What Is A GPS Watch?

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Just started running and wondering what watch to get? You could go old school and get a plain old digital watch. Or perhaps a fancy smartwatch. However, most runners use a GPS watch to track and record all their runs.

But what exactly is a GPS watch, and why should you get one?

Most new runners aren’t entirely sure of the various functions and features the latest GPS watches have. Here’s everything you need to know about GPS watches, their features, and possible drawbacks.

What Is A GPS Watch?

A GPS watch is a watch that can accurately track your runs and other outdoor activities using GPS technology. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which refers to a system of satellites.

This kind of watch uses the GPS satellite system to track your location to monitor distance and speed or pace. What’s great about a GPS watch is that it does this in real-time, so you know exactly how far you’ve gone, how much farther you need to go, and the pace at which you’re running.

GPS watches are most often used by runners and cyclists. But any outdoor activity can be tracked, including hiking, skiing, and kayaking.

While GPS is the main feature, most of these types of watches have other built-in functions. These include heart rate monitors, step counters, sleep trackers, and sometimes things like payment apps and music storage and playback.

How Does a GPS Watch Work?

A GPS watch uses a triangulation process to figure out your exact location. The satellites orbiting the Earth are constantly sending out signals to the Earth. When your GPS watch’s sensors pick up on these signals—4 or more at a time—it uses these to “triangulate” your position on the earth with surprising accuracy.

It’s a fairly simple process! The constant triangulation of your position makes it possible for the watch to measure distance and speed and simply your coordinates.

Benefits of Using a GPS Watch

Why use a GPS watch? Here are some reasons to use a GPS watch over something else.

Accurate Tracking

GPS tracks your real-time position and tells you your distance and speed. This is a reliable way of figuring out how far and fast you’re running.

It means you know how far you ran and how much farther you need to go. It also tells you your pace. So if you are doing a pace-specific workout, you have real-time data to help you stay on track.

When you’re finished, the watch saves this data and lets you look at it post-run..

Programmable Workouts

Many GPS watches enable you to set specific workouts based on distance, time, pace, or other parameters.
You can track your progress in real-time to determine how much farther you need to go, and whether to speed up or slow down. This helps keep you motivated and focused on achieving your targets.

Training Analysis

Post-run or workout, GPS watches offer detailed insights, including pace, heart rate, calories burned, and more.
You can review your training data, identify patterns, and make informed decisions to optimize your training routine and avoid overexertion.

Heart Rate Monitoring

Many GPS watches feature integrated heart rate sensors, allowing you to monitor your heart rate during exercise. This data helps you gauge your intensity levels, maintain the appropriate training zones, and avoid overtraining or undertraining.

Real-Time Feedback

GPS watches provide real-time feedback on your pace, distance, and heart rate. This can help adjust your workout as you go or stay motivated.

Activity Tracking

GPS watches often include additional activity-tracking features such as step counting, sleep monitoring, and calories burned. They provide a comprehensive overview of your daily activities and help you maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Safety and Security

Some GPS watches can provide peace of mind when venturing into unfamiliar or remote areas. You can share your location with friends or family members, and some watches offer emergency features like SOS alerts, which can be helpful in case of emergencies.

Connectivity and Compatibility

Quite a few GPS watches can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This allows you to receive notifications, control music playback, and sync your data with compatible fitness apps, providing a seamless integration into your digital life.

Navigation Assistance

GPS watches sometimes come with some form of built-in navigation. Some are simply breadcrumb navigation or back-to-start navigation. But some come with full turn-by-turn navigation with street maps.

How Accurate Are GPS Watches?

GPS watches are quite accurate; however, some factors can affect the watch’s accuracy. These include:

  • Device Quality: Higher-quality GPS watches generally have better connection and accuracy than lower-quality watches.
  • Signal Strength: Areas with poor satellite signal strength may slightly lower the accuracy.
  • Satellite Configurations: In some cases, the way the satellites are configured in the sky might make it more difficult to triangulate accurately. This is rare, though.

What Can Cause Interference?

Aside from device or satellite issues, external factors can cause interference. These might include:

  • Physical Obstructions: Trees, buildings, and other large objects can obstruct GPS signals. They work best in open areas.
  • Electronic Interference: Electromagnetic energy can scramble GPS signals. However, high-quality GPS watches can handle this quite well.
  • Poor Weather: Bad weather like snow, fog, or even dense cloud cover can weaken signals from satellites.
  • Urban Areas: Densely-packed areas can reflect GPS signals in all directions, making it much harder to get accurate results.

GPS Watch vs Smartwatch: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between a GPS watch and a smartwatch? Here’s how to tell which one yours is.

GPS Watch 

Smartwatch 

Designed mainly for fitness and outdoor activity, with features to reflect that purpose.  May include fitness activities, but has other capabilities like making and receiving calls, internet access, and text message notifications. 
Longer battery life due to more limited functionality.  Shorter battery life as it needs to be connected to your phone and constantly receives notifications. 
Connect to satellites to perform their function. May or may not connect to your phone and other external devices.  Connect to your phone via Bluetooth, some can also connect to WiFi themselves. 

Common Features on GPS Watches

GPS isn’t the only thing these watches usually have! They’re well-built running tools. Here are some other features you can expect to find on a GPS watch.

Activity Profiles

All GPS watches contain some activity profiles. The most basic ones usually include running, swimming, and cycling. More advanced watches offer anything from yoga to skiing to golf.

