When do you need to buy a GPS watch to go running?

I finally broke down and bought a GPS watch.

It surely felt like I was the last endurance runner I know to do it. I will be celebrating my 3-year “runnaversary” next month. I ran 4 marathons and 9 half-marathons and a handful of other races without using a GPS watch to train.

Here was my system before:

When I started running

I got the couch to 5K app which does not track distance at all, just time. It tells you when to start and when to stop running. I used this for the eight weeks of the program, and then I went to the bridge to 10K app for the five weeks after that. I would recommend this plan for beginners. Focusing on your pace and distance can feel discouraging when you start, especially when you start comparing yourself to others. All that matters at this point is spending the time out there.

When I had built up the running habit

I played around with a few different apps on my iPhone that would track distance and pace. Ultimately I went with Runmeter, which I still use and would strongly recommend. Perhaps my favorite feature of Runmeter is the auto-export to DailyMile. This system worked for me for a long time because I would also use my phone to listen to music, and for safety. I thought when I would get a watch, I’d want it to be able to play music, too.

When I started training for my first marathon 

I invested in a Timex Ironman heart rate monitor in June 2011.

Timex Ironman Heart Rate Monitor

I’m actually on my second one, now. You can get a heart rate chest strap monitor that links with your smartphone but what I really needed was something that could give me feedback about my heart rate immediately, and I didn’t want to fumble in my pockets for my phone all the time.

It’s listed for $110 but each time I’ve been able to find one for ~$40, the first on Amazon and the second at Mardens. I really wouldn’t recommend this watch — it is NOT waterproof and a few workouts in the pouring rain — or the Tough Mountain Challenge —but for the price, they’ve served me well. And I use it as a regular watch most of the time.

So why a GPS watch now?

Every time I want to track my distance I have to bring my phone. It’s kinda big. It’s kinda fragile. I don’t really listen to music as much when I run any more.

Here’s what I lacked: I couldn’t slap on my sneakers and go if I wanted to go for a run in a place where I didn’t already know the distance. I’m learning a new area and I like the ability to freely explore without having to pause and check the distance all the time. And I could never run on pace, except at a track, because that would require fishing in my pockets to look at the phone.

Also, this watch is really cute.

Let’s look again, just cause. 

How did I pick the Nike watch?

I had been looking at GPS watches, like, forever. Pebble was an option, and I still might get one some day, but it didn’t look like the running app component of it was ready yet. Plus, I would still need to carry my phone around with me.

I had an eBay alert going on the Forerunner 310x for awhile. The advantage of that watch is that it is waterproof and can track open-water swimming. But its old and kinda ugly, and would have ended up costing close to what the Nike watch cost me new. I don’t often pick things because of how they look, but this watch. It’s almost cute enough to just wear all the time.

I do have Ironman dreams and perhaps one day I’ll wish I had a watch that can track swimming. But I figure that’s so far off in the future, I’ll be on my next GPS watch by then.

Any downsides to the Nike+ watch?

I would recommend it, but there are some considerations that I knew about going in that give me pause from a full-throated recommendation. First, the USB connection is in the watch strap. It looks sturdy enough, but I wonder how well it’s going to be working after a year of hard use.

Second, like most gadgets today, it doesn’t allow many configuration options without a computer. You can’t change the time settings or reconfigure the watch face. They did it to keep the watch interface simple … but it’s annoying. On different training runs different information is important to me, but I can only scroll through the values at the top of the screen. You can’t delete a “oops I was just testing this!” run without going through the Nike+ website.

Third, the Nike+ integration with DailyMile is meh. It imports your run data but not the map. I think Garmin watches will let you import the map.

I thought getting the watch with the shoe pod would allow me to track my stride rate. It does not. I think the point of the shoe pod is just to make the reading more accurate …

… which it is, even when you use the quickstart waiting for the satellites to appear. I’ve used the watch and Runmeter at the same time for a few runs and they are pretty consistent with the distance. Sometimes one might be a few hundredths of a mile off from the other, but I couldn’t even say that one is more often long or vice-versa.

Do you use a GPS watch? Tell me what you think in the comments!



Pattie Reaves

About Pattie Reaves

I'm a new mom and renegade fitness blogger at After the Couch. I live in Brewer with my husband, Tony, our daughter Felicity, and our two pugs, Georgia and Scoop.