The idea of having your every move tracked by satellite may sound like something from a James Bond film but you might be asking yourself, "Do I need a GPS watch for running?" In short, no but more and more of us are now reaping the benefits of running with a watch that uses GPS technology to measure our speed and distance covered as we run. We explore the benefits of using a GPS watch for running.
GPS watches are great for monitoring your training
Most of us will go out for a run and put a stopwatch on it. This gives a good indication of how much work we have done and by keeping a diary of our runs we can record our training. It is also useful to record the route we ran, the location of the training or additional information such as how we felt.
Having this information allows us to see what training works best for us, gives an objective measure of the exercise we have done (sometimes we can think we have done more or less than we really have) and helps us to plan future training.
A speed and distance system adds more information. One 30min run is not the same as another. A watch using GPS or similar system will tell us additional useful information:
This type of information is useful to know. It takes the guess work out of training. Time and distance covered means we can record two accurate and useful measures of the quantity training done.
As we see our pace change we can monitor variations in our health and fitness. Going faster means improved fitness. But you may want to be cautious if you find you are speeding up a lot as it can also mean you are pushing yourself harder without realising it. Running more slowly without a perceived change in effort may mean that illness or injury is on the way or that you are tired. Many of us try training harder if we think we are slowing down. Usually the opposite is needed – we should back off to ensure we recover from whatever is wrong.
Knowing how hilly a run is will also be useful. Hillier routes will be slower so it will explain a slower average pace or why you found a run harder. You can choose to include hilly runs in training to build strength or to run flatter routes to aid recovery from harder training days.
Knowing how your pace varied by using a GPS system is far more accurate than your perception. If you should be running at a steady, consistent pace it is useful to know whether you have successfully done so. In interval sessions, pace runs, acceleration runs or fartleks you are supposed to vary pace and work at different intensities. Seeing how your pace changed will help you to log how well you have done the session.
Controlling your training
Having a good record of the training we have done is extremely helpful. But the benefits of a speed and distance system do not end there.
The information the given also makes it possible to have better control over our training.
Being able to know exactly what speed we are going at as we run means that we can adjust our speed to what it should be. If we have a watch that gives our speed we can usually programme in ‘band’ of pace that we wish to run at. One of the biggest mistakes made by runners is to push too hard on easier runs. Setting our watch to ensure that we run at the right speed on our easy runs will ensure we have the energy to tackle the harder work.
Some runners struggle with pace judgement (and it’s not just beginners!). Being able to monitor our pace throughout a run can help ensure we complete our runs at a consistent pace when that is what is needed.
Faster sessions are also often hard to gauge. When we are tired our minds and legs can play tricks, when we are fresh it is easy to set off too fast. We may not even know our pace fluctuates over the course of a pace run or between intervals. Being able to see the speed we are running at allows us to ensure we don’t go off too hard and to know if we are maintaining pace as the session goes on.
Of course at first we may get information we don’t want – that we are not going as fast or running as consistently as we thought!
Letting the watch take control
Many speed/distance systems will allow you to program sessions into them. This is great. First of all it gives great freedom. For example we can run a session of 3 times one mile off 2min rest anywhere. No need for a track, no need for a measured loop. We can head out the door, warm up and do the session. Even if we can’t programme the watch we can use the distance covered feature to let the watch guide the session. At the end of the session we know the distances we covered in each effort and the pace.
One great benefit of knowing our running speed is that we can train specifically at race pace. In training sessions, or in shorter bursts in a training run we can get used to the pace we need to run at in our next race. This makes our bodies more efficient at running at that pace.
Of course you can wear your speed distance system in a race to help control your pace. But bear in mind that due to other runners you may not always be able to run the shortest route for the full course and this, as well as small inaccuracies from the GPS system, can lead to your watch reading a different distance to those marked on the course. If the course is certified go by what the organiser has marked. This will give your best indication of distance.
Storing training information
Many of these systems have the ability to download the data from your training on to your PC. This may seem a bit ‘geeky’ - running is the most accessible and simple form of exercise there is the feature is useful. But the feature ensures we do have a good, accurate record of all the training we have done with all the data stored – even if we don’t use it all. Just remember to keep a back-up file!
Adding a heart rate monitor
Some of the speed distance systems on the market also come with a heart rate monitor. This extends the uses of the system even further.
Extra information on your training
Our heart rate gives us a good indication of how hard we are working. When combined with the data on how fast you are going this makes it possible to get a very good indication of how hard we have worked in training.
Recording your heart rate for runs will show how hard you were working to do the run. As you get fitter your heart rate will fall for any given pace or you will run faster at a given heart rate. This can be particularly useful when used alongside a speed distance system.
Noting your average heart rate will show how hard you were working on a steady, easy or pace run. Looking at how quickly your heart rate drops after intervals in a speed session also gives an indication of improving fitness.
As well as recording your heart rate after training you can use it to control your training. We may be tempted to run at the same pace as ‘normal’ regardless of factors such as the weather, terrain or other factors. But a heart rate monitor means we can run at the right level of effort which is usually more important than the actual pace.
A word of caution
If you are very tired or ill you may experience ‘heart rate suppression’. This means that despite working very hard you can’t get our heart rate up. So if you are feeling very tired but your heart rate is not going high you should back off.
What GPS watch?
How many times have you bought something full of bells and whistles because you've thought you had better or it looked good? I do it all of the time and only know how to use 10% of its capabilities. It'll be the same with GPS watches. Think about what you would really like it to do and what you're honestly going to use it for. The chances are, you don't need to go near the top of the range saving you big bucks. What you want is the best GPS watch for you. Check out our guide to the best GPS watches here.