GPS Watches

I'm a Garmin man myself, but that kind of brand loyalty has more to do with habit than anything else. I feel like I've got a bit of inertia in the whole techno-sphere ecosystem around it and I'm reluctant to switch. When push comes to shove, tho, if someone were to hand me a free Apple watch or the latest Samsung sports model, I'd wrap that baby around my wrist and start running.

I've owned half a dozen of progressively better watches over the years and each one has dutifully logged thousands of klicks on my behalf. Yet, unlike the early days when this was new tech, by the 2020s anyone with more than a few months experience as a runner either owns a sports watch of some kind, or has firmly decided it's not for them.

This page is a small collection of my thoughts on the topic...

Sports Watches, GPS, and Tech Tracking

time to upgrade time?

July 2022

Having checked (and rechecked) the tracking information from the retailer's website it's become a near certainty that within the next 24 hours my new Garmin Fenix 6X is going to land on my doorstep in a neat little cardboard box.

If I'm counting right, this will be my fifth new GPS watch since taking up the sport (seriously) about 14 years ago.

Did I need to upgrade? My six year old Garmin 3X has been a trusty companion for a lot of years. It saw me through the NYC Marathon, a half dozen mini ultras, and countless thousand of training klicks.

And I get a solid three hours out of a battery charge now, so... yeah, it was time.

Probably. I mean, I could have sent it in an got a battery replacement. Or, realistically, I'm rarely running more than a couple hours at a stretch these days. And ... no, it's not buyers remorse, but these things are expensive.

As my finger was hovering over the purchase confirmation button in one browser window a few days ago, my other browser window was desperately googling for advice on "should I upgrade my Garmin?" There was plenty of posts extolling the virtues of all the new, shiny features that would come from even a model-to-model upgrade, let alone a half-decade multi-model leap. I mean, in the end it's about pace, time and distance, right, but who doesn't want a heart-rate sensor, built in Bluetooth music and wristwatch-based turn-by-turn navigation? After all, I've got run clubs to lead and adventures to surmount, right? Right?

I run with a guy who has never used more than a forty year old digital Timex. He couldn't tell you how far or how fast he runs, but he runs farther and faster and in circles around me, and he's got nearly thirty years on me to boot.

Technology, and in particular brand new technology, in and of itself doesn't necessarily make anyone a better runner.

What are you upgrading?

Technology is a means to gather data, react to metrics, and respond to results. Technology lets us measure aspects of ourselves, and better technology lets us do that in ways that are more responsive to the moment, in the space, and in less intrusive ways than ever before. My new watch is slightly lighter, has a slightly better display (I've become a most-time bespectacled glasses wearer in the intervening years) and lets me ditch that old heart rate strap for a wrist-based pulse meter. It's better in a few ways that really matter... and better in a few ways that are fluff.

What matters and what doesn't?

I won't brag about my great deal, but needless to say I "settled" for the previous model (on super sale) over the brand spanking new version 7 (still full price) which came out a few months ago. That decision was as much about features as it was about price. Apart from a few other minor upgrades, as far as I could tell the major tweak was a touchscreen on the newer version. I leaned back in my chair and recalled my last touchscreen Garmin a few models back, one of the nicer Forerunner models, and how much I loathed that watch in the winter. I run in sub-freezing temperatures for six months of the year and in those conditions, with cozy gloves keeping your fingertips warm, a touchscreen is essentially a button you can't use without numbing your nubs.

What really motivates you?

Some people care about this stuff, too. I admit it. Fully. Unequivocally. I'm a tech nerd. I like new toys, and new toys are a motivator for me. If you told me I had to run with a forty year old digital Timex for the rest of time I may still get out there and run, but I think I'd be a little sad about it. Having some new gear for my chosen sport makes me want to use that gear and push it to its limits. I wear my old Fenix swimming, cycling, walking, kayaking, and up the sides of mountains when I hike with my family. I track my steps and my daily activity. I enjoy the breadth of features, and new features (I hope) will fit into that puzzle of enjoyment and keep me active.

I write these words as I set out in the last week with a new and renewed determination to rebuild and refresh my fitness levels. I'm a couple months after a COVID infection and a couple years into the demoralizing, crushing effects of a global pandemic. New tech, for me at least, is one of the pillars of that big plan, and I'm lucky and privileged enough to have some money set aside to upgrade my experience and crank my personal motivation through the same.

I can't tell you if you should do the same, but I can say if you learn what drives you, what's important to you, and understand that yes, there are tools that can support and enhance the time and quality of your efforts to train, run, and be active, that answer will come pretty easily.

