A Guide for when to use your GPS Watch

Long before watches could tell us almost everything we needed to know (or didn't need to know!), people simply ran.  An easy run was meant to be easy: a chance to lose yourself among your thoughts and the landscape. It actually didn't matter if it was 7 or 8 minute miles - as long as it was perceived to be easy.

People also ran fast before fancy watches.  They did so without knowing the pace they ran every single step of the way, or the exact distance, exactly stride length and number of steps.  Over time, and as fitness waxed and waned, so did a runner’s pace and distance.  Hard runs, most notably intervals and repetition workouts, were done either by RPE (rate of perceived exertion), or on a track or marked mile when quantifiable data was needed. This allowed runner to develop a sense of pace, intuition and their own internal pace clock. 

A watch such as the Timex Ironman GPS watch is a useful tool for your arsenal, helping you hone your training and bring desired improvements to your running.  The key is not to over-rely on the information, especially in “real time” i.e.: looking at it obsessively during mile repeats to “adjust pace”.   Running is also about flow and rhythm, and constant feedback can interrupt this balance.

I have been known to take away my runners watches in the middle of workouts if I sense they are relying too much on the information from their watches and are not in-tune with their effort. I want them to actually be running close to intended effort – and the pace is only one piece of information that we need.  Depending on many factors, that pace may or may not be realistic on the day and is simply a guide – and one that can be checked on the watch and adjusted as necessary but not something to live and die by.

The best time to use a GPS watch is when the mileage and pace actually matter, such as hard interval work and tempo runs; long runs at marathon pace; or when distance covered truly matters (i.e. in marathon training).   But the information should always be taken with a grain of salt and this is where having a good internal pace clock or intuition is critical.  I also think that the information should be taken ONLY periodically through the workout or after it is completed – and not every single step – a habit many folks fall into.  Once the information is downloaded at home, it can also provide important feedback to you and your coach, especially in the context of human-derived feedback:

How did it feel?

How hard was the effort?

 Was it sustainable for your goals?   

Together, this quantitative and qualitative information paints a more accurate picture of the training’s effectiveness.

Racing with your GPS Watch:

You know what drive me crazy? People looking at their watches during track races! If you have time to look at your watch then you are either not in the zone or not running fast enough! And by the way…you know those cameras/ people at the finish line? They will record your performance  - I promise (and you can’t change it even if you get a different result on your watch!).  So do yourself a favour and if you race on the track, just take the watch off and leave it alone - go aerodynamic and naked-on-your-wrist. You can listen to splits or look for the clock but don’t look at your wrist.

However, longer races (triathlon, long road races) may be a good time to use a GPS watch, especially for the first few km/miles to help you settle into a good pace during a really long race.  Once the rhythm is established and the race is underway, the data is less important during the race than it is for post race analysis.  The point of a race is to run as fast as possible – and with this in mind, the information can be a hindrance if you are relying too much on it for pacing and not enough on your own sense of pace – one that allows you to run as fast as possible without blowing up.  While extremely complex, the data derived from a GPS watch cannot replace human intelligence.  I guarantee you that Shalane Flanagan had no idea how fast she was running in her final miles at the New York Marathon this past weekend - she was flying - but she was competing.  Her penultimate mile was reportedly 5:04 - but she just did what she could to run as fast as possible.   Her GPS could not have helped her run any faster at that stage of the race.

I do recommend serious runners use a GPS watch, but that they view it as a tool among many to make them a stronger and faster runner.  I would also recommend that runners do not become married to their GPS watch and know when to give it a day off and run simply by time and by feel.  There is something liberating about not always knowing everything and just being at one with yourself, regardless of pace or distance covered. 

Which watch to use?

There are tons on the market and I am no gear nerd…I will just tell you that the new Timex Ironman GPS watch is pretty sweet; simple, with all the necessary metrics, but none of the complexity of more expense devices.  It also comes in at a very attractive price point of $99 USD (~$140 CND).  It’s a great watch and will challenge other players in the marketplace. (Disclosure: I am on the Timex Team but I still think this!).

I would recommend learning more about the new Timex Ironman GPS watch that was recently released to the market.  So far reviews have been positive – and I have been happy with my foray into running with GPS.