Fitness: Is training with an AI coach useful?

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Four months ago I came across a new feature on the new generation of Garmin GPS smart watches — Garmin Coach, which is an artificial intelligence-powered running coach. With the Garmin Coach you can train for runs of 5km, 10km or a half marathon. Four years since I ran my last race, the full Brighton Marathon, I decided to train for a half marathon with the help of this AI-powered coach. Here’s what I found out during my 17-week training.

How it works: You need to tap on Garmin Coach on the Garmin Connect app and it prompts you to choose your goal distance. After that you need to choose how many days per week you want to train, the lowest being thrice a week. That’s the one I picked. Then you have to choose a coach from the three — Jeff Galloway, Amy Parkerson-Mitchell and Greg McMillan — that the company has tied up with. Each coach has a different approach and you could watch a video profile before deciding who to go with. I chose Galloway. 

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It’s not as if the coaches personally monitor your progress during the training period. What you do get is their training philosophy, drills and a training calendar that they believe will help you achieve your goal. It’s actually the AI system that monitors your training performance and progress, based on the stats that your Garmin device records when you are doing the prescribed and other workouts. 

The set-up: The duration of the plans range between 12 and 26 weeks. The app asks you how much you run on average each week—options range from “I don’t run” to “40km or more”. The next step is to choose your pace per kilometre, 3:45 min/km being the fastest and 9:30 min/km being the slowest. After that it checks whether you want to merely complete the race or run with a time goal. The fastest time goal for the half marathon is 1 hour 32 minutes and the slowest is 2 hour 40 minutes. Then you pick a coach. Pick the day for your long run, make a few more choices, review your selection, agree to the terms and conditions and a plan will be generated for you.

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The training: Garmin Coach begins with a set of disclaimers: that the info, advice and training plans are for educational purposes only; that you should consult your physician before making any changes to your existing exercise habits; and that you train with Garmin Coach at your own risk.

The plan starts with a 9-minute benchmark run. After the benchmark run is done, your training plan is generated, two weeks at a time. Your long run for the second week is revealed only later in the fortnightly cycle. 

The weekday drills included hill repeats, magic mile, speed repeats and goal pace repeats. All these workouts were preceded by four sets of interval training cadence drills and acceleration-glider drills. The drills and workouts are bookended with a 5-minute warm-up and cool down. All these workouts are explained by the coach, Galloway, in various videos and also in blogs. Both videos and blogs also explain how these workouts and drills benefit you and improve you as a runner. 

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Sundays were reserved for the long run, and they were often very long indeed. Towards the tail end of the training cycle there were a couple of 24km runs and a 27km run, excluding the warm-up and cool down. These runs coincided with a prompt from the Garmin Connect app advising me to run longer distances in training (to surpass expectations in shorter distance races).

The only new drill I came across was the 30-second acceleration-glider, where you start with walking, build up to a fast run, and then back to a walk. It was quite a useful recovery between the cadence intervals drill and the main workout.

How it compares to other AI plans: As compared to one picked up from the internet or a running group, the AI-powered Garmin Coach plan is much better. Since the device continuously tracks your runs and workouts and only creates workouts two weeks at a time, it constantly adapts based on your performance. The distances and suggested pace for your speed runs, and suggested goal times for your long runs are all based on your performance. 

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This coach also knows when you have skipped workouts. When I skipped a few around Weeks 8 and 9, the app suggested a blog explaining how to make up for missed training days. When I was doing about 10 active sessions a week, the app also directed me to a blog why rest and recovery are important. All these articles are in the Garmin app.  

So, to a large extent, the workouts and targets are personalised for you. The Training Status widget on the Garmin Device gives a progress report at the push of a button. It can tell you whether you are de-training, recovering or over-extending based on your workouts, sleep, heart rate variability and other metrics that the device is tracking. 

However, the Garmin Coach is no replacement for a good human coach. The role of a coach is to not only create a plan for you and monitor the progress but also to help you overcome hurdles and build your confidence. The Garmin Coach simply cannot do that. So, a good real life coach, though it costs money, is still better than this AI-powered Garmin Coach. But now that an AI-powered coach is readily available for free, there’s no reason to not try this out.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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