GPS Watches: Good for Running?
Back when I started running in 1999, GPS watches didn’t exist. We, or possibly just me, had old-school Nike watches that allowed us to take splits – if we were lucky 50 of them. We didn’t have GPS watches telling us how fast, how far or what our pace was. We relied on the effort. We used bodily cues and perceived effort to guide us on how far, how fast and what kind of pace we were running.
We used to ask ourselves questions mid-run!
Did this run feel fast?
Did anyone else have a spot roughly 10 minutes from their house? I did. I compared my run to previous runs at that “checkpoint”.
Did I pick up the pace or keep it even?
What kind of effort did I put out and how do I need to adjust my training in the future?
Fast forward to 2019 and EVERYBODY has multiple watches that can tell pace, speed, calories, steps, heart rate and any other metric that we could possibly want.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with having (and using) a GPS watch. Heck, I use mine daily. I think they provide amazing data that can help us improve our running. GPS is so useful now that we can coach and be coached virtually because the data is readily available.
Tracking Benefits of a GPS Watches
To begin, the introduction of GPS watches has created totally new industries in charting, tracking and competing against each other using GPS technology. As a runner, we’re able to track so many different measurements: sleep, steps, heart rate, recovery time, VO2max, and the list goes on and on. In tracking all we can, we are able to measure and adjust on the fly.
Not recovered fully? We can take an extra rest day.
High heart rate in the morning? We can skip or modify a training session.
Running too fast? Too slow? Our VO2max numbers can justify our training paces.
I’m now on my 3rd GPS watch – I started with my Garmin 405, moved to a Nike smartwatch and now I’m currently wearing the Garmin 235.
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This really isn’t a huge concern to me. I’m never that far away from my watch cord or an outlet that I can’t charge my watch when it’s low on battery. Even when using the GPS often, I still get 5+ days without needing a charge.
Downsides to Constant GPS Usage
I really believe that every tool that’s designed to be used properly can be overused or misused on occasion. Runners often can get carried away by stats. Stava, social media and Garmin Connect (force us?) provide us the platform to show off every single fast run we do. While this is great for most of us, we’re not always running within our body’s needs for the day.
If runners are able to control their efforts on a daily basis and run what their body is asking for, then yes, I believe using a GPS is good. I’m on board for GPS use as long as we can run by effort. As a coach, I can get good feedback from my athletes, which is why I’m a big fan of runners using a watch. Again: if you can monitor your running effort through perceived output, know that every run will not be blazing fast, and keep your pace and effort level in check, then I’m all about using a GPS watch.
There are, of course, alternatives to always running with a GPS watch. We can use GPS watch without using the GPS – just using the Chrono timer.
- Trails – a GPS won’t do you much good in the trails. However, the softer surfaces, twists and turns and undulations will do you good.
- Track – running on a track can provide you even splits. No need for a GPS
- No GPS – don’t connect your GPS and just go for a run.
- Run by time – even if you use a GPS you can still run solely by time. Here’s how it works: know how far you want to run, say 50 minutes. Start your watch and stop running when you hit 50 minutes no matter how far you run.
- Run by effort – running by effort is good for recovery runs. Unless you’re racing on the track, most runs and races are run by effort anyway. It’s good to practice this skill. How to make it happen: start your run and don’t worry about your pace, distance or time. When you feel you’ve accomplished your daily plan’s goal, you can stop.
GPS watches are a blessing and a potentially a curse for runners. Watches provide runners with amazing data that can help us run faster, recover quicker and train smarter. However, some runners can get caught up in the numbers and feel they have to run a certain pace. While I’m a big fan of numbers and what they can tell us, I’m also a firm believer of running by effort level. I use my watch for the data, but don’t adjust a run to fit an ideal pace. There are 5 great opportunities to ditch the GPS and get away from the numbers every once in a while.
Ultimately though, I do believe running with a GPS watch is beneficial. We’re able to get real-time data and information and make informed decisions about how we want/need our running to take us. If we’re able to process what our body is telling us through the data we receive and adapt to it (either before, during or after a run), we’ll become better at giving ourselves what we need.
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Marc is a USATF Track and Field & Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT O2 certified running coach. I have more than 19 years of experience running and more than 10 years of experience coaching runners. Click for more information!