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The GPS Watch Debate: In Defense of the Watch

Despite what some may say, being a a "serious runner" and a GPS-watch wearer are not mutually exclusive.

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I vividly remember my first exposure to a GPS watch. It came during my senior year of college on a regular training run. The school I ran at had this trail that circled the campus that provided a nice, flat, soft-surface run for easy days. Most of my teammates didn't run it as much as I did--I probably put 50-60 miles per week in on The Trail my senior year--but everyone knew how long the trail was: 2.25 miles.

How did we know how long the trail was? Well, that much wasn't exactly clear. We adopted a modified system of Badger miles as a matter of tradition. We ran 8:00 pace on easy runs, regardless of how fast we were actually going. Based in part on that, and, in part on what had been passed down through generations of runners, the trail was 2.25 miles rather than the 2.5 miles advertised in the brochures given by the school to prospective students.

Then, one day in the fall of my senior year, a giddy sophomore showed up with a Garmin GPS watch and it threatened to topple my entire collegiate career of training. What if that (not so) little watch said that The Trail was 3 miles, or, even worse, that it was only 2 miles? Have my 80 mile weeks really been only 60 or 70 miles? Or have I been running a lot more than I thought I had been?

As anyone whose entire relation to the world was under attack would do, I took any opportunity I could to slander that vile device. I became an old man.

Of course this fear of what the GPS watch might tell me about my mileage is not a good argument against the watches. A less reactionary, and more defensible, reason to avoid GPS watches is that the level of accuracy they provide isn't really necessary for anyone. As Tom Ziller covered here years ago, they are more accurate than mapping your run out on the always-trusty Gmap-Pedometer. But, for most of us, even if we're training seriously, it's not important whether your last easy run was 7 miles or 7.5 miles.

But perhaps the most pervasive argument against GPS watches is that they are not a tool of the "real runner." Within the circles of competitive running clubs, college teams, and on message boards, a Garmin is a symbol of the hobby jogger who needs a watch to tell him/her what pace to run, how far to go, or, even, how they feel. This characterization is not without merit. For most easy runs, effort is more important than pace and a GPS watch can get in the way of actually running the right pace to keep easy runs easy as well as getting a better feel for things like race pace, tempo pace, threshold pace, etc.

Those are valid concerns. There really is no feeling as good as naturally locking in to a tempo run pace without the aid of a watch. But, especially running on my own post-collegiately I've found my GPS watch useful for something entirely separate from the GPS functionality. My GPS watch makes me accountable.

I've gone through my share of GPS watches in the last 4 years--Nike, Garmin 10, TomTom Runner, Garmin 620--and despite their drastically different levels of functionality, my personal interaction with each of them has been the same. Without teammates or a regular running group, the watch is the only thing I can't lie to about my running.

More than that, the information they provide--elevation, pace--makes running fun. Running solo day after day gets to be a grind for even the most motivated runners among us. Coming home after a run, plugging the watch into my computer, and seeing all sorts of tables, graphs, and maps about the run I just completed helps fill that need for entertainment.

As I prepare to type these following sentences, I am bracing for how pathetic they will make me sound but here it goes. Living in the suburbs without a team or group to run with regularly is sort of lonely. Sure, there's that guy I say "hi" to most morning walking really fast in half tights and that woman with the stroller who sometimes passes me on the trail, but I don't get out the door to seek their company. Obsessively checking my pace or (somewhat) precisely how far I've gone does provide a level of company.

My training might not be optimal with my GPS watch, but at least I'm training. I think that's better than I would be managing without the watch.

On a less depressing note, a GPS watch provides greater flexibility for non-track workouts like tempo runs and fartleks. For the former, I used to be tied down to loops where I knew the total distance and where various splits were. With a GPS watch, I can basically do a tempo run anywhere I want without the pain of mapping it out an memorizing mile markers beforehand. That makes tempoing less of a to-do  and also allows to the flexibility to just throw one in more spontaneously in the middle of a run.

Aside from the minor downsides of having a slightly heavier object on my wrist and having to wait an extra 10 seconds to connect to satellites before starting my run, GPS watches have enhanced my running experience. Have I occasionally gone too fast on an easy day because I didn't want to be on record as running at a certain slow pace? Sure, but I've also done that running with teammates and friends.

Overall, buying a GPS watch a couple summers back was one of the better decisions I made for my training post-collegiately. Having accountability and a fun new toy broke me out of a serious rut and got me back into "serious runner" form. For me, it's this simple: If you like your GPS watch and the additional information doesn't negatively influence your training, you should wear a GPS watch without hesitation.

I run with a GPS watch and I consider myself a real runner. Where do you come down on GPS watches? Share your GPS watch takes in the comments.