Use of GPS Watches and Activity Trackers

The use of GPS watches in sports has significantly grown over the past few years. There is a watch for almost any type of exercise. There are models for the obvious: running, hiking, cycling, and swimming. However, they also have specific versions for other sports such as golf and diving. The number of companies producing these watches is also huge: Garmin, Polar, Fitbit, Apple, Samsung, TomTom, and New Balance, just to name a few. The options are endless, and almost every endurance athlete owns one. Occasionally, I will see a runner with a standard watch that only has a clock and stopwatch, but the vast majority of runners have GPS watches tracking their data.

 From left to right: Garmin Forerunner 220, Forerunner 35, Forerunner 10

From left to right: Garmin Forerunner 220, Forerunner 35, Forerunner 10

I have a Garmin Forerunner 220 for running. The watch is middle of the road in terms of the options it provides, and it still does far more than I will ever use. Here are my favorite features:

  • Ability to see multiple numbers on the screen during my run. These are customizable and include total time, total distance, lap time, lap distance, lap pace, and average pace.
  • Ability to track mileage. This is great because I do not have to figure out exactly what the mileage of a course is before I run it. If I need to do 6 miles, I can simply run until my watch says 3 miles and then turn around. This saves a lot of time and planning. I know my Dad used to have to drive every course before he ran it, using the car odometer to figure out the distance.
  • Ability to track intervals during my run. By pressing the lap button, I can track my data during various workouts. For example, if I am supposed to do a workout that involves 10 times 2 minutes hard followed by 2 minutes easy, I can just press the lap button every 2 minutes and it will calculate my exact splits every 2 minutes.
  • Auto-lap feature. I can turn this on or off, but the watch will beep every mile and show me the average pace for that mile. I like this during training because it is a good reminder and I can evaluate if I am going at the right speed.
  • Back light. When I am running in the dark, it is easy to press this button to see the watch screen. My headlamp does not always light the screen up enough for me to see it.
  • Bluetooth connection to my phone. I love this because it automatically uploads to my phone without having to connect anything when I get home from my run. This allows me to track my runs and for my coach to see what I did. We can evaluate progress and look at variances in my paces/distances.

 My watch showing total distance, lap time, and lap pace. 

My watch showing total distance, lap time, and lap pace. 

There are other features including pre-programming workouts and loading them onto the watch, but I don’t use them. I just want to go out and run! I do find the watch helps push me to hit certain paces, but sometimes I also like to go by feel and not look at the numbers. If I see the watch showing an average pace of 6:30 and I am supposed to be at 6:20, I will really push to get to that pace. However, if I doing an easy run or if I am running as hard as I possibly can, I will disregard what the pace on my watch says. My effort always wins out over the technology.

Our family also has a Garmin Forerunner 10 and a Garmin Forerunner 35. These two watches don’t have as many bells and whistles as my Forerunner 220, but they still track average pace and mileage that can be uploaded to your computer. My husband likes the Forerunner 35 primarily because it offers a specific chest strap that you can use to monitor your heart rate.

Much of my work as a physical therapist is in Cardiac Rehab, where we monitor patient heart rates and rhythms after heart attacks, stent placements, and artery bypass surgeries. Our goal is to keep the patients safe and help them stay within certain calculated target heart rate zones. We teach them how to take their own heart rate by feeling for the artery on either the palm side of their wrist or the side of their neck. You count for 15 or 30 seconds, and then multiply by 4 or 2, respectively, to get the number of beats per minute. Everyone should know how to find and take a pulse (important for CPR too!). However, getting an accurate number on yourself can be challenging when you are in the middle of exercising. Thus, we recommend many of our Cardiac Rehab patients get heart rate monitors and watches for home. The most common patient choice is a Fitbit or Apple watch. Many of these also track your steps, how well you are sleeping, and much more.

Personally, I like wearing my Garmin while running and then taking it off. I find the amount of information that can be tracked these days if often overbearing and can just add more stress as well as screen time to our lives. I prefer to keep it simple!

What do you use for a watch? What features do you like to track? Let me know in the comments!