By Susan J. Marks It's spring -- and you're feeling fat. So maybe you want to join a health club. Or -- if you dare -- sign up for a marathon. But where's there a marathon? And if you chicken out and opt for a health club instead, what should you ask its salesperson? Active.com provides some answers. It's among the Web's best tickets to sports and fitness event registration, fitness advice, and more. With only a few minor glitches, it's easy to use and on the mark.
Active.com fancies itself the Ticketmaster of the sports and fitness set (Ticketmaster itself, the behemoth of event ticket sales, is among Active's venture-capital backers). One of its most popular features is hosting Web pages built by sports teams from Little League on up to post practice schedules and other information. Other offerings include some e-commerce to shop for shoes and such, multimedia advice on nutrition and health, and personal training guidance that can be customized to your individual goals.
COUNTING ON COMMISSIONS. The company tries to make money -- it's still private, so its numbers aren't available -- from commissions and service fees. It says it processes about 40,000 event registrations every week and charges a convenience fee of 6.5% of the registration fee, plus 50 cents. The site says this averages out to $2.50 to $2.80, and some events will subtract the commission from the fee you pay to join a road race, a basketball league, or similar event. If you register on the site, which is free, you can use its nifty E-vite feature, which lets you e-mail friends formal, customizable invitations to come watch you sweat at an event.
The basic team pages are free, but a more refined version that lets you upload pictures and get priority service for tech-support questions costs $4 a month. Active says more than 850,000 teams have registered for one form or another of this service, which users can reach either through Active.com or by visiting eteamz.com. The Active Network also includes a third site, ActiveParks.org, which is a database of more than 200,000 local recreation facilities in the U.S.
I had heard runners rave about how Active.com cuts the hassle of race registration, and my racing-machine husband has used it to find and sign up for competitions. The site did not disappoint when I checked it out. I learned, first, that it's not just for runners. Name your sport, and chances are it's among the 60 options there, from badminton to wrestling. Even bob sledding, if you're shooting the gap from getting fit to just living dangerously. It has all the basic games like basketball, baseball, football, softball (slow and fast), and racquetball, along with others like kickball, paintball, and stickball. Then, there are more unusual activities like horseshoes, curling, fencing, and orienteering, which I had never heard of (turns out it's a "fun navigational run or walk through a course of preset marked points in woods and trail.")
The selection in a lot of areas is very good. We looked for basketball events near my editor's New Jersey home and got 27 different tournaments or similar events, all within a reasonable drive, from now to July. Event sign up is simple. Find the event -- search by name, location, time frame, or sport -- then fill out the online application, add your Visa or MasterCard payment information (American Express and Discover aren't accepted), and click on pay now. You receive a confirmation page as your receipt, then show up the day of the event at the appointed starting point.
FOR SERIOUS ATHLETES. But the site has a good deal more than event registration. Want a personal trainer? Click on the Training Bible link, and it brings you to Active's Virtual Coach and affiliated site, TrainingBible.com from Joe Friel, cycling coach and author of The Training Bible series of books. You can chose a workout from among a handful tailored to various sports and fitness levels, put together and track your own plan, or ask the Virtual Coach to tailor a plan to meet your fitness needs.
I found the latter a bit too complicated and gave up trying to create a program, even if it was part of a seven-day free trial available to anyone who signs up. It's definitely tailored to the serious athletes -- not on-again, off-again wanderers like myself.
Active also has a virtual health club with easy to follow features and information on health and fitness. Topics range from advice on tailoring stretching before and after exercising to your specific body needs, to actual workout regimens and even recipes.
Another solid feature is ActiveRadio, which presents live and archived chats and interviews with experts. Before the Boston Marathon, for example, the guest was sports-medicine consultant Chris Troyanos talking about what it takes to bring thousands of runners home safe and sound. Past guests include experts on fall and winter recreation, youth baseball camps, and how stress affects athletic performance. The site also has a variety of calculators to measure things like body fat, hydration, nutrition, and caloric needs.
Active's content is neatly packaged and accessible via an easily navigable setup with various sports, topics, and subtopics listed down the left side of the screen. As you click through various pages, the features listed on the right side of the screen vary.
FORGIVABLE FLAWS. But a few more explanations of how things work on the site could help. Take the event-search engine: I found it a little too schizoid. Clicking on swimming from the menu on the left side of the screen, for example, brought up just two featured events. But typing swimming into the search tool yielded six options, and the word swim, 65 choices. So which is it?
And Active.com lists only a fraction of the events out there, even though it's a diverse group that spans all parts of the U.S. and most sports. A site spokesperson says Active has contracts to provide online registration and data management, among other services, with more than 24,000 race or event directors nationwide. But in northern New Jersey, a search for parks information turned up 216 parks departments. They were in alphabetical order, no great service to a searcher whose hometown's name begins with M, forcing him to scroll through 150 listings only to find his local park isn't listed.
But all things considered, these flaws are forgivable. For people who are fitness buffs -- or just contemplating getting fit -- Active.com is a sports community that works at play. Marks writes on technology from Denver