The Under Armour Hovr Phantom, the shoe that’s stealing your running coach’s job. Image: SUPPLIED
The Under Armour Hovr Phantom, the shoe that’s stealing your running coach’s job. Image: SUPPLIED

Professional fearmongers have spent a lot of time convincing us that artificial intelligence (AI) is ushering us towards the unemployment line. In the next decades, AI will apparently make human truck drivers, stockbrokers, doctors and journalists redundant.

Even creatives are not safe. Warner Music Group signed an algorithm to a record deal in March, so it is likely that soon ones and zeros will be just as responsible for chauffeuring you home after a few drinks as they will be for the song you yodel en route.

The assumption is that technology is taking our jobs because it is better at it, but is that true? Cue the Under Armour Hovr Phantom, the shoe that’s stealing your running coach’s job. The basic mechanics of the shoe are simple enough. They’ve simply taken a comfy running shoe that fits like a sock and embedded a sensor in the sole that can be linked to an app.

The idea of a running app is not groundbreaking; there are probably more running apps out there than loaves of bread when Jesus was trying to meet his CSR objectives. This one sets itself apart from the crowd though.

The basic idea behind most running apps is to track your run in terms of time, distance, elevation and maybe heart rate. That is all coupled with predetermined workouts voiced over by annoyingly motivational running coaches, and voila! The Hovr Phantom takes this a couple of steps further.

The shoe sensors link up with the app, which analyses your run in detail. It looks at your stride length and cadence and how they interact with each other. Once a benchmark has been set for you, the shoe begins making suggestions, such as lengthening your stride or slowing the cadence to hit that perfect pace.

The more you run, the better it gets at knowing how you run, and thus what’s best for you.It does this without a cheery American voice chirping, “You can do it!” as you huff up a steep hill. Once you’re done, you can plaster the run data all over social media to show what a diligent runner you are — #fitnessgoals.

Is that enough to render the profession of running coach obsolete? Well, that depends on how you feel after speaking to Peteni Kuzwayo.

At the beginning of 2010 Kuzwayo felt overweight, unhealthy and was having business struggles. His weekends were a boozy blur. A change was needed.

“Running was the lowest-hanging fruit. I had a pair of takkies, headphones, shorts and a top. That’s all you really need at the beginning. I’ve seen guys start out running in All Stars,” Kuzwayo says.

By the end of the year he had completed his first marathon and 18 months into his journey he had completed his first Comrades.

Throughout that time he blogged about his running experience and, as a result, in 2015 became the head coach for Nike Run Club, a running platform aimed primarily at social runners and beginners.

“My PB [personal best] is a 3:20 on a marathon and I don’t think I could ever speak to or train someone looking to do a 2:10, but the ordinary runner, I’m here for them,” Kuzwayo said.

“When they first come in, people’s biggest hang-up is a lack of confidence. Both men and women come in worried about their weight,” he added.

One of the things apps are particularly bad at is allaying fears. Fortunately, it happens to be something Kuzwayo excels at.

“One of the things we did very well was to get people to come through. Whether you were a walker, overweight or even pretty quick, we had a particular group that would take care of those guys,” he explained.

Unlike the app, a running coach such as Kuzwayo will not spend much time telling you how many steps per minute you’re taking. He will also not harp on about your stride length. Instead, he’s doing something apps are generally bad at — motivating you.

Tarmac psychologist

“If you’re a beginner it can be intimidating to hear guys talking about doing 21km or whatever to train for the Comrades and posting fast times on social media. We wanted to cater for the people who had 1,000 excuses for why they can’t run,” Kuzwayo says.

On the surface, having a running coach sounds like having someone to train you how to chew. Sure, professionals have them, but those people are being paid to get elite athletes to run 42km in about two hours. For average Sipho Soap to be coached on rapidly putting one foot in front of the other seems silly, but it isn’t. A running coach is essentially a tarmac psychologist, whereas a shoe with a sensor in its sole is an exercise in analytics. So which is better?

It depends on the person running. I find the idea of running as a social activity irksome. When people get into groups their focus often shifts from the task at hand to peacocking. The jostle for social status begins as person X arrives in his or her R5,000 running outfit that has never seen a drop of sweat. Others want to discuss things as you labour uphill and cannot bring your lungs to squeeze out a polite “shut up”.

Most importantly for me, though, is that running is a solitary pursuit, a mano y mano contest between myself and the road. The last thing I want to think about is impressing the pretty girl in the sexy pants, running a faster time than that other guy or clinging to someone else’s schedule.

So for me the app wins because I’m a narcissist and it caters to that.

For others the motivation is different. Group activities get them out of bed and coach Peteni is a much better motivator than a random prerecorded stranger on an app.

Having a coach can provide the reassurance, guidance and impetus needed to drag yourself out of bed on a Saturday morning. I’m sure some people even find group running fun.

The point is to do whatever tickles your endorphin levels best.