GPS watch instead of an iPhone for running?
October 13, 2014 6:10 AM   Subscribe

I currently use Runkeeper on my iPhone to log runs and races (mostly 10k’s). Next year I’m doing a half-marathon and marathon. Is it worth getting a GPS watch & heart rate monitor? (Considering the Garmin 220 or 620.) I’m thinking about the convenience/functionality of a watch versus a phone, and the training benefits of a HRM. I’d rather not get another device unless it’s a marked improvement.
posted by Huw to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Any interest in waiting for the Apple watch? Should be seamless integration with what you already have, has heart rate monitor, connect to Apple Health etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:16 AM on October 13, 2014

I recommend using an iPhone app that integrates heart rate measurement.

I trained with a garmin for years until it croaked. Now I train with my iPhone, addidas micoach and the Bluetooth heart rate monitor that integrates with the app. I like this setup better than the Garmin. Mostly because all the features I want are on my phone which I'm carrying anyway while running.
posted by u2604ab at 6:37 AM on October 13, 2014

I have a GPS watch (Garmin 305) but I basically always use my phone for tracking runs and cycling. I use it sometimes for hiking, because the battery will last all day without a charge. My watch has to be plugged into a computer; I think the newer ones upload automatically to Garmin Connect.

I would say avoid getting a watch that can't automatically update to the tracking app you're already using (or one you like at least as much as the one you're already using). The inconvenience of shuffling around data can easily outweigh the convenience of the watch. HRM is nice but not super useful if you don't already know your base and max HR (until I got this figured out, my watch basically thought I was dying the second I went faster than a walk). If you're already training with HR in mind, it will be more useful.
posted by mskyle at 6:37 AM on October 13, 2014

I think the answer to this question is basically congruent with how much added value you will get out of not having to run with a phone strapped to your arm. (For me, that answer is "a lot,"but obviously YMMV.) I don't think you get a ton of added functionality from a watch beyond that.
posted by eugenen at 6:37 AM on October 13, 2014

I have a Garmin 220. It is much, much more accurate than any iPhone app I ever used to use. You can add a heart rate strap as well if you are concerned.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:46 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband upgraded from an iPhone-connected HRM to the Garmin 610 this fall. He is obsessively obsessed with the Maffetone Method and it wasn't enough for him to get once-a-minute audio feedback on his HR. Instead, he was running with his phone in his hand and the screen on at all times so he could keep a constant eye on his HR. For this level of granularity/obsessiveness the watch form factor was easier for him. The Garmin does also have the added benefit of better battery life when you get into really long long runs.

FWIW, after nearly a year of training using Maffetone, his 5K times are a couple minutes *slower* than for the same races a year ago. But he has stayed injury free, so maybe that's worth something. And obviously, there are many HR-based training plans besides Maffetone, and what works or doesn't work for a 5K is not the same thing as what works or doesn't work for a half or full marathon.
posted by drlith at 6:53 AM on October 13, 2014

I love my Garmin, but this is a really personal thing. For me, I love seeing my distance and speed in real time. I can see both my current speed, the average speed over the whole workout, and the speed of the last kilometer or lap I ran in one screen, which is really helpful for intervals and setting personal bests and also just to motivate me to go a little faster if I see that my average speed is lower than usual. (There are also virtual partner functions on some of those GPS watches to play with that even more).
posted by blub at 6:56 AM on October 13, 2014

Let me tell you what works for me: iSmoothRun app on my iPhone and MioLink heartrate optical sensor. Total cost: $5 for iSmoothRun and $90 for MioLink = $95.

My iSmoothRun data automatically exports to Nike+, Garmin Connect portal and Runkeeper. I have data on heart rates AND cadence AND just about every type of data under the sun.

I could not use just a Garmin watch as that would mean:
1) Losing my cadence data
2) Losing the ability to export my data to just about everywhere.

I am doing the Maffetone method too, and very happy with it. However, I don't quite keep at the strict 180-age target heartrate, and instead have a +/- 5 beats around the target heart rate.

For a data fanatic like me, I LOVE knowing what my heart rate is. It stops me from running too fast on easy days. And various studies/ calculators have predicted my max to be between 184 to 192, but my current recorded max at a half marathon is 195, and my true max should be even higher than that!
posted by moiraine at 7:10 AM on October 13, 2014

I primarily run 10Ks and half marathons. I was tired of MapMyRun giving me inaccurate pace times, so I switched to the Garmin Forerunner 220, and I love it. I don't care so much about heart rate, but you can pair it with a heart monitor strap.