Heart Rate Monitor

Almost all smartwatches have a heart rate monitor. Not only does this give you some insight into your general health, but it also allows you to train in heart rate zones, which is an amazing workout tool that can help you reach your goals faster.

Sleep Tracking

Most devices these days have fairly accurate sleep tracking. This is valuable for health, as you can see where the problems are and fix them, effectively elevating your health.

Some watches come with recovery functions, showing how ready your body is for exercise on that particular day.

Battery Life

GPS watches constantly search for and connect to signals thrown out by satellites. To compensate, GPS watch companies must create watches with excellent battery life.

Most GPS watches can last up to a week or more without GPS actively working. With GPS on, most of them can run for around 12 hours, some more.

Water Resistance

A GPS watch would be disappointing if it lost signal in the rain! Most are waterproof and extremely durable.

Good Storage

GPS watches often include more storage than other watches. Some store maps, and they all need space for software updates. Some also allow you to store music or other files.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a GPS Watch

Not all GPS watches are the same. Before shopping, you’ll need to nail down what you need in a watch. Here’s what to consider.

Your Own Goals

What are you working towards and how will you know if you’re getting there? Figure out what metrics you need to know and if the watch has them.

Your Favorite Activities

If you love jumping rope, you’ll need to find a GPS watch that includes a jump rope profile. Not all watches have all sports, so you may need to do some searching!

The Cost

This really depends on your budget. Thankfully, you can find some amazing cheap smartwatches with tons of features, so there’s something for everyone.

Battery Life

The battery life should be decent enough that you aren’t charging your watch every other day.

User-Friendliness

You must be comfortable using the watch of your choice. Check things like navigation (touchscreen, crown, etc), and how the watch is laid out. Is it easy to find what you’re looking for?

Durability

You don’t want to buy a new watch every few months. Make sure the watch is durable enough for the activities you want to do with it.

Tips for Using a GPS Watch

The way you use your GPS watch makes all the difference. Take some time to get used to it before going on a run. Here are some other suggestions for using a GPS watch.

Choose the Right Watch for Your Needs

GPS watches come in a wide range of types. Do some research and ensure you’re getting one that suits your needs. Consider these kinds of questions and make sure the watch you like covers all of them:

  • What kind of workouts do I do? Does it have an exercise profile for it?
  • Can the watch integrate with third-party apps in case I need something specific?
  • Do I need turn-by-turn navigation or can I get away without it?

Experiment With Different Settings

Most watches come with a variety of settings you can customize. For example, you can measure your heart rate every second, or every 10 seconds. The same is true for GPS.

Play around with the settings of every feature you like and are going to use. You can set your watch up to be more battery-efficient or more accurate with data.

Customize Data Screens

What do you like to see on your watch screen when you glance at it? In most cases, you can customize the data you see when you glance at your wrist, so you can place all your most important metrics within easy spotting.

Utilize Interval and Workout Modes

Take advantage of interval training modes to set up your own structured intervals. This is great for interval runs but can also be handy for CrossFit or other HIIT workout options. In most cases, they’re completely customizable to your needs.

Monitor Your Heart Rate

Most GPS watches come with a built-in heart rate monitor. Tracking your heart rate during your workouts can help determine if you’re exercising intensely enough. You can set target heart rate zones on your watch and use them to help you reach your fitness goals.

For example, one HR zone is a great level of building aerobic fitness, while another is good for losing fat. Seeing your HR and your zone at a glance helps you see if you’re working within your own target heart rates for your goal.

Set Goals and Track Progress

You can also use your GPS watch to set appropriate goals for your fitness level. Many modern watches offer a goal-setting feature and might even offer virtual coaching to help you reach them.

FAQs

Need to know something specific about GPS watches? Here are some of the most common questions we see about them.

What is GPS on the Apple Watch?

GPS on the Apple Watch is the same as any other watch—a feature that connects to a satellite to track your location, give you accurate directions, measure distance during workouts, and calculate your speed.

This function is also essential for certain apps to work, like Maps, Find My Friends, and weather apps, as these apps rely on your location to work properly.

Do GPS Watches Need to Be Connected to the Internet?

No, GPS watches don’t need to be connected to the internet, which is why they work when you leave the house and run outdoors! They connect to satellites that orbit high above the planet, so they don’t need the internet.

However, it’s important to note that while the GPD function will work if you have no internet and no data, you may not be able to receive incoming texts or notifications if you aren’t connected to the internet.

Do GPS Watches Require a Smartphone Connection?

Some do, and some don’t. Certain GPS watches have GPS receivers built directly into the watch, which means they don’t need to be connected to a smartphone. Most modern watches have this.

However, some older or entry-level watches use the GPS receiver on your phone instead. This means they need to be connected to your smartphone to track your GPS features.

Can GPS Watches Track Indoor Activities?

Most GPS devices track indoor activities, although they don’t often use the GPS function. They usually use the built-in accelerometer to estimate your distance and pace. It’s not as accurate, but it works fairly well.

How Long Does the Battery Last on a GPS Watch?

This depends on the watch and how you use it. Most watches can last a week or so before needing to be charged, but others might be less or more.

We advise checking each watch you’re interested in and assessing how often you might use it to estimate how long it might last.

Are GPS Watches Suitable for Swimming?

Some GPS watches can be used while swimming, but not all. If you are swimming with your watch, we advise choosing a triathlon watch or a swim-specific watch, which use GPS while in the water.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.