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Thoughts on GPS watches after 6 months with one
by on Tuesday, March 19, 2013  (15 comments)

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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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15 comments
rpolly30:

I started using a GPS watch when I begin running seriously. I do agree that it has been a crutch when it comes to learning to run by feeling my efforts; however, it really does help keep me motivated. I cannot imagine doing a long run without it. I think I'd go a little crazy as my watch is like my little friend, keeping me motivated along the way. It helps that I have a watch that doubles as an MP3 player so it keeps me occupied.

Ryan

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Diane:

I haven't established what various paces *feel* like yet. It's helpful to glance at the Garmin, note the pace, and remind myself, Ok THIS is what a 7:30 pace feels like. Even then I STILL need more external cues and usually settle for trying to tie the pace to the rhythm of my footsteps. It's another tool and I'm finding it useful.

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Ryan:
rpolly30: I think I'd go a little crazy as my watch is like my little friend, keeping me motivated along the way.



I was so close to adding a comment somewhere along the way about my little buddy or my training partner. In some ways, it almost becomes that.

Diane: It's helpful to glance at the Garmin, note the pace, and remind myself, Ok THIS is what a 7:30 pace feels like.



I can see the benefit there as long as you're careful to not rely on the Garmin and go back to feeling it. Often, I see people saying they are learning to feel the pace and they end up checking their Garmin every 10 seconds and forgetting to feel what the pace is like. Noting your rhythm is a great way to feel your pace, as is noting your breathing, your general effort level. It all kind of fits together to fill in the picture but rhythm I think is a big part of that picture.

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ksrunner:

I had a forerunner for awhile and experienced the same problems of falling into the numbers trap. Eventually, I learned to use it more as a tool and often left it at home for easy days. I also had set up a screen that only had elevation info. I would set my Garmin on that screen so that even if I looked at the Garmin, I would not see any actionable information.

My Garmin broke a couple of years back. I sometimes miss it, but not very often. I can even fall into the numbers trap sometimes with only a watch so I generally only wear a watch when I'm planning to do a harder workout where a watch would be helpful.

Occasionally, I do a long run with a group on Saturdays. There's always at least one person with a Garmin announcing the mile splits. I don't necessarily consider it a good thing.

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Ryan:
ksrunner: I also had set up a screen that only had elevation info. I would set my Garmin on that screen so that even if I looked at the Garmin, I would not see any actionable information.



That's a good idea. I've been covering it up with a sleeve on some days but that's not going to work forever...or so I hope.

ksrunner: I can even fall into the numbers trap sometimes with only a watch...



I know all about that. I found myself falling into the habit of checking the watch at times even before the Garmin. The problem I found with the Garmin is that the temptation is always there. You don't need to resist just when passing by a landmark but all the time because you have numbers/paces available at any point.

Personally, I'm actually getting pretty good at avoiding the temptation right now but I still recognize it as a potential pitfall.

ksrunner: Occasionally, I do a long run with a group on Saturdays. There's always at least one person with a Garmin announcing the mile splits. I don't necessarily consider it a good thing.



I've encountered the same at times. Not a good thing at all.

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cesar:

Good stuff!! what about racing? I see a lot of people seeing the watch every 10 seconds in a race and beeping like crazy!

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Ryan:

Good question Cesar. Personally, I've worn a watch (not GPS) during a race probably once or twice in my 23 years as a runner, only when I knew there would be no official timing. In a way, I could see the benefit of wearing a GPS in a race as a post-race analysis tool. However, I would never wear it unless I could ensure myself I would not look at it even once during the race.

The use I would see in post-race analysis would be in seeing how my pace changed throughout the race. Did it correspond with a tactical move I was making, did it correspond with a factor on the course (hills, wind, etc.) or did I just lose focus for a while? I could use that analysis much like I describe analyzing a workout. If I see that the second half of mile 2 in my most recent 5K was slow for no good reason, I know in my next 5K that I really have to push that part of the race. I can usually figure this out just by going over the race in my mind but having the hard numbers there would make it harder to explain a bad habit away or subconsciously gloss over it.

Again, I wouldn't even think of wearing it unless I was sure I would avoid looking at it even once during the race. Maybe change the display so it is displaying elevation like mentioned above or something along that line. At this point, it would seem like more of a distraction than it would be worth so I don't anticipate wearing it in my next race but I also wouldn't rule it out if I could come up with a way to ensure it didn't become a distraction. I definitely wouldn't wear it in an important race without first proving to myself in an unimportant race that I could do so without looking at it.

