Monday, February 19, 2018

What I DON'T Want in a GPS Watch

A runner's watch and its settings are a personal thing. With the massive variety of GPS watches on the market, we have options not only for which device we use, but how we personalize it.

Houston Half Marathon Finish
One on extreme, there are the runners who always want the latest and most sophisticated technology. They want to track all the possible data and they want their watch to be able to receive text messages, play music, track their sleep, predict their marathon time and more. On the other extreme, there are the runners who may not even want to wear a watch, let alone a GPS device.

As for me, I'm pretty basic, with one exception. And the one exception makes it difficult for me to find a simple GPS watch that meets my needs. When I started racing in 2005, I bought a Timex stop watch with a lap button. That worked well for awhile, until I decided to get a Garmin in 2009. I went with the Forerunner 405. I loved being able to run anywhere and know how far I had gone. Before the Garmin, I would typically run on the W&OD trail, which had mile markers, or I would use a treadmill. Those were my options if I wanted to track my distance.

After five years, the battery died and I moved to the Garmin Forerunner 220. This watch was slimmer and more comfortable, but otherwise it wasn't all that different from my previous one. At least in terms of the features I used. When that started acting strangely (not uploading to my phone, cutting workouts short) I bought the Garmin 630 on Black Friday sale last fall. And I hate it. Alright, hate is a strong word, so I'll revise my statement to "I find the watch highly frustrating and I wish I had not purchased it." Greg got the same deal, but he's not as tortured by the device as I am.

As I said above, a runner's watch is a personal thing, so here is everything I want, and don't want in a GPS watch.

The Basics
The reason I use a Garmin instead of my stop watch is because I like to track my speed and distance.
Garmin Forerunner 630
I need my watch to track and display:
  • Total Distance
  • Total Running Time
  • Average Pace of the Run
  • Lap Pace
The first three of these I like to have on one screen, in that order. As I run, I want to know how far I have gone, how long I've been going, and what my average pace has been so far. On a separate screen, which I have set to auto-rotate, I display the lap pace only. I like this to be large and take up the entire face of the screen so I can quickly glance down and see what pace my current mile (or split) is. This helps me slow down or speed up when needed.

I used to want to see heart rate, but I have stopped training by heart rate. That got its own screen too.

Data and Integration
I will always be loyal to the Garmin brand because it integrates with my training log (RunningAhead) as well as Strava and Final Surge (my coach's app). So my second requirement, in addition to the basics, is that the watch can upload to the Garmin database and instantly update all those other sources. 

Programmable Workouts (loudly, please)
7:59 lap pace, big and bold!
If it weren't for this one feature requirement, I'd be able to get away with a much simpler GPS watch. But it turns out, if you want to program workouts into your Garmin, you have to buy a fancier model. If it weren't for programmable workouts, I would have a tough time with many of my training runs.

For example, this morning I ran 15 times (1 minute hard, 1 minute easy) followed by 15 times (30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy). I programmed that into my watch so that it beeped, letting me know when the intervals were starting/stopping. And then it recorded my distance, pace, time, etc. for each of the laps. Now I know exactly what pace I ran for each of the 1-minute segments and each of the 30-second segments. 

With the Garmin 630, the beeps are so quiet, I can barely hear them. And even though this watch has a zillion options for everything (I can even put a photo of a zebra on it), there is no volume adjustment for the beeps. Because of this, if I need to do a pre-programmed workout, I use my 220. The alert beep for the auto-lap function is also quiet, and I often don't hear it when I'm doing my easy runs, especially if I am running near traffic.

Touch Screen
I do not want this! I purchased the Garmin 630 fully knowing it was a touch screen, but I thought it would be as easy to use as my iPhone. But it's not. navigating the touch screen is not intuitive. I always end up pressing the wrong thing. And when I go to put the watch on my wrist before my run, I inadvertently touch the screen so that it tries syncing my iPhone contacts. WTF? Why do I want my iPhone contacts synced to my Garmin device?!? No thank you. Plus, in the winter I wear gloves, so I usually need to remove them to use the touch screen, whereas I don't have to worry about that with plain ol' buttons.

