In Simple Language, Just What Are GPS Watches?

Posted on April 28, 2017 by Beth Hartman

GPS running watches are fitness devices worn on the wrist that let runners measure and track their path of travel anywhere on Earth. This distinguishes GPS watches from other types of activity trackers, which typically use an accelerometer to measure movement (such as the number of steps taken).

For runners, this location data translates the number distance traveled and speed (pace), though many devices also track more advanced data.

While GPS watches are not necessary, many runners find them to be informative and use the data to help improve performance, both in training and racing. Watches like the Garmin’s  have a proprietary feature called Garmin Connect, which is your online training tool to store, analyze and share all your fitness activities. Garmin Connect will display a map, temperature, lap splits, a variety of graphs and your notes for every activity, depending on your device, accessories, and location. It’s everything you need to see what you’ve done and how you’re doing.

GPS watches have been a welcome addition to running, for a while now. The first was the Forerunner 101, introduced by Garmin in 2003. It was a relatively large, oval-shaped device that did not offer users the option to upload data for storage or analysis. Since then, GPS reception and battery life has improved significantly, and advances in the technology have allowed devices to get much smaller, making them more practical for everyday wear. And as mentioned above, with the Garmin Connect feature, you can analyze your own data, for your particular use, or upload it and share with a community of runners or friends and use it to compete against one another.

One of the latest Garmin GPS watches that can do everything for you except actually run by itself, is the Garmin Fenix 5 GPS Multi Sport Watch.  It can track 1000 waypoints, 30 routes and up to 200 hours of log tracking and up to 24 hours of GPS Mode operation or 75 hours in Ultra Trac Battery Saver Mode. As mentioned above, it features advanced GPS and GLONASS satellite reception to track in more challenging environments than GPS alone.

How GPS Works
GPS tracking devices contain a sensor, which receives signals continuously broadcast from satellites maintained by the U.S. Government’s Global Positioning System to ascertain a user’s exact location at various points of time. Using that data, the watch is able to determine a runner’s pace and distance traveled. There are at least 24 satellites circling the planet at all times. Once the watch locates at least three, its software is able to calculate a user’s position. The U.S. Air force claims the GPS system can be accurate to about 3.5 meters, though Garmin, one of the best-known GPS watch manufacturers, reports their receivers to be accurate to within about 15 meters, again, this is based as an average against the latest of their models. Certain features and some conditions (such as terrain, tall buildings or tree cover, or atmospheric effects) can make finding satellites difficult, and the receivers less accurate.

How Accurate Do GPS Watches Need To Be?
No GPS watch is perfectly accurate. However, for training purposes, absolute accuracy is unnecessary. Most watches are consistent enough to give users a general idea of their distance and pace; that information is usually sufficient to provide useful feedback during individual runs and to track progress over time.

Basic Features
Basic GPS watches tend to offer at least three features: pace (in minutes per mile, or kilometer), distance run (in miles or kilometers), and duration.

In addition, many GPS devices now measure heart rate. Training by heart rate can be useful to ensure you’re working at an appropriate intensity for your goals.

Some GPS watches measure heart rate with a chest strap that monitors the heart’s electrical activity. Many newer watches use an optical sensor that reads the user’s pulse from the wrist. There is some concern about the accuracy of the wrist-based heart rate monitors, and the technology is constantly changing/improving. No activity watch or heart rate monitor function watch should ever take the place of a medical device, used by a physician. These watches are used primarily as trackers, or guideposts as fitness training devices, to let a user know approximately how they are progressing

Advanced features
A few GPS watches, like the NEWEST, the Garmin Forerunner 935 Multi Sport GPS Watch offers more advanced measurements. 

These include:
Cadence: Some watches measure cadence or the number of steps per minute you take while running. This is done using a motion sensor in the watch, a chest-mounted monitor, or a foot pod. Although you may have heard that all runners should strive for 180 steps per minute, most experts now agree that there’s no universally desirable cadence. Even among individual runners, cadence can vary depending as you move from easy jogging to race pace. This article gives some guidance on making sense of cadence data.

Stride Length: Stride length is inversely proportional to cadence—the higher your cadence, the shorter your stride length at a constant speed. A shorter stride can help prevent over-striding, which is believed to lead to injury.

Vertical Oscillation: A few of the most advanced watches will measure the vertical motion of your torso—otherwise known as “bounce.” The idea is that the less bounce, the less extraneous work is being done, and the more efficient the runner is being, so a goal would be to have as little oscillation as possible.

VO2 Max: This is a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen your body is able to consume, in milliliters per minute. The more oxygen one is able to consume, the more is available for muscles, and the harder a runner is able to work, which is why many runners want to improve their VO2 max rates.

Ground Contact Time: This is a measurement of how long, in milliseconds, your foot maintains contact with the ground, and is connected to a running style that includes faster cadence and shorter stride length. In general, runners have ground contact times of 160-300 milliseconds. Elite runners have shorter ground contact times—200 milliseconds or less.

Navigation: While many GPS watches record where you have been, a few include navigation-style maps to tell runners where they are, or how to get back to where they started. These are mostly available on watches marketed to trail runners, such as the Fenix line of watches from Garmin.

So, there you have the basics of what a GPS watch is and what it can do. If you’re in the market for one, you have no further to go then to our On-Line Store of Choice: HeartRateMonitorsUSA.com  and specifically to This link to get the specific information about the Garmin Fenix 935 Multi-Sport GPS Watch which also features the latest in “Wrist Based Heart Rate Monitoring. Check it out today and get out there and run the trails without fear of NOT knowing where you are!


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