Your pair of running shoes is a gadget

Sportswear companies are increasingly becoming tech firms.

Earlier this month, adidas bought fitness-tracking app Runtastic for US$240 million (S$341 million). Under Armour has already spent a total of US$710 million to buy three fitness apps, MapMyFitness in 2013, as well as MyFitnessPal and Endomondo this year.

The world's biggest sports apparel firm Nike has had its Nike+ running app and ecosystem since 2007. It previously partnered with Apple in integrating its Nike+ sensor with iPod in 2007 and released its own fitness tracker, Nike+ FuelBand, in 2010.

Why are these companies jumping on the fitness-tracking bandwagon? Simply, they want you to exercise more. They also want more people to start exercising. Fitness technologies allow the two scenarios to happen. Ultimately, they are a boost to the apparel and shoe business.

Under Armour's MapMyFitness has partnered US online shoe retailer Zappos to analyse users' workout history and send them alerts when their footwear needs to be replaced. Under Armour has more than 130 million registered users on its Connected fitness platform following its fitness app acquisitions, which it said has made it the largest digital health and fitness community in the world. Nike told The Washington Post that its Nike+ecosystem has more users than Under Armour.

It is not hard to see how building online communities that prompt people to exercise more will benefit sports companies.

I am one of those in the Nike+ community. I used to run with Nike+iPod Sport Kit before switching to Nike+SportWatch GPS running watch. I also wore the FuelBand fitness tracker because I wanted to gain more NikeFuel points. I proudly displayed my achievement badge on social media when I reached the 1 million NikeFuel point mark (Nike, where are my reward shoelaces?).

I use TomTom Runner + MultiSport Cardio running watch because it is able to help me gain NikeFuel points. For the same reason, I stuck to the Nike+Fuel app on my iPhone to track my daily physical activities, despite the many fitness apps out there. This is no different than preferring to play games on an Xbox console because my gamer points are higher there and I want to build on that.

Beyond fitness apps and online communities, sports apparel firms like Under Armour, adidas and Nike are also putting high-tech touches to their products. Plenty of tech goes into adidas' Ultra Boost running shoes and Under Armour's sweat-wicking running apparel. I recently came to know that Puma's Ignite foam technology spent seven years in research before it reached the stores.

By definition, a gadget is a tool that has a particular function. So when people ask me why I am reviewing running shoes or football boots, I always reply: "They are gadgets, aren't they?"

It is more evident now than ever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Your pair of running shoes is a gadget'. Print Edition | Subscribe