Ten Reasons To Consider Using a GPS Wristwatch When You Run

December 2012

During Your Runs

1. …to know your distance: It may seem obvious, but one of the most common questions I get asked (while wearing my GPS watch out running) by other runners (not wearing a GPS watch) is “how far have we gone?” For the most part, the first day-by-day goals we set tend to be one based purely on distance. How far are we going? How far have we gone? How far have we got left? Speed, pace, time all come after that. The watch lets me know second-by-second (if I so desire) the answers to each of these, down to a meter-by-meter accuracy.

2. …to pace yourself: The second training variable folks usually ask out on a run is “how fast are we going?” We generally run by a pace rate — minutes per kilometer, here in Canada — and tend to run anywhere between (in our little groups) a 5:30/km to a 7:00/km depending on the type of training we’re doing. And since a lot of the training categories (steady, tempo, fartlek) we try out depend on setting a fairly accurate pace, knowing our pace, second-by-second, can help us stay in the proper pace bracket for our goals.

3. …to lose yourself in the run: Before I had a watch, I was always looking at the time. Intervals — or for whatever reason — it was tough to forget about the data-and-timing-part for a stretch of time and do what I was there to do: just run. But the watch can be set up to give audible feedback for any number of training bracket variables. I personally use mine mostly for interval running, the watch beeping at set time intervals to let me know what I should be doing. And this set it and forget about it feature let’s you go out, run, and lose yourself in the run while you just stop worrying about the time, distance, etc.

4. …to customize your workout: The gamer in me loves to play with technology features. And the features built into a GPS watch are no exception. When I run in a group I usually stick to the ten-and-one interval training, but when I’m on my own anything is game (on). For example, one of the custom workout modes is to challenge a virtual running buddy. A little animated runner on one of the panels of the watch will keep pace with a preset goal (usually pace or time/distance) and simultaneously compare where you are in your run with where s/he is in the run. If you are behind, it will scold you. If you are ahead, it will spur you on even faster. And who wants to run alone anyhow?

5. …to challenge a goal: You’ve set goals. You know how fast, how far, or how long you need to run. But unless you’ve got that speedometer and odometer strapped to your wrist, you’re left to your own senses and perceptions to know for sure if you’re keeping track with meeting those goals. Instant feedback is once again your friend as you dash through the streets. And if you are serious about meeting and challenging goals, it’s the only way to run.

Between Your Runs

6. …to track your progress: So, now that you’ve got this data and history stored in this little watch, plugging it into a computer with the provided software should let you download all that information into a neat little package for your browsing. It’s a lot of data at first glance, but when you start sorting and labeling the data you’ll really start to get a sense of your progress. Built in graphing tools and comparative charts are great to track where you’ve been, how you’ve improved, and what your limits seem to be. And knowing what you’ve accomplished can help you set goals and build new training plans in the future.

7. …to average your progress: We all have really good days and really bad days. And being humans, we tend to hold the runs in the ‘statistical tails’ in our minds and give them more importance than they really have. Good management of your data — and this is easier to accomplish than you might first think looking at all those numbers — will help you iron out those statistical wrinkles and give you a sense of your average progress over time, rather than dwelling on just the blips (good or bad) in your training.

8. …to inventory your routes: Not only can you go back and look at those great runs you did in days past for the hard number data — checking and averaging your progress as in the last couple of points — but you can import that data into any number of mapping software tools (Google Earth is my favorite) and remind yourself how to relive the adventure. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve gone back and repeated a route after poking through my data and thinking — “hey, I did that one last summer and it worked out awesome. Let’s try it again!”

9. …to manage your goals: Goals are so much better when you can put numbers behind them. All that data you’ve been collecting and looking at as snapshots can be compiled into evidence to support your training. Want to run ten really long runs this summer? Set a calendar goal and have your database, spreadsheet, or software flag and count all the runs that meet your criteria (date, time, distance, etc). Want to run a total distance for the season? A simple running-total (pun intended) of all your run data over those dates will tell you in an instant, with hard numbers, how close you are to achieving that.

10. …to envision mega-goals: In a sense mega-goals don’t really exist. My mega-goal is currently that I’m running all the way, coast-to-coast across Canada. Or, well… not really. The software I’m using (a little well-built application called Runner’s Studio) let’s me track something they call a mega-goal, virtually compiling all the runs I’ve input between a start date and and end date and then mapping those runs onto a virtual and cumulative goal of such grand proportions that you could only under rare and extreme circumstances accomplish it in reality. But at the same time, it gives me something to dream big about… And that’s only possible with extreme technology and data management.