Friday, December 30, 2011

Your GPS Watch May be Lying to You

Today on the New York Times website I came across an article about GPS watches and their inaccuracy in measuring distance and pace.  I was startled to read just how off these watches can be.  I always had an inkling my Garmin wasn't quite 100% accurate, but I had no idea how wrong it could be.

"It seems clear enough that a GPS watch is not very accurate, yet online runners’ forums, like one at the Web site of Runners World, are filled with comments from confused athletes who rely on the devices. One poster, for example, ran a half marathon and wore a GPS watch that said the distance was 12.8 miles instead of 13.1."

There have been many times during a run where I feel like I am really pushing it and working hard and I look down bemused to see a pace much slower than I imagined.  A few reports mentioned in this article stated that paces can sometimes be off by as much as a minute and a half!  This is when it becomes really important to listen to our bodies -- the most accurate device out there. 

This is, of course, frustrating news, especially thinking that I may run more than the intended 20 miles of a long run.  Who on earth wants to do that?  But this news also serves as an important reminder to keep it simple.  Many ultra-runners run for time not mileage. Rather than going out for a 15 mile run, they might go out for a 2 hour run.  It's a different concept but it brings us to the same goal.

When it comes to intervals or speedwork, pace is clearly important.  This is when it might be best to hit the track with a basic stopwatch.  For Christmas Angela bought me a pretty basic Timex Ironman watch for timing intervals, strides and repeats.   It's lightweight, easy to use and perfect for these types of workouts.

I will definitely continue to use my Garmin, I will just be less trusting of the numbers.  If I feel like I had a good run and the Garmin tells me otherwise, I'll trust my body.  Back to basics.

Do you rely on a GPS watch?

Does this news surprise you?


  1. I've seen a few of these articles lately. I'm not really surprised or bothered- 12.8 instead of 13.1? 0.3 off? I can live with that.

  2. I ran for years before I got my first Garmin. I depended on routes that I measured with my car's odometer. On trails I'd run by time and estimate mileage. When I got my first Garmin I found that it reported almost identical mileage to what I'd mapped out. I've created cross country courses using a wheel and had it match the gps almost identically. So I do depend on it to be fairly accurate, both for running and cycling. As for speed work on the track, a stopwatch is all you need. I do find phone apps to be much more inaccurate than the Garmin. I've used both at the same time and been amazed at how different they were.

  3. Saw this article last week and I think it did a great job of pointing out what most gps runners already know but don't like to acknowledge. It's a trendy thing to run with technology these days, and pretty neat too. But it does fool us into ignoring and assessing how our bodies actually feel and using our head. In the past several months I've rarely ran with my garmin and instead just ran for enjoyment. While I think gps devices can be useful, they also tend to be annoying and can manage to suck all of the fun out of running.

  4. I don't use a GPS watch b/c I can't afford one: FACT. lol but I did just get a nike + for my birthday. I think it's pretty accurate but I never trust the pace. I'm going to use it on a set known distance and race it and see what it says. I think a general idea of distance and pace is better than nothing. I used to have to map my runs and use a stop watch....which is probably just as inaccurate. As long as we're out there running I guess it's ok! :D

  5. I "rely" on a GPS watch, but I also know its not going to be 100% accurate. It does give me a good idea of times and paces though. - I always just run by how I feel though and not by what my pace says.

  6. i find that my instantaneous pace specifically is often grossly off, to the point that I really only rely on my splits and average pace. so clearly, this is a problem for speedwork! i admire the idea of simplicity, but i am too type A and need to know my stats! i think we all just need to take those numbers with the grain of salt, though. you're right though in that there is a big difference between ultra/trail running and road running. when doing the latter i am far more interested in paces, distance, etc, but not so much on the trails as there are so many other factors that effect the numbers. interesting article!

  7. I do the same thing, I look down and my Garmin says a completely different number than I was thinking I was going! Good to know I am not alone, thanks for bringing this article up Kate!

  8. Funny -- the two pictures you posted are exactly the two watches I own...

    I HOPE my Garmin is lying to me sometimes! ;)

  9. I almost always train with a Garmin (but never on a track or in a race) but I'm well aware that it's not always accurate. Most of the time it's close enough, but a couple weeks ago I swear it must have synched up to an alien ship because my splits from an easy 4 mile loop I run all the time were 6:45, 5:19, 9:30 and 7:20 or something like that. Definitely good for a chuckle because I swear my pace never changed, it was probably around 7:30.

  10. What?!?! What a bummer. I rely on my Garmin all the time. I tend to run better when I'm not too concerned about my pace anyway so I guess it's okay. I try not to look at my Garmin too much becuase it gives me anxiety.

    Happy new year, beautiful!!

    PS i miss you.

  11. I have a garmin 405 and a timex ironman too. I probably prefer my timex cause it's easier to use, but the garmin is more fun. I'm not surprised about the findings cause I've already noticed discrepancies. But it doesn't bother me. It's still fun to use :)

    My Running Shortz

  12. Well mine seems to over estimate, one half marathon counted as 14.6 miles so something way off. I ended up doing the mile interval and calculating my pace myself. Now if only I could get someone to run behind me with a tape measure ;0

  13. I mostly think it's funny that people swear by these things or that they are surprised by this! It's just a piece of technology...of course it can be flawed. Mine mostly has problems when it's in a city. The buildings interfere with the signal. When I'm running in the open, it has no problems. It matches up well with google maps / mapmyrun.

    Usually my races are a little long - 13.25 for my last 2 half's. I don't even think that means my Garmin is wrong. It just might mean that I didn't run the tangents!

  14. I'm not shocked to hear this. I have a Garmin 305 and sometimes the pace is all over the place. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of trees, so I usually blame it on that. I'm okay with my run being a few tenths of a mile shorter or longer than I think - that's close enough for me, and I like the freedom the Garmin gives to run where I want and still know (pretty much) how far I've gone.

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