I recently kickstarted RunScribe, and it looks like a promising option as well.
posted by msladygrey at 7:27 AM on October 13, 2014

Best answer: I agree, this is really a matter of personal preference and priorities. I also use a Garmin (the Forerunner 10, so no HRM capability but many of them have it) and leave the iPhone at home. For me it comes down to:
1) Weight. Especially on long runs, having a bulky phone strapped to my arm makes a noticeable difference and interferes with my form.
2) Durability and water resistance. I sweat A LOT, and live in a sub-tropical climate where it's not at all unusual to get caught in a torrential downpour mid-run. How much do you trust those velcro-closing "waterproof" phone cases? I don't, and the Garmin is designed to be water resistant to 50m.
3) Risk. I run in times and places where it's dark and there's not a lot of people around. If I trip and fall, or get mugged, it's a lot cheaper to replace my watch than my phone, and the only confidential data I have to worry about losing are my mile splits.
4) Feedback. I like being able to glance down and check my pace/time/distance any old time.
5) This is most subjective, but when I've run with an iPhone/iPod I end up listening to music or podcasts. When I don't have the option, I get more productive thinking done - about my teaching, my writing, whatever -- I notice more of my surroundings, and I think I run a bit faster. I could use a phone without listening to anything, sure, but I think I'd succumb to the temptation more often if it was easy.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:33 AM on October 13, 2014

Have you looked at the Suunto sport watches? I use the Ambit2 (has GPS) to track my indoor workouts (run/lift/row/bicycle) and never notice the heart rate monitor or foot pod during the sessions.

When I get home I plug the watch into the computer and it automatically uploads the data. Here is a quick look at the data when viewed on their website. You could track much, much more than what I have set.

My issue with the Nike app is that when I stop running laps to hop on a bicycle, or to row, the Nike foot pod stops too, throwing off the whole recording. The Suunto records everything and has multiple screens and functions for the workout session.
posted by MansRiot at 8:05 AM on October 13, 2014

Best answer: I used an iPhone to track my runs and was pretty happy with it, and then got a low-end Garmin watch for my birthday last year.

The biggest advantage of the watch is being able to glance at it to check my pace. The other nice thing is that you can run in the pouring rain with no worries which is very fun. Disadvantages are that I need to sync it via the computer and I usually carry my iPhone anyways (although in a pocket.)

Personally I'm looking at trying out the Apple Watch when it comes out. It seems like it would be a more useful device than upgrading to a $350 sports watch.
posted by smackfu at 9:45 AM on October 13, 2014

I found the GPS watch was worth it for battery life alone. Running a GPS app + music on my phone was killing my phone battery during a 90 min-2 hour training run. But then, I am a slowpoke.
posted by rinosaur at 10:50 AM on October 13, 2014

I've used my iPhone, a Garmin FR910XT with HR strap and footpod, and a watch (the Basis B1) with the same kind of optical HR sensor that the Apple Watch is supposed to have. That particular Garmin is massive overkill for anyone who's not into triathlon, but I strongly preferred it over the other two even when I was "just" running:

1. The GPS on the Garmin seemed more reliable than my phone -- I never had it lose its fix and wreck my stats because it decided I had teleported half a mile off course and back on, which my phone did a couple times a month in the wooded areas where I ran.

2. The optical HR sensor on the Basis was basically non-functional at HR above 80ish (so, useless for actual training).

3. I also sweat buckets and basically can't use my phone touchscreen after the first 10 minutes, so the actual buttons on the Garmin are better for me.

I do still carry my phone with me most of the time when I'm training, in case I get hurt in remote places, but I don't use it for recording data any more.
posted by dorque at 11:32 AM on October 13, 2014

Best answer: I love love LOVE my Garmin 220, and I don't think I could go back to just using an iPhone anymore. As others have noted, the GPS is much more accurate on the Garmin. I find the HRM works great too, and I love being able to just glance down at my wrist to find my heart rate, current pace, distance, etc.

I don't consider it a chore to sync via computer, because it comes with a USB cord that is also used for charging. So basically after a run I plug it into my laptop for a few minutes, it instantly uploads to Garmin Connect, and it charges in maybe 10-15 minutes.

I run marathons, but I think it would benefit anyone who runs regularly. If anything it motivates me to run more, since I love data and seeing my progress. It's great for HR training, as you can set alerts to remind you when you exceed a target heart rate zone, etc., but I haven't used those. I usually just glance down to check my HR.

