What I’ve Learned From Running With My GPS Watch

photo (1)I treated myself to my Garmin 405 almost 5 years ago. Coincidentally or not, that fall I PR’ed in the 5k by almost a minute and knocked almost 7 minutes off my half marathon time within the next year. No, the GPS did not make me faster (I think that can be attributed largely to consistent 80+ mile weeks.) Instead, while some runners swear by ditching the GPS to run by feel, I think using this tool made me a smarter, more self-aware runner.

I think that for some of you, using a GPS for your training can do the same for you. Here’s how.

I run faster than I think I do.
Before I got my GPS, I used to estimate mileage by assuming I averaged 9 min/mi pace or slightly faster (i.e., dividing overall time by 9 and rounding up for total miles). I was surprised to see that many runs averaged closer to 8:30 or even 8:00 pace. And after some mid-run strides, I easily pick up the pace even more. Now I always make sure to do strides before any sort of workout.

I run slower than I think I do.
Sure, my overall pace was quicker than I estimated, but thatย first mile is nowhere near it! I’ve occasionally clocked 11:00+ for my warm-up mile and almost never broken 10:00. Yes, this is about 4 minutes slower than my goal marathon pace! My training plans never have a goal pace for easy/recovery days so I don’t stress out about this and instead just listen to my (creaky) body.

Every run is a progression run
I’m practically a Kenyan! No, but really – the famously successful Kenyan runners often begin their runs at an unbelievably slow pace before working into a reasonable clip. Occasionally I run with buddies who leave me in their dust at first, but now I know I just need a little time to work into feeling comfortable.

I’m faster in the afternoons.
From easy runs to tempo to track workouts, I am much quicker in the evenings, even after a tough day at the office. I’ve learned to give myself leeway inย hitting paces first thing in the morning when my body is still waking up. Also, as much as I’d rather sleep in, this data hasย  made me realize the importance of getting up early and doing a solid warmup before a race.

irishfest pacing
Pacing the Irish Fest 5k in 2013 with the aid of my GPS, a good friend, and some festive balloons.

Run the tangents.
Like Licorice said, a GPS device should measure a course long. And if it doesn’t, then I hate to break it to you, but your new PR doesn’t count. For my marathon goal of 2:43:00, a 6:13 pace is required; however, to account for imperfect tangents, I should aim for closer to 6:10 pace in training.

My hills are pathetic.
It’s a little disheartening to upload data from a hilly route or a hill repeat session and discover the elevation profile is essentially flat. Yeah, as a central Ohioan I should have known that already.

I do enjoy going fast sometimes.
During my two years in graduate school, I didn’t do any tempo runs or speedwork — only easy comfortable runs with the occasional race. But once I got my GPS, I became curious about re-initiating speedier runs and found that, with the reward of feedback from the Garmin, I really enjoyed a more challenging pace.

Precision is overrated.
Even though I’ve had a long relationship with Mr. Garmin, we are not monogamous. I wear a basic Timex for the majority of runs. After almost 19 years of running, my inner GPS is pretty well calibrated and besides, does it really matter whether I ran 8.8 or 9.0? 8:38 or 8:45 pace? What matters more is how I felt and whether I looked good. (Just kidding about that last one.)

Do you run with a GPS watch? How has it affected your training? Mine is starting to look a little ragged – any recommendations for a new model?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. I love my Garmin Forerunner 110 ๐Ÿ™‚ I got it (barely) used on Craiglist just over a year ago, and it seriously keeps me on track. Just like you said, I know when I’m running, slow, and I know when I’m running fast. I’ve only been running for 2 years, so I don’t have that internal sense of knowing my pace. I think when this one dies, I’ll go with the Forerunner 15–a friend just got one and I’m impressed!

  2. I love my Garmin 620… Pick up the satellite at lightening sped (faster than I can get the lead on my pup and out of the yard)
    It does a few other fancy things (HR, cadence, vertical oscillation), and they’re fun to look at.