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Andrew A.:

As some of the newer and less expensive GPS models have come out, having one myself has admittedly become closer to reality. Still not there yet, though, as I have not yet seen good enough justification to purchase yet another thing and for a still not insignificant amount of money. That and I still have a rather inexpensive thing that is very capable of measuring the parameters of effort that matter to me. Plus it is enough to remember to charge my phone all the time, having to do so for a running watch would be yet another task complicating daily life. Living in a running-happy town where I have multiple bike paths and streets with markings (often every 200m) is certainly a luxury for workouts. However, I do not find mile repeats to be any nicer than 1K or 8 phone-pole or 6:00 repeats, ultimately what matters most is having a consistent effort for the workout, regardless of what the pace winds up being. For workouts where the pace matters more, the track is most ideal as a uniform, obstacle-free surface. This is why, for example, I choose to have progression runs on a paved loop that happens to be 0.9 miles long as I do not care about the particular pace of a given lap and do not want my athletes fixated on pace (or what their watch says their pace is), I want the entire focus on good form and increasing the effort from one lap to the next and consistently doing so for the duration of the workout. I do not find much merit in what a pace supposedly feels like, per se. Based on multiple parameters (fatigue, energy, fitness, elevation, surface grade, surface type, training partners), a pace is not going to necessarily feel the same on two given runs or workouts. I would far rather recommend keying on the feeling of effort, my workout instructions tend to be more about holding an effort one feels one could run in a 5K or 10K race on that given day. The body already knows the feeling of effort and experience in racing instructs association with the feeling of effort for given uniform race distances. When I am on a long run, it hardly matters if the pace was 7:30 or 7:15 or 7:00, what matters is that I kept a consistent effort for the duration so that I could handle the desired duration and that I could recover by Tuesday's workout. And if I am doing all that right, then 7:00 pace for that duration will wind up feeling like 7:15 or 7:30 pace used to feel for it. Or if I am in a particularly hard training block, 7:15 pace could feel like 7:00 pace felt at the end of a recovery week. And I have asked training partners to silence the effing mile chime on their GPS watches.

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Ryan:

Great points as usual Andrew. I think you know at least a little of the internal debate I went through before buying one. It wasn't a decision I made lightly and I didn't have another thing that could measure the parameters of effort I was interested in and was having trouble finding one that I could trust to work reliably.

No doubt, one doesn't need to know one is covering exactly a mile. That 0.9 mile loop you have available sounds great, as does the track for certain efforts. Unfortunately, we don't all have such facilities available to us. I have a great crushed limestone (for the time being, anyway) trail available to me but the mile markers aren't reliable. I can go by time but now I have the option to also go by distance. Not that going by time didn't work but now I have the other option if I choose to use it (and I'm sure I will choose to use it at some point).

As anyone I coach can tell you, I do put a strong emphasis on effort. I'm always assigning workouts as "at X effort". As with you, I recognize that 10K effort may one day be faster or slower than it is on another day. We may be more or less fatigued, the conditions we're running in may be better or worse. I strongly encourage not checking pace on the watch during the workout. In fact, the comments in this thread prompted me to explore the settings on my device and my default view is now just a display of the distance I've covered during the run. No pace or timing information is displayed at all. I'll analyze that, if necessary, after the run. That's where I think the real power of the GPS devices comes in. After the fact analysis and follow-up planning based on that analysis. Back to that idea of where do I tend to go too fast and too slow? How will I correct that in the future? Over time, how have I done in correcting those deficiencies and are other issues showing up that I can work on? There are other ways to see these things but I think the GPS device makes it very easy to see these things after the fact without having to worry about them during the run.

Whether or not that's reason enough to get a GPS device, I don't know. My decision to get one was based on more than that. However, it's definitely a benefit I'm taking advantage of now that I have it.

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Andrew A.:

Hey, give me one and I would use it! ;-) I mean, sure, I would be able to add a lap per mile or per km pace to the log on the progression run I have used as an example, though for that particular workout it seems that it would not be data that would be in any way superior to simply the lap times themselves. I do see the merit in understanding the methods and modalities for using a GPS watch; to wit, one of my athletes is a self-professed data hound as well as one of the more psychologically interesting individuals I know. It helps both me and him to know what to anticipate as important data factors for his peace of mind for the workout. On the second time doing the progression run on the 0.9 mi loop (which is just a combo of bike path and quiet neighborhood streets, FYI), he requested adding a 0.05 mi spur so that it would be a full mile. I declined, citing the pointlessness of adding a hairpin turn on every lap of a progression run, and further explained the point of a progression tempo run, to keep the focus on feel and pay no mind to pace data. He was concerned with running the first lap too fast to which I responded that this workout, by its progressive effort/pace nature, teaches one to work into harder running as well as teaching one to not need to wait until the first mile marker in a race, for instance, to see if one has started out "too fast." On that same token, the only way to get faster in racing is to go "too fast," but I digress.