Personally I would recommend the Garmin 220. I used to have an old 305 which was a hand-me-down, but I got the 220 when it finally died earlier this year. The 220 syncs incredibly quickly compared to my old 305. I have a couple of friends who have the 620, and it seems to take longer to sync for some reason than my 220. Also the touch screen on the 620 can be a little wonky sometimes.

I realize I sound like a commercial...but I really cannot overstate how much I love my 220! It's totally worth it in my opinion.
posted by barnoley at 3:28 PM on October 13, 2014

Best answer: I've been running for over four years, and always with both my smartphone and a GPS watch, while normally using the latter for tracking. I've used a Garmin 201 and 305; Suunto Ambit 2; and the Runkeeper and Strava phone apps.

But I don't think a GPS watch is a requirement unless you're not meeting your training goals with your current setup. The GPS watch is another thing that requires charging, syncing, is easily damaged by water, and can be viewed as another excuse not to go running (if you can't find it or the battery is low / dead).

I'd break down it down into these criteria (simplest to most complex):

1. Battery life - Will your phone battery last your entire run? Are you ok with having a truncated run if it does die? Do you ever think you'll need to call someone for a ride home if you get caught in a freak rainstorm or you trip and break a leg? If these are concerns you might want to get a GPS watch to make sure your phone works when you need it.

2. Seeing the data easily - it's a huge pain for me to get my phone out of its armband / case, unlock it, and switch to the app. There's also a good chance that I'll notice I have several unread emails / messages and then stop and deal with those, taking a chunk of time out of my run. Therefore if I'm using my phone to track my run, I'll rarely take it out and look at it unless I am lost or something. But it's going to show me something useful because I want to see it, which brings me to:

3. Using GPS watch data to guide your run - I've never needed to explore the whole capabilities of the Runkeeper app, but good GPS watches have training features that go beyond just tracking. These are implemented in a way that may be annoying on a phone (and would probably make battery life worse). They include:

- Pace alarms - I can set up my watch to beep at me constantly if I am running too fast / too slow / heart rate too high / low. I've found this to be very useful when running longer distances to pace myself, since it's too easy to run at your normal pace and then run out of energy on a longer-than-normal run. They're also useful to keep a target pace.

- Interval training - You can tell your GPS watch to set up predefined time intervals to run fast / run slower and recover. Speed training is important if you're trying to run considerably faster than you currently are now.

- Virtual partner - You can tell your GPS watch to display a virtual partner that set up for a specific pace / distance, and it will tell you if you are faster or slower than the program. You'd have to be able to easily check your progress, and the watch would facilitate that.
posted by meowzilla at 7:28 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just in case you haven't come across it yet: this product comparison tool by DC Rainmaker is awesome (as are his watch reviews).
In response to some concerns mentioned here: many GPS watches are waterproof, including the two Huw mentioned in the question. Garmin now also automatically uploads to many other services. I don't know if Runkeeper is supported yet, but all my Garmin workouts automatically show up in Endomondo. Garmin also lets you export your workouts in a standard format, and there's also which lets you sync your workouts between, say, Garmin Connect and Runkeeper, or export everything to Dropbox. Newer watches also sync to iPhones through Bluetooth smart.
posted by blub at 1:57 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your informative and considered answers. It seems (as always!) that there's no obvious solution. I think I'll borrow a friend's GPS watch and see how I find it compared to my iPhone.
posted by Huw at 1:47 PM on October 15, 2014

Response by poster: So a month on and I now own a Garmin 620 + HRM and am very glad of my decision. I'm happy to answer any related questions.

What I like about it:
1) Not having to wear an armband. I like the freedom and not having to worry about getting the iPhone wet.
2) Viewing pace, distance, HR at a glance. The touchscreen of the 620 and customisable views is great.
3) More accurate measurements.
4) Having accurate HRM. Not sure how much use it really is, but nice to know.
5) The 620 has wifi and will upload automatically as soon as I get home. It sends the data to Garmin Connect and on to Strava (and most other places you like). No cables except for charging!

What I don't like:
1) Cost for a single-purpose device.
2) HRM band - would prefer a watch-based optical alternative (although the HRM unit also measures cadence & other stuff).

The world of fitness trackers & GPS units is moving very fast and there's still a way to go before the various technical approaches and designs converge to create something really good. This isn't it, but it's pretty good.
posted by Huw at 3:27 AM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

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