What the Heck Is ANT+?

Photo: iStock

The tiny, mighty tech that links up your favorite tri gadgets, explained. 

“Ant.”

They don’t remember who said it first. But nearly two decades ago, Victoria Brilz and her husband Kip Fyfe, Canadian electrical engineers who ran a small high-tech start-up in a suburb of Calgary, stopped, looked at each other and raised their eyebrows when that word popped up. It was perfect! After all, they needed a wireless signal that could reliably send data from a shoe, a chest strap or eventually a pedal to a monitor on your wrist or handlebars—all while using up very little power so that monitor could last a year on one battery. In other words, their ideal signal had to be very small in size but strong enough to carry a huge load. “Like an ant,” says Brilz.

Today, that wireless signal is known as ANT+, a mysterious and sort of intimidating looking three-capital-letters-and-a-plus sign that has become standard built-in equipment on high-tech triathlon training toys like GPS speed-and-distance units, heart rate monitors and power meters. But far from intimidating, it makes life simple for athletes.

ANT+ is invisible to consumers; it literally is lines of coded instructions read only by product developers. There’s no need for you to read a manual or to technically know how it works. All you need to know is that devices labeled with ANT+ can automatically beam their data to one common monitor, so you don’t have a bunch of separate readouts to pay attention to. In practice, that means you can take a quick glance at info from a heart-rate monitor, power meter, cadence sensor and whatever other gizmos you have on one device, like a sports watch or bike computer.

“With the rise of power meters, that’s especially valuable for anyone who rides a bike,” says Ian Murray, USAT elite coach and co-owner of Slowtwitch Coaching in LA. “There’s a ton of data available on the bike, and you don’t need a bunch of monitors cluttering your handlebars. If you’re only a runner, ANT+ isn’t such a big deal.”

Ironically, ANT+ began as a running product. In late 1999, Brilz and Fyfe ran a company called Dynastream that used the coil-and-pulse technology from automobile airbags to create a prototype speed-and-distance device for runners. While heart-rate monitors were common in the 1990s, accurate speed and distance was a new idea, as the accelerometers used in pedometers were notoriously inaccurate.

“Our inspiration: If we could put a man on the moon and tell how fast and far our spacecraft is going, why can’t we figure out how fast people are going?” says Brilz. “To get that data back then, people used to do their run, then drive the same route later to measure it. Crazy, huh?”

Soon after shopping the Dynastream device around, a bidding war commenced between Polar and Nike; following bruising negotiations, the latter won and a high-pressure race to have a product ready for Christmas 2000 began.

The first step was to miniaturize Dynastream’s prototype, which housed the speed-and-distance hardware and battery in a fanny pack, down into a small, lightweight foot pod. Nike developed the monitor-watch.