Thoughts on GPS watches after 6 months with one

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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It’s been just over 6 months now since I began using my Garmin Forerunner 410. My first run with the Garmin was September 8th. As any of you who know me well know, I’ve long had concerns about using GPS devices for training. I have to say that some of my concerns have been proven correct through my own experience, while others have been allayed. At the same time, I’ve found some benefits to using GPS.

First, to go over my primary concerns and what I’ve found through personal experience:

Runners trust the GPS too much. I know it’s not 100% accurate so I haven’t fallen into this trap but I’ve seen the inaccuracies that show how dangerous this trap can be. When running on roads, it’s usually quite accurate. There is some error in the early stages when the device is still locking on to the satellites and you can always find error even late in a run but it will get your distance pretty accurate most of the time. There are exceptions, though, so you’re playing with fire if you place too much trust in your GPS. On wooded trails, it’s another story. You will get very strange results. Don’t be surprised when your readings turn out very inaccurate. I’ve heard of similar problems when surrounded by tall buildings in urban areas but I have no personal experience in this regard.

As a sidenote, certified race courses as well as many that aren’t certified are measured with far more accurate methods than GPS. Please don’t tell race directors their courses aren’t accurate based only on the fact that your GPS said it was a little off. Chances are it’s the path you took through the course and/or inaccuracies in GPS measurement that are a little off.

Runners are too dependent on the GPS, forgetting how to run by feel and focusing too much on trying to hit the "right" number. This is a real problem. Maybe it’s partly because I’ve always been a numbers guy but this has personally been a constant battle. The numbers are too readily available. I can check my current mile pace at any time in real time and it’s generally reasonably accurate. I can get reasonably accurate mile splits. This creates constant problems for a numbers guy like me. Maybe it’s different for others, though that’s not what I hear when I listen to other runners talk about using their GPS watches, but I’m constantly working on paying less attention to the Garmin. I generally do a good job but I won’t deny falling into the trap at times.

Now, a couple primary benefits I’ve found:

Workouts are even easier. Want to do mile repeats? Not a problem. Set your watch to give you an alert by distance. Want to do timed repeats? Just like any good running watch, it can also handle that. Mile repeats with timed recoveries? No problem. Of course, we can accomplish the same type of workout by time. 5 or 6 minute repeats in place of mile repeats will, for someone running 5-6 minute pace, be the same workout. However, I don’t think I’m alone when I say there’s something nice about doing mile repeats. Also, when not running on a track, it’s nice to have time and distance so you know what paces you were hitting.

Tracking your training is a breeze. This can be a double-edged sword but, used properly, can be very helpful. Just upload your data to Garmin Connect and it’s all there. I’ve been able to easily notice where in my tempo runs I might surge or let up a bit, which has allowed me to focus on those parts. This helps me get more out of my tempo runs and carry over what I learned into my racing so I can run my races more efficiently, which should translate to faster times.

I know I’m leaving off a lot of both pros and cons of GPS watches. I’ll probably touch on some or even expand on the above topics in the future. In the meantime, do you think I left off something that is a significant benefit or detriment? Feel free to comment with pros and/or cons that I left off the list.

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