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What Is A GPS Watch?

When I started training for my first half marathon, a friend advised me to purchase a GPS watch. Although I had been using a Fitbit to count steps, I hadn’t looked into GPS watch. In fact, I didn’t know much about them at all.

Because he said that serious runners used them, I thought that it might be a good thing to get. I researched as much as I could. With all the makes, models, and options, there was a lot to learn.

In this article, we’ll go through many of the most common questions about GPS watches. We’ll cover common features, different activities they can be used for, and their pros and cons.

GPS watches aren’t cheap tech. Although it’s a large purchase, I have been so happy with my GPS watch. It has definitely been one of the best purchases I’ve made as an adult.

How Does a GPS Watch Work?

A GPS watch takes all the advantages of GPS and applies them to running. It allows you to track how far you’ve run without needing to manually map out a route. Combine this with stopwatch functions, and you can get rich information about your pace. But most GPS watches go way beyond distance and time.


A GPS running watch uses GPS—Global Positioning System—to give you information about your run while it is happening. This includes distance, speed, pace, and elevation. It’s an excellent training tool.

I love being able to look down at my watch and know how far I’ve gone and what pace I’ve kept. Now I can do it by feel, but I learned how fast a particular pace felt by looking down at my watch originally.

As someone who loves data and researching, you can do all sorts of analysis during your run—like will I be able to run the distance in a particular time—and after your run as you look at what runs have been successful and what runs you struggled more on.   


In general, yes! GPS watches are extremely accurate, as long as you don’t get too literal about it. I have a Garmin Forerunner, and I have been very pleased with it. As TomTom product marketing manager Dan Lund noted, Garmin Forerunners have a distance error of less than 0.7 percent. That’s pretty good – it amounts to about 70 meters over the course of a 10k, or just under 300m over marathon distance. Garmin states that most of its devices are accurate to within 10 meters about 80% of the time. That refers to pinpointing your specific location, not to total distances. In other words, the GPS is really good, but it’s not the gospel truth. They are more than accurate enough for recreational running needs.


Now that you have an understanding of how GPS watches work and how accurate they are, it’ time for some common questions.

Do buildings, trees, clouds, and so forth interfere with the GPS?

The short answer is yes. GPS works by using several satellites to pinpoint your location. If there is interference like buildings, trees, or clouds, it will be slightly less accurate. Enough interference, and you’ll lose the signal completely.

For example, you might get a slightly different route distance in the winter when there are no leaves on the trees than you would in the summer when there is a lot of growth.

Does GPS work indoors?

Because GPS relies on satellites, it doesn’t work indoors. However, some watches like my Garmin Forerunner 235 have an accelerometer, which means that it will give you pace predictions and distance just like you would have received outdoors. This is different from GPS, but you are still getting distance estimates.

The “running indoors” feature is most accurate when you’ve logged a lot of outdoor runs. The watch gets a feel for what your pace is like and so forth, based on your average stride length. And it will be pretty accurate indoors with a small margin of error. Again, it’s the accelerometer, not the GPS function, that is giving you data.

Does GPS work while swimming?

Yes, it can work while swimming outdoors because it’s using satellite, but putting it on your wrist is likely not the best placement. You’ll get the best and most consistent signal if you place it on your head underneath your swim cap.

Some models have limits as to how far and how long can they be submerged before water starts to impact the functioning. Make sure that you pay attention to this.

Some high-end models (especially triathlon watches) track swims more accurately, both in the pool and outdoors. They use a combination of the accelerometer and GPS outdoors – and just the accelerometer indoors.

Common Features on GPS

Every GPS watch is different, and the watch that you’ll know best will be your own. But there are some common features that you’ll see on your watch as well as your friends’ watches.


Depending on the type of your GPS watch, you’ll have different activities listed in your activity tracker. Running usually takesd top billing. But most watches also track bike rides and walking/hiking. Depending on the watch, many also track swimming, skiing, and paddle activities (rowing, kayaking, canoeing).

Activity Tracker

Most GPS watches available now also double as a Fitbit-style step and activity tracker. They will count steps, create daily step goals, and monitor sleep.

Heart Rate Monitor

This is another benefit of a GPS watch—you can monitor your heart rate mid-run and throughout the day. This is great especially if you’re following a heart rate training plan. Since training at different heart rates provides different type of fitness gains, this monitoring is essential.

In addition, heart rate can give you an idea of how hard you’re working. Many runners don’t work hard enough on tough workouts, while not going easy enough on easy days. Now, your watch can help you be more disciplined.

