that that’s too long for me, more of that later) and other than the periodic run-ins with Lawrence who was also training for his first, I was doing my weekday training including the 13 milers alone. I found Lawrence’s regimen too difficult and volumnous to follow but in reality I was being a softie. I also took rest days a little too liberally. As you can well see, there were already so many mistakes mentioned in this paragraph alone!

Because I was training alone, I was always going to be slacking. Missing runs didn’t gnaw on my conscience. The longest run I managed in the lead up was a single 28K, and I was struggling like crazy to complete it. I couldn’t even run non-stop for the 28K. My taper period was way too long at 3 weeks, which would’ve been fine had my work rate been high and intense. But I was under-training.

It was ridiculous, thinking back on my mistakes:

  1. Going solo. Not finding and hooking up with running buddies of similar capabilities. Going at it alone is often very tough, hence my utmost respect for those who train alone.
  2. Training period. 4 months were just too long for me. Keeping up with the motivation were a challenge. Only through experience will you know your optimum period. I go with 3 nowadays.
  3. Underestimating the distance. Again, with experience you’ll get more comfortable with it.
  4. Poor fueling plan. I started my first marathon fueled by a Powerbar and gel. By the time I toed the starting line of my 10th, I’d downed 2 Powerbar, 1 Powerbar Triple Threat, 1 bagel, a cup of coffee, a bottle of Gatorade. You’ve got to experiment over time to know how your body handles pre-race meals.
  5. Plain numskull. Thinking that having run many shorter races automatically made me marathon-ready. A definite no-no. Right up to my 9th, I still wasn’t that much into the mileage game. There was a quote I read which went something like “You’ll finish your marathon in a lot of pain riding on a single 30K. You’ll finish in slightly lesser pain on several.”

But despair not! Newbies these days are smarter and will avoid committing most if not all of the mistakes I made. Simply because today there’s a proliferation of online communities and blogs of experienced runners. The mistakes have all been made and well documented. You just need to avoid the pitfalls and stick to your training plan. Information are readily available – which is why I strongly encourage newbies to blog about their experience for other newcomers. My online resources then were basically limited to U.S. sites like RunnersWorld, Jim2 and Ultrarnr which will providing a wealth of information, don’t provide tidbits in the local context. I relied on Gavin Bong’s Malaysian Runner for tips. Whatever I learned and experience I posted on my website. You can just dig through the Archives to read about it, starting with this one and this one. When you’re tapering read this post.

Technological advancement will also make the task of crossing the finish line slightly easier. I say “slightly” because you still need to do the training, running past the pain threshold, managing the Wall well and sticking to a sensible raceday plan. Compression tights and advanced sports drinks weren’t the norm in 2003. I’m not saying that these aids will work for you or will guarantee a great race experience. Hardly. But at least you have options.

As newbies, you’re definitely better placed to complete your first marathon than I had. Link yourselves up with fellow debutants and support groups, and pick up tips from veterans. Training in a group can’t be beat. Team dynamics will ensure the level of motivation is maintained and a sense of camaraderie that we’re all in this together. Someone once mentioned, “Done alone it’s 42K, but together it’s a marathon”. Running a marathon ought to be something you really want to do for yourself. It shouldn’t be based on peer pressure or that it’s something you need to step up to after doing a certain number of shorter races.

When seeking tips from vets, don’t only focus on the obvious questions. Ask questions, and don’t be shy. Have you asked about how to manage your toilet duties while running? How about best way to treat black toes and preventing sore nipples? Or best type of briefs or bras to wear? Just ask the vets and they’ll be ready to share.

I completed my maiden race thoroughly disappointed and angry. I’d started to walk by the 25K mark. My legs were hurting so badly since my Mizuno Precision 3, a lightweight trainer, wasn’t giving the protection a slowpoke like me needed. I can race the marathon now in racing flats but not then. Strength and speed needed to be developed, and I was hardly race ready. I knew that but still made textbook mistakes. Finishing 5:40 was a chastening, if forgettable, experience. The only positives were that I didn’t lay off the marathon. I also made many new friends and resolved to approach my next one in a better way.

I hope this post makes sense to you, the newbie, and doesn’t come across as being preachy. All the resources that you need to run perhaps the most meaningful race in your lives are available to you. In a few weeks’ time you’re going to be toeing the line, confronting your own demons and killing them. It’s up to you to know what you want and stay the course. Fall back on group dynamics to carry you on. Be realistic and never underestimate the distance. At the same time, never underestimate your abilities. Don’t forget that after crossing the finish line, to come back for more!

Note: This is a re-post from April 2010, with minor updates for relevance. As we start off on a new year, many will be attempting their first marathons. Hopefully this post will set the newbies on the correct approach.

Published: January 1st, 2015