Travis Thurston


The GPS Battle

If you're reading this post, you might find yourself in a similar situation as many other runners - figuring out which GPS device is the best for you. In a world full of sophisticated metrics to tell us how we're running, it's easy to get overwhelmed and confused. It's also easy to get caught up with the conundrum of loving technology and trying to extricate yourself from data dependency.

As an avid runner and a designer focused on lean experiences, I dig running minimally. The less devices/cords/clothes I need, the better. It's just fewer things to get in the way and less weight to carry around. And believe me, you start noticing even ounces when you're doing anything over 21km.

I've spent a lot of nights up way past my normal bedtime reading articles and watching YouTube videos on the latest devices and probing the forums for user feedback. While this yields educated buying decisions, it also yields bloodshot eyes and frustration. So, with this post, I hope to spare you the latter.

What device am I coming from?

I've been using the Garmin Forerunner 210 for the last several years. It's been a nice piece of equipment to give me current pace in real time, very accurate GPS and sound elevation gain. It was a reasonable price point and the battery would last all week long through several runs. My only gripes were the archaic way of aligning the pins on the USB cord to charge/upload activities and the unnervingly slow signal acquisition times. I mean, everyone loves standing in 0º weather waiting for the signal indicator to get up to about 95%, then drop back down to 50%, then back up and repeat about 7 or 8 more times, right? Not the end of the world, but damn.

So what am I looking for in a new GPS running watch?

Well, over the last several months and as training has intensified a bit, my needs have broadened. In addition to accurate mapping (preferably GPS and GLONASS), I need a wrist-based heart rate monitor, decent battery life, an easier way of connecting and uploading of activities and music streaming through Bluetooth. Controlling my heart rate and breathing is something I've come to realize is extremely important in endurance races. The music may be tertiary to some but for me, my entire mood can be affected by a single song. So it's beneficial for me to have this feature and nail down some solid playlists to get me through the long runs as a means to help me maintain control of my body.

So, I bought an Apple Watch Series 3. Does it meet my needs?

So far, it's great. And in short, yes it does.

Mapping Accuracy
After a few runs, it's been nearly spot on with my Garmin. I've only had one run (Frankfurt marathon) where it recorded 27.2 miles when it should have been 26.2. I was a bit concerned by this initially but it may have been just some random glitch or error on my part. Every other run I've done locally up to 10km has been very accurate according to the data taken from my identical Garmin runs. I've seen a fluctuation of only a few meters on distance and elevation gain, repeatedly.

I typically get about two days out of a single charge, including a 10km run and a 90-minute gym session. I also made it through the entire marathon (4 hours) and still had 26%. But whenever I need to charge it, it's super easy. I just plop it on the magnetic adapter and plug it in to my computer whether I'm at home or at work. Charging time is under an hour. No more fumbling with the Garmin trying to get the pins properly aligned. Big win.

Heart Rate Monitoring
This has been something that I've really started paying attention to and loving. It's nice to know how hard my body is working during every part of my run. After reviewing several days of resting averages and comparing my runs, it seems to be quite accurate (as in nothing has prompted a "Wait, that's not right!").

Music Streaming
YUGE. This is great, as it eliminates an entire device from my body. I don't need 40 million songs as you get with the cellular version; I just need a good playlist or two. It serves this purpose well. Streaming quality to the AirPods is truly crisp and connectivity is NEVER an issue. Something I've learned in a decade of using Apple products and is that when you start marrying their devices, you can almost always count on connections being better than anything else on the market.

Quick Glances and Operation While Running
I've heard some runners complain about not being able to see their pace and distance at quick glance, but this has not been a problem for me. I actually don't even look at my watch anymore. I turned on the audio cues for Strava so every kilometer, it gently lowers the music and spits out my distance, overall time and last split. I honestly thought this would annoy the shit out of me but I really like it. It's a bunch of small victories to not have to glance down every split and take your eyes off of the road. I run at night a lot and it only takes one glance to not see a curb and roll an ankle, so I appreciate this luxury. I know some of you reading this may be hesitant to try it, but give it a shot and I think you will end up liking it as well.

Overall Impressions
I feel like I've made the best choice, for me, at the moment. Couldn't be happier. I'm wearing one less device than I was before, mapping accuracy is really great, I've got my music without any cords and I'm more cognizant of my body's internal processes. Are there things this watch cannot do that a Fenix 5 or Suunto Spartan can? Of course. But something to consider is that with Apple, you have the wonderful app ecosystem. What isn't available today, could be available tomorrow. And we all know software updates are something that Apple doesn't shirk on, which always gives you a warm and fuzzy. Plus, the watch is cheaper than Garmin and Suunto's flagships and it just looks REALLY damn good.

Comment below and let me know your thoughts, questions and concerns.