Auto Upload
My feeling about the Garmin auto-uploading to my phone is similar to my feelings about automatic flush toilets. Let ME decide when please! I do not want my workout to upload to my phone until I say so. Maybe this is a setting I change, but I haven't found it. Because it integrates with Strava and my coach's Final Surge app, I don't want to publish my run until I am ready to say something about it. Otherwise, it's just hanging out there as "morning run" for people on Strava to view with (gasp) no context on what it was!!! But in all seriousness, sometimes if I am running near my phone, (I don't run with my phone, but sometimes it's in my car and I pass it), the Garmin will try to upload the workout still in progress. And if I'm doing a cool down, it will automatically upload the warm up and the workout itself, which I log as three separate activities.

I often run in the dark so I need a backlight so I can see my Garmin. I use the "stays on" feature so the watch is always lit once I turn it on. With the Garmin 630, if you select the "stays on" feature, but do not un-select the default "backlight is part of an alert" then every time you lap, your backlight will come on and stay on. This drains the battery. I discovered this one day on a treadmill run when I realized the backlight kept coming on and staying on.

Activity Profiles
I look at lap time instead of lap pace on the track
I'll end on a positive note with the Forerunner 630. This watch offers different activity profiles, and I use three of them: run outdoors, run on a track, and run indoors. For running outdoors, my settings are as I described above. If I select track running, instead of my lap pace showing, it shows my lap time. Because GPS watches are not accurate on tracks, I pace the workout using the elapsed time of the lap rather than lap pace. And for those rare occasions when I run on a treadmill, the watch turns off the GPS and using my cadence (I assume) to measure distance. And it's fairly consistent with what the treadmill says.

Even though I'm not a fan of the 630, I'm using it for most of my runs. Ultimately I'll probably buy the 230 which does not have a touch screen or a lot of the fancy features I don't use. My 220 works well enough, so until that dies completely, I will probably hold off on getting a new one. I wore the 220 in Houston because I didn't want the 630 doing anything funky. I'm carefully considering which watch comes with me to New Orleans in two weeks.

I'd love to hear from my readers on this: 
  • What features do you need?
  • How is your watch face configured when you run?
  • Do you log your warm up and cool down as separate activities, or put them all into one?
I'll post a training update next weekend, but that's going really well. I just wrapped up 69.3 miles last week and I'm feeling strong.


  1. Hey Elizabeth,
    I started wearing a Fitbit Charge 2 after Thanksgiving last year and while it's not as accurate as I would like for treadmill runs, it's not too far off (close to 95%). However, I want to get a basic GPS watch to wear for outside runs/races that will show total distance, total time and average pace on one screen. Lap pace as well but like you, I can live with that on another screen.

    Will the Garmin Forerunner 35 do the trick for me? Since I'm using my Fitbit Charge 2 for everything else, I don't need all the features of the 235, etc. Reading the specs on the 35, I think this would work and save me $100 (compared to the 235).

    1. I think the Forerunner 35 will suit your needs, but don't quote me on it. When I was researching them, The Forerunner seemed to be the best option, but I couldn't program workouts so it was a no-go. I wear a FitBit charge on my right wrist to track steps, sleep, and resting heart rate. I don't want my Garmin to do that- my Garmin is just for running!

    2. I meant to say, the Forerunner 35 seemed to be the best option, except for programming workouts which it won't do.

    3. I have the Garmin Forerunner 35 and absolutely love it. One of the tbe ear features is that it has real buttons it’s so easy to use and suitable to wearing gloves. It’s been really accurate for indoor and outdoor running and I haven’t had any issues. The lap/mile beeps and vibrations are very noticeable for me. I highly recommend!