I am not so sure that the marks on the street or bike paths around here are accurate, but they are reliable: they are always in the same place each time I run a workout at that spot. I also emphasize being present in one's surroundings. I am amazed that another of my athletes can detect subtle grade changes based on our routes. I mean grade changes so subtle that I would not sense them without giving thought to which way the adjacent creek flows. He knows that, given a consistent effort, his pace will slow on turns or ascending grades and will speed up on descending grades. He comes from a competitive cycling background, so that may have ingrained the sensitivity in him. I get that a set of data can be an ideal way to assess what an athlete is doing, certainly for a coach who is consistently not present at this athlete's workouts. However, I get the sense that in the context of coaching from a distance, the data hound I referenced above would feed me numbers from the watch yet might tend to leave out subjective (energy, etc.) and contextual (workout route profile, weather, etc.) information that would give the full picture of what impacted those numbers because he tends to have such a laser focus on pace. He and I can work through his perspective towards understanding with conversation, at least.

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Ryan:

Andrew, I think we're on the same page. Personally, I had a decision to make. Had I gone back to the Timex, I would have already dropped $70 based on past experience ($50 for the new watch, $20 for one battery replacement already) and I'd be spending as much as I spent on the Garmin by 2 years, if not sooner. Given the reliability I hear of from Garmin users, I trust that I'll actually come out ahead financially in the long run. That's part of why I did it. I felt like I was making the decision that would save me money in the long run.

As for the data, I admit I'm a numbers guy. I have to say I've taken the idea offered in the comments to change what's displayed. I changed the settings to display only total distance run by default. So, for example, while I was out running today I had no idea what my pace or overall time was. I could only see how far I had gone. I like that setting because, when I decided to just stick with a 10 mile out and back, I could easily see when I was about 5 miles out and turn around at that point. Could I do the same thing in other ways? Sure, I had for 20+ years. That said, it is convenient. As for the post-run analysis, it's not everything but combined with notes on how you felt and how the weather and course affected you, it's useful to have those numbers. In fact, that can be one interesting thing. I picked up this winter that I need to get back to working on running hills correctly. I found myself struggling on hills and mentally making them into hills that were bigger than they really were. I recognized some problems in how I was running them, cleaned up those problems and now I'm feeling far stronger on them than I did 2-3 months ago. Likewise, as mentioned, I have completely objective evidence showing what I subjectively suspected for a while on where I got weak in workouts and races. I've been working on shoring up that issue in workouts and I'm looking forward to testing out the results in a race.

Again, not that the GPS is necessary for these things. Not that everyone would find the price tag worth it. The purchase made sense for me, though, and I'm finding that the benefits are real, though there are obstacles to overcome. Sadly, the truth is that those who are most likely to get a GPS watch are likely those who are also most likely to not overcome those obstacles. Those who are least likely to get a GPS watch are likely those who are also most likely to not fall into the traps and potentially find the most benefit.

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Andrew A.:

I can see all that. In fact, every once in a while I inexplicably will glance at my watch at a completely random point on a run. I will shake my head in amusement, wondering what I thought I would see other than a time that corresponds with nothing other than how much time had elapsed since I started the run. I suppose I might subconsciously wonder, "how much longer is this run going to take?" ;-)

On another amusing note, data hound let me know in the middle of tonight's progression run that, despite having a Garmin and a smartphone with GPS strapped onto him, he had forgot to start his watch at the beginning of the first lap.

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Ryan:

It's funny you mention randomly glancing at the watch. I used to do that with my Timex like you describe, seeing completely meaningless numbers. I still do that now, seeing nothing but the distance I've covered. No actionable data in either case, which is a good thing in almost every case.

You can have all the tech in the world. If the human element fails, it's still not there to help (or hinder) you.

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Andrew A.:

Totally off-subject, but I figure you might get a grin out of this, Ryan. So my Ironman Solar Shock 50 Lap recently died without notice (no screen fade, no battery-life indicator change) and I decided to try getting a new battery for it. Took it to the battery place in town here and the guy put in a new battery yet could not figure out how to short it to reset the watch so it would work. Fortunately, I had also dug out my old Ironman 100 Lap and brought it with me. Got a new battery in it and there was an obvious metal tab to press in the back to reset it (Timex changed something about their architecture (not to mention build quality) between when the two watches were made, which was perhaps almost a two-decade span) and I have been using and relearning the features on it, enjoying a watch "like they usedta make 'em".

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Ryan:

Ahh, yes. Timex definitely has gone downhill. I won't bother with one again.

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