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When running goes digital: GPS watches vs the real world

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

If you are a runner and hang around other runners, odds are you know a Garmin worshipper who lives and dies by what their watch tells them. The in-built race predictor feature, the Vo2Max gauge, the wrist-based heart rate monitor and the recovery calculator all preach the gospel to these athletes. But while activity-tracking GPS watches have become an essential training tool for the modern runner in recent years, it is important to remember that they are just that - a tool. In this Q&A, KOTWF running coach Matt Welsh reviews the place of GPS tracking in the athlete's life and offers a few tips on how to get the most out of it.

"What are your thoughts on GPS watches?"

Activity-tracking GPS watches are by far the most common device among amateurs. It is rare to find a runner who doesn't own one. However, the first and foremost thing to know is that GPS watches are never fully accurate. They have good days and bad days, just like the person wearing them. A watch that only knows your age, weight, height and sex cannot possibly know what your Vo2Max is, sorry. In my experience, the wrist-based heart monitor may as well be a random number generator, which in turn affects the recovery calculations and the race predictions. Most runners probably know this, but without accurately measured race courses sometimes driving home the point that your watch isn't 100% reliable, it's very easy to turn towards your wrist for signs of progression and reassurance.

Running isn't easy and it means a lot to those who put a significant amount of time, effort and mental energy into it. The main danger of relying so heavily on inaccurate measurements is that athletes may come away from a session feeling down about themselves or their programme all because their watch was having a 'slow day'. Someone might have their confidence shaken after consulting their watch's race predictions and finding them too slow. Having your watch tell you you are 'detraining' could take away your motivation for a week. This has happened to all of my athletes at one stage or another, and it is easily avoidable.

"Do you use GPS as a training tool? Does this vary depending on the athlete?"

As long as the athlete and the coach fully appreciate the margin of error involved, I think GPS watches are a very useful weapon in the athlete's arsenal. Personally, I tend to use pace as a way of making sure runners don't go too hard, especially during their easy runs. Going deep into the well is fun, but it isn't a sustainable or efficient approach to a long-term plan. Pace targets can be a good way of holding athletes back to prevent them from tipping over the edge from productive into destructive effort. Like any fan of the sport, I love getting hold of session splits from pro athletes. While the times are insanely fast, in most cases when you do the maths and compare their splits to race times it is clear that they are not breaking records in sessions and certainly not trying to stay in peak form all year round like a lot of amateurs try to.

However, you always have to bear in mind the athlete's mindset and circumstances. Things like the weather, fatigue, life stress and terrain all contribute to the intensity of the session. When these things are affecting an athlete's running, they may find the constant split taking and speed references draining and thrive on effort-based training instead. Enjoyment has to be a priority in these cases, so I will encourage these athletes to run on feel or give them sessions where I can get an indication of how they are performing without it being immediately obvious to them. In that case, we just use the watch to record the session for posterior viewing rather than real-time tracking.

"Track running is a huge part of your training methods and race planning. How has the closure of the tracks impacted you and your athletes? Do you find you've had to compromise and adapt significantly?"

The tracks closing was expected, but still made me very sad. Our Tuesday evening track session was something my group and I always looked forward to and to have that taken away from us was a tough blow. What I miss most is the atmosphere. Almost everyone is at the track for the same reason - to train and run. Where else do you immediately bond with total strangers over a shared passion? Barriers between people seem to come down on a track, and I love it.

Even though we will have to wait to have that again, the training philosophy hasn't changed at all, we have just moved our session from Battersea Millennium Arena track to the tarmac roads. To minimise the actual impact of this on our training, I bought a measuring wheel at the end of 2020 which I used to measure a full lap of the park. As I went I marked every 200m with environmentally friendly paint so that we could use that as accurate intervals to measure splits as the GPS is known to be capricious in the park. Essentially, we turned Battersea Park into a track.

So far we have been able to make great use of these lines for our winter training when most of our reps are 800m or longer. They allow the runners to rely on physical markers rather than glance at their watch every few seconds and surge to drag down an average pace that is probably wrong anyways. Apart from the occasional (very) busy evening, it's been pretty smooth sailing. It might get a little more complicated as we move into the summer months and want to work on our top-end speed. Hopefully the tracks will be open by then, but if not we will adapt again.

"Bearing all of this in mind, what is your attitude towards virtual races?"

Obviously this is where that margin of error in GPS recording plays a huge role. A virtual 5km, for example, could be very frustrating for those whose watches tend to read short. On the other hand, we've all seen these amazing (unofficial) PBs set a few weeks into lockdown by the Ross Barkley's of the world... You get my point.

That being said, I like the idea of anything that keeps athletes motivated and enjoying running. Personally, I don't get a lot of motivation from them but they are a great opportunity for a race-like effort where you dig that bit deeper than you would in training. My group and I have done a few of these virtual events and have treated them like real races which means we also got the benefits of a taper and a down week here and there, which is crucial in the bigger picture.

I encourage my athletes to take part in these virtual races as long as they realise that the effort they put in is the only part of the run that truly matters. My group has the benefit of being able to do their TTs on a measured course or fixed route, which means that the only thing that really matters on the watch is the timer.

That's not to say that virtual race results that are run off GPS distance are meaningless, but they should always be taken with that margin of error in mind.

"What advice would you give to someone unsure of how to incorporate their GPS watch into their training routine?"

Practically, if you don't have access to a track, try and mark out a set distance for your sessions instead of relying on your GPS to measure your reps for you. You don't need a measuring wheel for this, just choose some physical landmarks as your start and finish point. That way, you can use the timer on your watch to track your splits over a consistent distance instead of running a slightly different distance every rep. For your easy runs, try and run to time instead of distance. Instead of going for an easy 10km, why not try scheduling an easy 50mins? That way, you cancel out the GPS ambiguity and can focus on your perceived effort instead.

On a cheesier note, the pandemic has driven home to me time and time again that running is so much more than recording fast times. For one, exercise is one of the few fun things we have been consistently allowed to do. For many of us it has been the closest thing we've had to social gatherings since March 2020.

What I have tried to convey here is that running is about more than just hitting numbers and working hard. There is a wider community, ideal and spirit behind it. Don't let the digits on your wrist take you away from that. Don't become a slave to your technology. Like a compass, it is a tool to be used, not a guide to follow blindly. Own it, don't let it own you.

For all Running Coaching packages with Matt & the KOTWF coaching team click here.

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