Upload Activities to Phone and Computer

As is the case for my watch, an app can connect most watches to your mobile device. You can see your raw data laid out in a more user-friendly version on the app (or website). The apps also provide a history as well as other robust analytical tools and health/performance metrics.

This is a great way to have a running journal without having to keep one by pencil and paper. There’s even a section on the app where I can leave notes if desired, meaning that it’s easy to keep track of my runs and what they were like.

Phone Notifications

Finally, you can set up most GPS watch to receive phone notifications. You’ll likely have to be within Bluetooth range, but this can be a great way to read a text without having to pull out your phone.

My watch also has notifications for weather and calendar events, and I have chosen to put my phone on Do Not Disturb so that it doesn’t buzz when I’m at work or at church.

types of GPS watches

Types of GPS Watches

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this article, you’re a runner, but maybe you also like other activities. It’s good to keep in mind that there are a variety of options out there to pick out the best GPS watch for you. You can also learn more tips for using your GPS watch by reading this article.


This is the type of GPS watch that I have. Although I will occasionally swim or bike, my main focus is running, so I wanted to get a running watch. These models often cater to runners and include an accelerometer so that you can get information on indoor runs.


A cycling GPS watch is not going to be as fancy as a bike computer, but it will give you the option to track your rides specifically, will have a longer battery life than other GPS watches for long rides, may have music options, and might even have turn-by-turn directions.


These watches are swim-centric and focus mainly on your pool workouts. They are going to be completely waterproof, unlike some other watches. And you have a variety of options for swimming watches. Some are simple and just count laps. Others have more advanced features, including other sports options.


Some watches have running, swimming, and cycling modes that you can rotate between. These are great options for triathletes because they have all their information in one location and can easily switch between bicycles without having to move a bike computer. A true triathlon watch will also track your transition times, a key bit of data for the competitive multi-sport athlete.


If you’re really into golf, a golf GPS watch will give you an excellent view of the hole you’re on, allowing you to know how to get to the green and make you aware of any hazards in the way. It will give you a birds-eye view of what’s going on in your game.


GPS signals are not as accurate under water, so diving watches are designed to account for this by using GPS gateways often found in buoys.

They are going to be waterproof to a significant depth, give you a map of where you are, allow you to mark interesting places, and communicate with other divers with diving GPS watches by sending air pressure and SOS signals.

GPS watch vs phoneGPS Watch Comparisons

You definitely don’t have to get a GPS watch to be a runner, but for me, it has made running easier. If you’re thinking about other options, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each. A GPS watch may or may not be the best fit for you.

GPS Watch vs Phone

A phone is definitely an option, and because you have GPS on it, you can download apps that will allow you to track your pace, distance, speed, and so forth. You’re going to drain your phone battery much faster than a GPS watch battery because the former is not designed for heavy GPS usage.

Plus, a phone can be very bulky to carry, and it will likely be challenging for you to check your stats mid-run because they are not conveniently located on a small screen on your wrist.

Read More: Smartphone vs GPS Watch

In sum, a phone is designed to make calls, send texts, and help you crush candy. That is what it does best. It can be used as a GPS, but it’s not as effective or accurate for that. A GPS watch is designed to give you information about your run using GPS, which means that it does that extremely well.

GPS Watch vs Fitbit (non-GPS model)

For years, I had a Fitbit that was a non-GPS model. I could press a button, and it would start tracking my time, but that was it. When I ran occasionally and really just used it for walking and counting steps, that was fine.

But when I started to get more into running, I wanted a watch that was going to give me more information during my run. The Fitbit just wasn’t cutting it anymore. The great thing is that my GPS watch does everything my Fitbit did, with lots of extras.

It even has a step counter that adjusts based on how much I’m walking and gives me different step goals each day based on my average number of steps. You can also set it to meet a particular step goal, but I like the variable one.

GPS Watch vs Bike Computer

A cockpit-mounted bike computer is great if you cycle a lot. You have a nice large screen for maps and plenty of space for ride data, which you just can’t match in a watch face. But if you want all your information in one place, or if you bike AND do another activity like running, a GPS watch will consolidate all your information.

In the end, I’ve found that owning and using a GPS watch has made me a better runner. It gives me feedback that I need mid-run and post-run. There’s a good chance this would be true for you too. I encourage you to figure out what GPS watch is going to be the best fit for you!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner