Should I Buy a GPS Watch?

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Q: Which GPS watch should I buy? Do I even need one?

I’m asked those two questions by beginner runners more than any other. Well, those and what my times are.

When I started running I was logging my miles on the treadmill which meant a GPS watch was unnecessary. Waste of money in my opinion. I’d hop on that godforsaken thing run a few miles and it told me how far I went and my overall time. Simple. On the rare occasion that I did happen to run outside I used one of the following methods to track my mileage:

  • Guesstimate
  • Drove the route afterwards and tracked my mileage on my odometer
  • Used a website like MapMyRun to trace my run on a computer screen (Strava wasn’t around back then)

Not buying a GPS watch may be cheaper (unless you join a gym solely for the treadmill/spin bike or utilize method 2 which can potentially use a ton of gas) and since this a frugal athletics blog, let’s discuss the reasons for and against owning one.

Reasons to own a GPS watch

  • No more wondering “how far have I gone” or “I ran like 6 or 10 miles yesterday, I think.”
  • You can know and monitor you pace and splits.
  • Saves data and connects to other applications like Strava and Garmin Connect. These apps allow you to track your mileage and activities, analyze trends and connect to people. Unlike posting on Facebook, your Strava followers ACTUALLY want to hear about your workout and won’t roll their eyes when you post one.
  • You can explore a new route while being confident you’ll know exactly how far you are from the start. You can’t accidentally go for a 20 mile run.
  • Multisport watches have running, swimming, and cycling modes which means a single watch can also function as a cycling computer. We like multi-taskers.
  • Keeps you from going for the gold in the first couple of miles of a marathon. If you know your goal pace is 7:30 and you are currently holding 6:15 then you can slow down before that bonk destroys all your hopes and dreams.
  • You don’t have to strap your iPhone to your arm and look like a tool.
  • Your iPhone battery will probably die half way through your Ironman.
  • You don’t want to kill your phone battery in case you need to call for help.
  • You can cancel the gym membership and train outside which saves money in the long run.
  • I always forget what lap I’m on in the pool. After about 100 yards I get super bored, start day dreaming and forget what lap I’m on.

Reasons against owning a GPS watch

  • It costs money. Boo.
  • If the habit doesn’t stick you’re stuck with yet another piece of gear collecting dust. Just like that road bike your neighbor bought for that triathlon he did once.
  • Apps like Strava can be downloaded on your phone and be used instead of a watch.
  • “Who cares how far or how fast man? I’m just enjoying the outdoors and going with the flow.” 
  • It may hold you back. You may stick to a 8:30 pace because of some arbitrary goal you set when you may actually be faster. Not knowing your time could allow you to train/race based on feel and get a pleasant surprise at the end! 

My recommendation

About 7 years ago I got into running and, as stated earlier, I started out running the treadmill at the gym. When my wife bought me my first GPS watch (the trusty Garmin 305 shown below) for Valentine’s day, I thought “well what am I gonna do with this?”

But then I strapped on my watch and started running outside. This was 6.5 years ago and I’ve run on a treadmill about 5 times since. Maybe that much.

A whole new world was available to me and I started running all over the place, exploring the woods and going for long bike rides. Because of a GPS watch I became a runner, a marathoner, a triathlete and then an Ironman. No way I’m training for a Ironman on a stationary bike and treadmill. My God that sounds awful.

I’m in favor of GPS watches for all athletes from beginners to experts. Beginners get the benefit of learning how to pace properly and advanced runners can track their runs and conduct more tailored workouts (i.e. Fartleks, brick, etc.). So, YES to getting a GPS watch. It’s not a necessity, obviously, but I think the benefit of owning one far exceeds the cost.

But which watch should I buy?

If you want a super, duper, insanely detailed description you must visit DC Rainmaker. This dude is unbelievable and sets the gold standard for reviews of endurance athletics gear. He is far from a gear snob but rather a tech junkie who tests the living heck out of them.

But he is quite different from me. Different viewpoints are good and I look for simplicity with my gear. When it comes to GPS watches I generally look for 4 things:

  • Tells me how far I went
  • Lets me know my pace/speed and my splits
  • Has modes for run, bike, and swim. (I don’t want to buy a running watch and then a cycle computer).
  • Syncs with Garmin Connect and Strava

OK, here’s the problem. My trusty 305 died right after I signed up for my Ironman (it wasn’t waterproof so doesn’t meet current criteria listed above but whatever). You may recall (like you actually read it!) from Imposter that I went deep into the rabbit hole when preparing for the Ironman.

This ultimately led me to buying the baller of a triathlon watch, the Garmin 920XT, which was like $500 at the time. Yikes! This bad boy is like $270 now on amazon which is a pretty good price, I ain’t gonna lie. I love this watch and have zero complaints so I recommend it.

But this is CheapAthlete and not BuyExpensiveStuffAthlete. So you need more options than that!

At the time, the Garmin Vivoactive was not around and the 920xt was pretty much the only multisport option out there. But you have the option! And this GPS watch is only $160, $144 in white or $98 refurbished!. Plus it looks like an Apple watch and does all the things listed above!

I’m honestly not sure why it’s so cheap but my training buddy, a veteran of about 15 marathons (2x Boston) loves his. I run with him about 3 times a week and our splits are exactly in sync. I have never heard him complain about it. This the watch I recommend to all beginners and if my 920XT were to die, I’d have no problem replacing it with the Vivoactive (especially at that sweet refurb price!). Yea the fancier watches have more functions but don’t over think it, you probably wont use 85% of those excess functions anyway.

Update: I recently purchased the refurbished Vivoactive for my wife and my opinion has not changed since publishing this article. It’s a great value and you can’t beat it for ~$100.

And there we go. Happy training.