How to Run 13.1 Miles: The Pros and Cons of a GPS Watch

Can a GPS watch help you complete your training runs? Our blogger tests one

by Jennifer Braunschweiger • Deputy Editor
Running More half marathon GPS watch
6.55 miles. Read it and weep.

A couple of years ago, I went for a run in Medina, a suburb of Seattle. I was training for the More/Fitness Half Marathon (what else is new) and I had to run about 8 miles that day. What a perfect opportunity to use the fancy new GPS watch my husband had given me for Christmas!

I suited up, got ready to go—then stood in the drizzle for 20 minutes trying to get the darn thing to locate a satellite. Total fail. I ran without the help of the watch.

That evening, I asked someone for help getting it to work. Maybe the problem was me?

Turns out, he couldn’t make it work either. And here’s the thing: We were three blocks from Bill Gates’s house. I imagine a forest of satellites up there eager to hook up to any GPS-enabled device they could locate, and my lonely watch, totally unable to connect.

Fast forward two years. G, my tech-loving husband, gives me another GPS running watch for Christmas. Color me skeptical. But this time, he says, the technology has advanced.

And he was right. This watch is so much simpler. I’ve been using it for my weekend runs outside and I have to say, I’m liking it.

First, the watch helps me compete against myself. Somehow, knowing that I’m being tracked (even by an inanimate object that doesn’t care) makes me that much less likely to just walk for a few steps. Or stop running, oh, two maybe three blocks before my house.

Somehow, using the watch has become another way of holding myself accountable. After I get back from a run, I upload the data to a website. When I click on the map, I can see a little dot running my route, and I can isolate my pace at any given moment. If I’m lazy, if I cheat the distance, the evidence is right there. As my husband jokes, “You have to impress the watch!”

There’s also pleasure in knowing how far I’ve gone. Suddenly I have the option to run wherever I feel like it, still knowing I’ve gone as far as I need to go. In the past, I was plotting out my runs on (a great site, if you’re not familiar with it), so I had some basic routes plotted out for three-, four-, five- and six-mile runs. But it kind of turns out that, according to the watch, my four-mile run is a little more like 3.8 (bad) and my three-mile run is more like 3.2 (good).

And that’s where the problem comes in. There are serious questions about how precise these watches are. Gina Kolata wrote a great piece in The New York Times in December about problems with the accuracy of these watches. To put it simply, they’re not perfect. They often miscalculate distance and, therefore, pace.

But you know what? I've decided that I don’t care. I’m using mine as a tool, not the holy grail. I’m always comparing its readings to itself, which means that if the watch says I went faster on Sunday than Saturday, it’s probably right.

Most importantly, let’s get real. Who do I think I am that it matters if my watch is off by a tenth of a mile? I’m not an Olympian, I don’t have sponsors or coaches or people to whom it makes a difference how fast I run. I’m out to challenge myself and push my limits. 

Just watch me.


To read week 1 of Jennifer's training blog, click here.


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First Published February 15, 2012

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