Running Watches, Foot Pod, GPS – Each Has Their Time And Place

Garmin Forerunner 210What makes you tick?  Is it getting out and clicking off mile after mile of a nice easy long run before the sun is up?  Getting out those racing flats and plowing through an interval workout?  Blasting through the downtown city streets in a big city road race?  Back roads of a small-town festival race?  Pushing your kid(s) in the running stroller to get some fresh air?  Running the dog – with or without the leash – with or without those tiny blue bags?  Whatever makes us tick can also dictate what we need ticking on our wrist…..

Enjoying distance running is about as pure as any sport can get … trust me and my college buddies when we tell you that no running watch, GPS, hairband, iPod, shoes, socks, shirt, and especially shorts are required to go run around outside.  Zero-technology running, also known as streaking-but-not-thinking-its-really-called-streaking-because-everybodys-on-the-track-team-anyways-and-lets-face-it-there’s-only-guys-out-here-which-makes-it-extra-hilarious-until-a-cop-car-turns-the-corner running, has a time and place but that’s not what this blog entry is about.  It’s about the technology that can (not necessarily will or must) make us a smarter runner.  Shoes, socks, nutrition, clothing material – these are all technologies that have come a long way in the last decade or so.  They will be part of future blog postings, but the topic at hand is the technology which can make us tick on the run …. the running watch.

Starting with the least amount of technology (and cost) to greatest …

Bare Wrist
For some, the thought of not wearing a watch makes about as much sense as putting your right shoe on your left foot and putting your left shoe in aluminum foil before re-heating it in the microwave.  Some are slaves to their splits, their training logs, their data.  I tend to be one of these data-heavy runners that enjoys seeing progression, splits, heart rates, and color coding up to ten intensity levels of every mile I run.  But we must understand the time and place that distance-runner-OCD can help us and when it will hurt us.  Running without a watch and on feel, listening 100% to your body, is great for recovery runs.  Especially for those early morning runs and slow recovery runs, it doesn’t matter if your first couple miles are up to a minute slower per mile than normal.  If that’s what your body needs, there’s no use in even knowing it’s slower.  If you’re the kind of person that hates seeing a slow mile – even when it should be slow – don’t wear a watch and know that you’re recovering your body exactly how it wants at that time.  Another great time to not wear a watch is during your taper.  When you’re coming up to a big race, it’s easy to get anxious and start dwelling on the most insignificant things like getting that extra 15 minutes of sleep or if you just ran up those stairs too quickly or “WHY DID I JUST RUN THAT FIRST MILE SIX SECONDS FASTER THAN WHEN I PR’d THREE YEARS AGO ON THIS SAME EASY RUN 9 DAYS OUT FROM THE MARATHON!!!! NNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  Now, it’s perfectly fine to know how fast you’re running during recovery as long as you always listen to your body.  If you run that easy five miler 2-3 minutes slower than usual, simply smile and be proud that you were the smarter runner who accomplished that day’s goal – effective recovery.  If you’ll only be bothered by seeing a slower time, leave the watch on the nightstand.

Traditional Running Watch
The good ‘ol start-stop-lap-reset runner’s best friend.  It’s how we start-up conversations with complete random people on the subway or at work …. if you have an old school Timex Ironman Chronograph or the latest sleekest of the sleek oversized sport watch on your wrist while wearing street clothes or business attire, you’re subject to your fellow running brethren randomly asking you about your resting heart rate or how many shoes you’ve worn through this year already.  Seeing split and total time is what training logs have been built upon for decades.  Wearing a traditional running watch is great for running out of town where you don’t have a normal route or know the distance you’re running.  20 minutes easy is 20 minutes easy.  It’s also great for timed intervals like fartlek runs, steady state tempo runs, or progression workouts.  Being effective in these workouts is still about listening to your body but getting the work in for the amount of time prescribed.  Especially early in a training cycle when you’re just starting to sprinkle in some workouts – going out and running a 20 minute progression run or 4x(2min on, 1min off) can be a lot more effective running on feel than heading to the track and pounding out a hard interval session recording every single 400m split.  If you’re just rolling into shape, are running higher mileage, or aren’t race sharp yet it’s easy to get discouraged seeing slow splits on the track or a measured distance.  When you get to learn your body’s limits and are able to push or relax yourself when needed, running just on time and feel is extremely effective especially when it comes to simulating some longer races.  I wear a simple watch during half marathons, marathons, or even smaller races which might not have clocks set up at the first couple mile markers.  By the time you’re in race shape quick splits should build confidence and it’s good to replicate those race-like splits to know how you’ll feel passing those same splits in the race itself.

Foot Pod and GPS
These serve the same purpose but aren’t exactly the same.  The food pod is a RF accelerometer in your shoe that transmits data which translates into pace and distance on your watch.  A GPS watch is linked to a satellite to give positional data translating to pace, distance, and elevation.  The main difference is that the food pod can work without plain view of the sky (indoors, tunnels, very thick tree cover) and the GPS knows your geographic position so you can project your runs on maps and see elevation profiles.  I’ve used both and feel as though the accuracy for a normal run is about the same for a calibrated foot pod and a GPS watch although since the foot pod accuracy is dependent on your exact stride motion I felt the accuracy varied using different shoes, running different paces, and running different stride lengths (like maneuvering trails).  In my opinion, the best use for foot pods and GPS watches are normal everyday running, running somewhere new like on vacation or a new route, and possibly low-key tune up races.  The major benefit for these tools are to gather a lot of information and possibly sync it with an online training log (i.e. or GarminConnect).

Which Is Best?
It really depends.  It’s not really about what information is best to see when you’re running; it’s all about knowing the right information, putting it in context of your current training, and using it to be a smarter runner.  That could mean looking back on your data the next week, 3 months from now when you do the same workout, or even 3 years from now when you’re looking back at that PR season.  On the other hand abusing your GPS data to think you’re not working hard enough (on an easy run) because you’re just too manly to run this slow is bad news.  I use a Garmin Forerunner 210 which, in my opinion, is the best of all worlds.  It’s an affordable minimal GPS watch which can program interval workouts (by time or distance), connect to a heart rate strap, connect to a foot pod, and also work indoors (or outdoors) without the GPS on.  Out for a long tempo or progression run, I’ll check the GPS splits to see if I’m in the ballpark.  Out doing intervals I’ll shut the GPS off and run purely on time, on a measured course, or at the track.  For most normal or long runs I simply link it to the satellite, push start, and don’t think about it until I look at it the next day, week, training cycle, or never.

Cliff Notes:
– We are training our bodies, not our training logs.  Listen to your body!!!!!!
– Running naked has it’s time and place.



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