  2. I feel you. I really just want my 305 back! I loved that thing! I have the 620, and I find it inaccurate and glitchy. It's had two major shut-downs in the last few months. The reason I need the fancy watch is because I like a lot of screens and date fields! For my speed work screen I have lap time/lap pace/lap distance/total distance; for races, I have time/distance/average pace/lap pace; for long runs, tempos, etc., I have pace/average pace/lap pace/ distance.
    Yeah. Picky. But I don't like resetting any data fields!

  3. I have the 225 and love it! I use a watch mainly for time, pace, and distance. I love being able to program my workouts which is a lifesaver when trying to run something “complicated “. As far as uploading the data to Strava and Final Surge, let me know if you figure that out. That touchscreen function would probably drive me crazy.

  4. I have the Garmin 230 and for the most part I like it. The one feature I don't like is the lap feature--sometimes I accidently hit the button and then I have like 5 different runs going on. I wish I could turn that off and use it only when I need it for speedwork. One feature I really like is that I can program my intervals.

  5. What you want Elizabeth, is the Zebra watch face from the Garmin ConnectIQ store.

  6. In general I would say my needs in GPS are similar to yours, perhaps, a little more simplistic. Display is configured to show distance, time, pace and heart rate. Don't always use HR for basic runs, but I leave it configured to display as will want to see that in races or hard speed or track workouts.

    Buttons definitely and leave auto lap on for basic outdoor runs, turn it off and manually lap on intervals around a track or mile markers in races. I still using a really beat-up Garmin 310XT. Eventually some point probably move to next generation Garmins and 220 or 230.

    Although screen is configured to display pace, my opinion is it is so erratic as to be useless on the run...even with "smoothing data" selected. In the race or on more serious training runs...will glance to see the interval time and pace if auto-lap on, and definitely when manually lapping miles or intervals.

    Yes...log WU & CD separate for the serious or high-intensity runs or workouts. Not so concerned on Easy runs whether outdoors or on TM...and in latter case might just record in notes..."1st mile WU to some base speed, then gradually faster to whatever max I plateau at" or something to that effect.

    Your run training going great! Wish I could report similar, but lately not very strong and feeling pretty old! Starting to become a "turtle"

  7. Have you ever tried using vibration for the alerts? I have found that is much more effective for me than the beeps. I've always got headphones on so I can't hear the beeps very well even when they're louder, but I never miss the vibrations.

    1. My watch does vibrate, but it's also very soft so I don't usually feel it. Particularly in the winter when the garmin could be worn on top of a sleeve!

  8. I bought the 230 last Fall and I'm a fan. I use the 4 data screens for distance, time elapsed, lap pace, current pace. Haven't yet used the workout feature quite yet for fear it won't work. I just noticed recently as soon as I connect to Bluetooth, it automatically syncs to Garmin Express/Strava without me pressing the button to sync (need to look into that), and I also wanted to know if there a way to keep the backlight on when I run in the dark. The alert sounds are faint, but I use the vibration feature as well. Finally, I used to have the Forerunner 310xt (a triathlon watch) and I really liked how you can press the lap button after you press the stop button. When I'm at the track, I manually press the lap button for my distances, but then if I have a walking recovery, I have to stop the timer, then look at the clock to time my recovery (which I know is why I should use the workout feature), but I feel like I have to remember to press both the lap and the stop which is annoying.

    Finally, if I am going to the track, I put my WU and CD as separate activities.

    -Kim K.

    1. I think my next purchase will be the 230. . . on Black Friday this year! I can't quite justify another Garmin purchase to myself yet but it seems from the feedback here that 230 is the way to go.

  9. I had the 630 and was NOT a big fan of the touch screen, so I got rid of it and got the 735 instead. That way I could also use it for swimming, bike riding, and the occasional triathlon. I think the 230/235 is very close to the 735, just without the multisport capabilities. I also use the wrist based HR to track resting HR over time.