When I first started training for my half marathon, a friend advised me to purchase a GPS watch. Although I had used a Fitbit for counting steps for a while, I really had never looked into GPS/running watches and didn’t know much about them.
Because he said that serious runners used them, I thought that it might be important for me to purchase one, so I researched as much as I could about GPS watches and which one would be the best fit for me.
In this article, we’ll go through all the common questions you might have about GPS watches, common features they typically have, different types of activities they can be used for, and the pros and cons of GPS watches versus other ways to track runs.
Although it was 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 a GPS and applies them to running, meaning that you can know how far you’ve run without needing a route with mile markers and you can get pace feedback mid-run.
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.
Yes! GPS watches are extremely accurate. I personally have a Garmin Forerunner, and I have been very pleased with it. As Product Marketing Manager of TomTom, Dan Lund, noted, Garmin Forerunners have a distance error of less than 0.7 percent, meaning at max, it’s a three-second difference. That’s so small!
Do buildings, trees, clouds, and so forth interfere with the GPS?
The short answer is yes. Just as you can see a lightbulb for several miles, a GPS signal works in a similar way. If there is interference like buildings, trees, or clouds, it will be slightly less accurate.
For example, you might get a slightly different route 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.
The “running indoors” feature is most accurate when you’ve logged a lot of outdoor runs because it gets a feel for what your pace is like and so forth. And it will be pretty accurate indoors with a small margin of error. But 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 of the high-end watches (and 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, but you’ll likely see at least one that is for running specifically. Running, of course, 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).
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 if you’re trying to train at threshold pace, which you can use your heart rate to make sure that you’re reaching the target you want to.
In addition, heart rate can give you an idea of how hard you’re working, including if you’re going too hard and need to back off or if you’re not hitting it hard enough and need to slow down.
Upload Activities to Phone and Computer
As is the case for my watch, I have an app that connects my watch and my phone, which means that I can see my raw data laid out in a more user-friendly version on my phone. Plus, it stores all my runs there, so I can see how far I’ve run in one month, for example.
This is a great way to have a running journal without having to do hardly anything. 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.
Finally, you can often set up your GPS watch to receive phone notifications. You’ll likely have to be within Bluetooth range, but it can be a great way to read a text without having to put 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
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.
This is the type of GPS watch that I had. Although I will occasionally swim or bike, my main focus was 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.
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 distance, 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.
You definitely don’t have to get a GPS watch to be a runner, but for me, it made running easier. If you’re thinking about other options, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each so that you can decide if a GPS watch is 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 and send texts. That is what it does best. It can be used as a GPS, but it’s not as effective 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 needed a watch that was going to give me more information during my run, and a Fitbit just wasn’t cutting it anymore. And 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 you’re walking and gives you different step goals each day based on your 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 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 and 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 because it’s given me the feedback that I need mid-run and post-run. There’s a good chance that this would be true for you too, so I’d encourage you to figure out what GPS watch is going to be the best fit for you!